On a trip to Paris in April I traveled with my friend Holly and she was very excited to visit a little salon de thé (tea lounge) named Mamie Gâteaux (granny cakes) in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood, and I was happy to oblige. Most of the salon de thés I had visited before had been filled with glamorous desserts and gleaming silver tea pots. This particular salon was rather different. It was very rustic and country, and filled with the most casual and effortless cakes, pies, and muffins that were served on simple china and festooned with antique baking accoutrement. Each dessert looked as if my Nan had loving baked it in her tiny kitchen. As one dessert would sell out the kitchen would send out another one—different than what had sold out—looking even better than before!
After I returned home to Chicago I was desperate for a simple cake, like the kinds I saw at Mamie Gâteaux. There was something charming about those no-frills French desserts that I wanted to recreate here. They were not overly sweet, or piled on with frosting, or done to death with marzipan. They were, in two words, simply delicious. They were simple, taking the best advantage of just a few basic baking ingredients. And they were delicious, transcending the simple, with no need of complex technique or tricks, into nibbly crumbs that were satisfying, comforting, and encouraged savoring.
The French believe in cooking and baking with the best ingredients. You start with the best and the techniques of French cooking have been developed to enhance those pure flavors. You can taste it in something as simple as a French baguette—by French law it contains only four ingredients: flour, water, yeast, and salt. And yet those four ingredients in the hands (and oven) of a French boulanger transform into something truly delicious.
In my longing for a simple cake I kept the French approach in my mind—keeping it simple, and using the best ingredients. One of my favorite (and simplest) recipes in my repertoire is my pound cake. And as the French do, I decided to introduce a fresh fruit. Pound cake can be a fabulous canvas on which to highlight a special flavor. One of the best fruit flavors that can stand on its own, and serve both the sweet and tart parts of the palate, is strawberry.
Strawberries are just coming into season and with the start of our farmer’s markets in Chicago, I thought this would be the perfect way to bring together all the elements of my inspiration: French gateaux, delicious ingredients, and a simple approach. The result is my Strawberry Country Cake. It is a twist on a classic pound cake, brimming with perfectly ripened strawberries from my local farmers market and flavored with lemon zest, vanilla, and buttermilk.
My Strawberry Country Cake is just lightly sweet and relies on the strawberries to do what they do best, making it a wonderful dessert to serve with tea (perhaps a Lady Grey with lemon) or to end a dinner party (paired with a glass of dry Rosé). This is my new favorite cake—a cake that will always remind me of the casual and country essence of Mamie Gâteaux in Paris.
Strawberry Country Cake
Ingredients (serves 6-8)
Flour – 1 ½ cups, all-purpose
Kosher Salt – ¼ teaspoon
Baking Powder – ¼ teaspoon
Baking Soda – ¼ teaspoon
Butter – 1 stick, unsalted, room temperature
Sugar – 1 cup, granulated
Vanilla – ¾ teaspoons, pure extract
Lemon Zest – 2 teaspoons
Honey – 2 tablespoons
Eggs – 2 extra-large, room temperature
Buttermilk – ½ cup, room temperature
Strawberries – 1 pound, hulled, ¾ inch chopped
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Lightly butter and flour an 8x8 square pan. Set aside.
Next, in a large bowl sift together the flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.
With the mixer turned to low speed, add vanilla, lemon zest, honey, and the eggs one at a time, allowing each to fully incorporate.
With the mixer running on low speed, add the flour mixture and buttermilk alternately, beginning and ending with the flour.
Scrape down the sides and bottom of the mixing bowl. Gently fold in the strawberries and transfer the batter into the prepared pan. Tap the pan on a flat surface to release as many air bubbles as possible.
Transfer the pan into the oven and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.
Once you have removed the cake from the oven, allow it to cool in the pan for 20 minutes. Run a sharp knife around the edges of the cake, then turn the cake out (very carefully to prevent the cake from breaking) onto a wire rack to cool completely.
Transfer to a serving platter, top with whipped cream, and serve.
Vanilla Whipped Cream
Heavy Cream – 1 cup, very cold
Sugar – 1 tablespoon, granulated
Vanilla – ½ teaspoon, pure extract
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, add the heavy cream, sugar, and vanilla.
Gradually increase the mixer speed to high and whip for 1-2 minutes, or until it thickens.
Idea: When transferring the cake from the pan and onto a cooling rack then onto a serving platter – do so extremely carefully. The cake is very heavy in weight from the fresh berries and can break easily. To get the cake out of the pan, rest the cooling rack directly over the baking pan and invert completely – the cake will easily release from the pan. Follow the same process to transfer the cake to a serving platter.