I am grateful to my cousin Clare Butler for allowing me to share this loving memory of her mother Mary Alma Parker and her recipe for Strawberry Cake during her time in COVID-19 quarantine.
Whenever I deal with a crisis or uncertainty, I miss my mother. She’s been gone for years now, but I wish I could talk with her now more than ever. Memories of her and her talents have popped up during this time of social isolation.. I haven’t made this cake in years, so I don’t have pictures, but I thought I’d share this story and recipe:
My mother was an excellent cook. Although she was primarily a southern cook, she made so many things well: roasted meats, seafood, vegetables, pastas, and all kinds of international dishes. The one area that always amazed me was her baking and pastry making. Looking back from my perch as an adult, I see she easily could have been a high-end pastry chef. Not only were her recipes better than most dishes I’ve had since, but the way she decorated her creations was show stopping. She often had large dinner parties and her desserts were always the beautiful cap on an amazing menu. Some guests requested certain favorites, and she happily complied whenever she could. Most of her recipes were hand written on index cards with little direction; she just knew what to do.
As a very young child, I watched riveted at how she could seemingly whip up something so beautiful and delicious from a few piles of ingredients. I was lucky that she seemed thrilled when I wanted to learn. She had a step stool for me to watch what she did, explaining everything as she worked. She never missed an opportunity to let me tackle a task as she patiently instructed me. She always explained the chemistry involved in cooking too, so I understood what all of the ingredients achieved in the process. I have never been able to muster her teaching ability, but I was fortunate to have benefitted from it. She did so much of this when I was younger, but didn’t have time for it anymore when she started working full time as a teacher and school librarian when I was in 5th grade.
One of my absolute favorite desserts of hers was her strawberry cake. Her cake didn’t have the pink cake layers like a lot of strawberry cakes have. It was more like a strawberry shortcake cake. I’ve never seen one like it anywhere. I’ve made it as an adult, and it’s always been a favorite wherever I served it. I don’t believe mine tastes as good as hers did, but no one who tried it ever guessed that. She made this strawberry cake as soon as fresh strawberries were available and continued to make it until they were out of season. Sometimes she added a few blueberries, but mostly it was just strawberries. Every time she brought it to church potluck dinners, people made a beeline for the dessert table to get a slice before they got their dinner.
The cake layers were slightly sour, made with buttermilk and sliced in half so there was more room for filling, the icing was stabilized whipped cream, using unflavored gelatin to firm up the slightly sweetened heavy cream. Because neither of these two elements was too sweet, it let the sweetness of the fresh strawberries shine. She used plenty of those fresh strawberries, slicing them from top to bottom in thirds. From each strawberry she got two sides shaped like hearts to decorate the top and sides and a bigger inside slice she finely chopped to add to the filling. Here is her recipe from her index card. I’ve given more complete instructions for you:
Preheat the oven to 350. Grease the bottom of three 9” round cake pans, line with parchment paper circles and grease again. Be sure all ingredients are at room temperature.
- 1 ½ c. unsalted butter
- 2 c. sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 2 egg whites
- 2 t. vanilla
- 1 1/2 c. buttermilk
- 3 3/4 c. sifted cake flour
- 1 ½ t. baking powder
- ¾ t. baking soda
- 1 t. salt
Sift the dry ingredients and set aside. In a mixer, beat the softened butter until creamy. Gradually add the sugar, beating on high speed until light a fluffy (about 5 minutes). Scrape down the sides as needed throughout the process. Whisk together the 3 eggs and 2 egg whites with the vanilla and add to the sugar and butter mixture, beating until well combined (about 3 minutes). On low speed alternate adding the dry ingredients with the buttermilk mixing until just combined. You may want to scrape down the sides and mix by hand to be sure there are no lumps. The batter will be slightly thick. Pout the batter evenly into the three pans. Bake at 350 for about 25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Allow the cakes to cool completely on wire racks. You may wrap and refrigerate the layers for a few hours if needed . Once cooled level the tops of each layer, and if you choose, slice each layer horizontally in half so that you have 6 thin flat layers.
You may end up with extra frosting or filling, but that’s better than not having enough.
- 3 T. cold water
- 1 1/2 t. unflavored gelatin
- 3 c. cold heavy cream
- 6-12 T. powdered sugar (sweeten to your taste)
- 11/2 t. vanilla
- 2 cartons of fresh strawberries
Slice the strawberries from top to bottom in three slices so that the side slices are mostly uniform. Chop all center slices finely to use in the filling.
Pour the cold water into a heatproof cup. Sprinkle the gelatin over the water and let it sit without stirring for 5 minutes. Place the cup in a pan of simmering water until the gelatin is melted and clear. Let cool to room temperature (not cold). Add the heavy cream, sugar, vanilla and room temperature gelatin to a large chilled metal bowl. Beat until billowy, smooth and almost stiff. The frosting process will continue to firm it up, so be careful not to overbeat. Divide the cream in two bowls – 1/3 and 2/3. Add finely chopped strawberries to the larger portion. This will be the filling. Spread the filling between all of the layers as you stack them. Spread the stacked cake with frosting on the sides and top. Arrange the sliced strawberry sides to the top and sides in a decorative way. Refrigerate the cake as soon as you are finished. Let it sit out a bit before serving to get it close to room temperature. Refrigerate any leftovers.