Josh Turns Ten!: BraveTart's Double-Strawberry Cake with Strawberry Swiss Buttercream

I've been making my cousin's son Josh vanilla birthday cakes for the past few years, because I know that unlike his chocolate-loving sister, Josh prefers vanilla over chocolate. But Josh recently mentioned to me that he likes strawberry as much as -- or even more than -- vanilla. I jumped at the chance to bake a strawberry cake for his birthday this year.

I put my faith in BraveTart and decided to make Stella Parks' Double-Strawberry Cake and Strawberry Swiss Buttercream. The cake includes freeze-dried and fresh strawberries in the batter, while the frosting gets its color and flavor from freeze-dried fruit only. The cake and frosting both have a small amount of a surprising ingredient that Stella says subtly intensifies the strawberry flavor: Chinese five-spice powder.

Stella's recipes and directions are always precise (although she clearly explains the reasons for her  particular ingredients and techniques) and this one is no exception. I tried to have everything at the temperatures she specified, but the kitchen is always the hottest room in our house and I was baking this cake on a hot August day. I creamed cool (about 65 degrees) butter with granulated sugar, baking powder, baking soda, kosher salt, and Chinese five-spice powder until light and fluffy; gradually added room temperature egg whites; and alternately added the dry ingredients (bleached cake flour and ground freeze-dried strawberries) and strawberry puree (blitzed with an immersion blender and warmed to room temperature). Stella says that the temperature of the batter should be between 65 and 68 degrees F. I took an instant read of the batter temperature and it was 71 degrees. Of course, there was nothing I could do about it at that point, so I divided the batter between three parchment-lined 8-inch cake pans and baked the cakes.
For the frosting, I heated egg whites, sugar, kosher salt, and cream of tartar in the bowl of my stand mixer placed over a pot of steaming water, until the mixture reached 185 degrees. Then I took the bowl off of the heat and whipped the meringue until glossy and stiff. I slowly added cool butter, followed by vanilla and Chinese five-spice powder (I skipped the optional rose water). Finally, I added ground freeze-dried strawberries and drizzled in some lychee liqueur. (The alcohol evaporates from buttercream but the liqueur deposits some flavor. Stella recommends elderflower liqueur, and while we always have St-Germain, the flavor of Soho lychee liqueur is actually quite similar and it has the benefit of being colorless.)

My frosting was a much deeper shade of pink than the ballet pink buttercream pictured with the recipe online. I leveled the cakes, filled and frosted them with the buttercream, and kept the decoration simple. To make the cake look a bit more festive for a birthday celebration, I added a layer of rainbow non-pareils on top. While they're not pictured in the photo above, some tall rainbow-colored birthday candles completed the look.
I was disappointed with the dull color of the cake itself after we cut into it. The interior of the cake pictured in the photos accompanying the online recipe are a delicate pastel pink. Mine was a muddy shade of brownish-pink. Even worse was the disappointment after I took a bite. The cake was heavy and a little gummy. I'm not sure if it was the overly-warm temperature of the batter before I put the cake in the oven, but I definitely screwed something up. Stella promises that this cake is light and fluffy and mine was anything but. Even the flavor of the cake wasn't all that great.

On the other hand, the frosting was the bomb. It was luscious and creamy, not too buttery, and it popped with the bright flavor of strawberries. I would definitely make the frosting again. And I do want to give the cake another try, to see if I can get a better result. After baking my sub-optimal cake, I read through all of the online comments on the cake recipe. (Stella is great about responding to all of the questions and comments on her recipes posted on Serious Eats.) I noticed that several people complained about heavy or gummy cakes, and she suggested several possible culprits -- one of which is batter that is too warm, because it can be too loose or soft to retain the air cells trapped inside.

But of particular interest to me was a question from someone who said that her/his cake was more of a "muddy maroon" color than a pretty pink and asked about the possible cause. Stella replied by asking if the person had used baking powder that was aluminum-free instead of a traditional formula, commenting that, "That’ll kill the color every time." What?! I always use Rumford baking powder, which is aluminum free. Rumford and other aluminum-free formulas are so common that it never occurred to me that using aluminum-free baking powder could have any meaningful impact on a recipe. Clabber Girl baking powder is the only mainstream brand I know offhand that includes aluminum (Clabber Girl Corporation actually makes Rumford as well). I guess I'll need to buy some Clabber Girl before trying this recipe again. And I'll wait until the weather is cooler and my kitchen isn't so hot!

Recipes: "Double-Strawberry Cake" and "Strawberry Frosting (Swiss Buttercream)," both from Stella Parks and available on Serious Eats.

Other Strawberry Cakes:
Previous Birthday Cakes for Josh:


Raylene said…
This is such great information! After reading the detailed baking instructions involving this cake last year . . . I skipped out on making it. I went with Sally's Baking Addiction's strawberry cake and had fantastic results. Between my job, my 5 year old, school and all of her activities (which are now my activities too), I'm all about minimal investment of time into baking projects nowadays. However, that said, this is why I love reading your blog and about your many varied and complex baking projects. Your posts are wonderful! Happy Baking to you!!!!
Aw, thanks Raylene! I also saw the strawberry cake on Sally's Baking Addiction and I'm hoping to give it a try sometime soon. I was actually just thinking about you because this weekend I'm making a birthday cake for my friend Dorothy's son Alexander and I'm going to make him a carrot cake with macadamia nuts! Thanks so much for the suggestion!