I am a serial monogamist when it comes to seasonal fruits and vegetables. At present, I am in a deep relationship with summer strawberries. The soundtrack of this affair features John Lennon with his psychedelic vocals: “And nothing to get hung about/ Strawberry fields forever.”
I avoid winter berries, grown for shipping and shelf life, oversized and wrongly crisp-as-apples. A true-to-form strawberry is a different story: a fragrant scarlet drop of juicy sweetness with only the most delicate crunch. It is no surprise that besties exchange strawberry emojis.
A midsummer bowl of ripe strawberries around the summer solstice feels like a rite. Their caps are designed, it seems, to aid the eater in dipping the fruit in plain or boozy whipped or sour cream or swirling it through melted chocolate or warmed Nutella. I like to take a cue from the Italians and macerate sliced strawberries with a bit of sugar, a dash of dark balsamic vinegar, and a crack of pepper before spooning them over ice cream or sandwiching them in shortbreads.
Why, I’ve always wondered, would anyone cook strawberries into cobblers or pies? Cooked, they slump into tenderness, but lose their vivacious bite.
Michelle Polzine made me change my tune. The pastry chef and founder of the fabled — and now gone — 20th Century Café in San Francisco devised a brilliant technique for roasting berries that everyone needs to know about. This process fills the kitchen with a heady perfume while concentrating the berries into jammy jewels. (It also makes a stellar syrup that can be whisked into summer drinks, from margaritas, daiquiris, and sangria to lemonade, limeade, and sweet tea.)
Don’t tell Michelle I said this, but for those of us faced with making do with imperfection, the slow roasting is a way to coax more from not-so-great berries. Roasted strawberries last for up to two weeks in the fridge, but it’s an easy bet they will be gone long before that.
With the summer guest migration in full swing here, it’s good to have a dessert that feeds a crowd. This light vanilla sheet cake with a swath of cream cheese frosting is the perfect pillow for roasted or fresh berries or a mix. Roast the strawberries before your visitors arrive, using the time as that one last opportunity to curl up with a summer read. Later, the whole thing will come together with less-is-more ease while tasting over-the-top good.
Vanilla Cake With Cream Cheese Frosting and Roasted Strawberries
Makes one 9-by-13-inch sheet cake, 8 to 10 servings
For the cake
2½ cups (300 grams) cake or all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1¾ cups sugar
1 Tbsp. baking powder
½ tsp. fine salt
2½ sticks unsalted butter, cold and diced
2/3 cup milk
4 large eggs
1 Tbsp. pure vanilla extract
For the vanilla frosting
8 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature but firm
2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 Tbsp. pure vanilla extract
For the roasted strawberries
6 cups strawberries, halved if large
½ cup sugar
Mint leaves, for the garnish
- Make the roasted strawberries first — they can be made up to two weeks ahead of time. Heat oven to 250° F. In a roasting pan or casserole dish, toss the strawberries with the sugar to coat evenly. Roast until syrupy and the berries shrink and concentrate (when you taste they will be like drops of jam), 3 to 5 hours depending on the moisture of the fruit. Cool. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
- For the cake, position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350° F. Line a 9×13-inch pan with foil or parchment so the sheet comes up the sides by a couple of inches. Lightly mist with cooking spray or brush with melted butter and a dusting of flour.
- Put the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a food processor and pulse 4 to 5 times to combine. Add the butter and pulse 5 to 7 times until the flour turns sandy with some pieces of butter visible. (Alternatively, an electric mixer is fine, but stop mixing before butter emulsifies: do not overmix.)
- Whisk together the milk, eggs, and vanilla, and while the processor (or mixer) is running, pour the liquid into the flour mixture to make a smooth batter. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and even it out with a spatula. Bake 25 to 30 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool the cake in the pan on a rack for 5 minutes. Use the foil to lift the cake from the pan, cool on the rack completely. (Unfrosted and wrapped in plastic or foil, the cake freezes well.)
- Meanwhile, make the frosting: Beat the cream cheese and butter with an electric mixer until smooth. While mixing, add the confectioners’ sugar, then add the vanilla. Beat again until light and fluffy.
- Spread the frosting over the cake, scatter the roasted strawberries on top, and drizzle with some of the syrup. Garnish with mint leaves.