“It’s the experimenting and testing that keeps me excited as a baker,” notes Dan Langan. “Looking for new ways to creatively incorporate flavors into baking allows our craft to remain exciting, even when we have our set formulas and routines. Often I find that we get into a flow of producing the same cake flavors with tried and true recipes. It’s actually much easier than you think to develop new and exciting recipes, experiment with flavor, and incorporate new methods and techniques of craftsmanship. With a little imagination, we can expand that flavor arsenal and wow our clients.”
Strawberry Lemon Drop Cake
by Dan Langan
Swiss and Sour
Pushing the boundaries is precisely how I hit upon the sweet, and sour, deliciousness that is my Strawberry Lemon Drop Cake. I began my planning from the outside in, starting with the Swiss meringue buttercream. I knew that I wanted a lemon buttercream like no other, with a noticeably sour note. I recalled one of my favorite buttercream innovations: the candy corn Swiss meringue buttercream. When I created that recipe last fall I discovered that sugar-based candies can be dissolved into egg whites, acting as both a flavoring and as a stabilizer to the meringue. Enter the lemon drop candy, known popularly as Napoleon Sour Lemon Bon Bons or Lemonheads. Both are predominantly made from sugar, with fresh lemon juice and citric acid for that mouth-puckering sour note. Initially, I was curious as to the effect of having so much citric acid in my meringue, but I considered the common addition of acid via cream of tartar to meringues for stability.
I formulated a Swiss meringue recipe that used 12 ounces of crushed lemon drop candies and was delighted to find that not only did the candies tint the meringue, they also provided enough stability to achieve a stiff peak. I added butter and whipped the buttercream to fluffy perfection, but felt that it needed a bit more depth of flavor. A touch of pure vanilla extract gave the buttercream a more developed flavor that lingered on the palate just a second longer. The flavor of the lemon drop buttercream is noticeably different than Swiss buttercream flavored with lemon zest or extract. It is much more vibrant, with a pleasant sourness, and just a hint of that creamy candy mouth-feel. It’s important to note that you should shop around for a high-quality lemon candy that is delicious all on its own. If you are inspired to use this method to create a variety of candy-flavored buttercreams, simply look for hard candies without gelatin and stabilizers.
I knew that I wanted to highlight fresh berries in my cake and I started my testing with the ever-loved blackberry. I adore the hearty texture and deep purple hue that these berries lend in baking. I began by creating a blackberry coulis, swapping out a portion of the buttermilk in my favorite vanilla cake recipe with said coulis. The first thing that I noticed was that my beautifully colored blackberry sauce turned an off-putting purple gray once I combined it with buttermilk—which wasn’t the look that I was trying to achieve. Upon cooling, I tried that cake (and also tried the layers the next day, as I always taste cakes when they are fresh and once they’ve rested). Considering that I started with three-quarters of a pound of berries, I was surprised to detect little blackberry favor in my finished cake. Delicious as it was there wasn’t much flavor difference between this and my standard vanilla cake.
The Perfect Formula
I decided, therefore, to turn to the strawberry, which can be tricky to incorporate into a cake batter. Flavoring a cake with strawberry coulis often introduces too much liquid with little flavor benefit. I decided to use frozen strawberries and press them into a sieve to remove most of their liquid. The pulp that was left behind was thick and rich in flavor and color. I used this pulp to flavor my cake layers by replacing some of the sour cream in my formula with the pulp. When strawberries aren’t in season, a quality frozen strawberry, picked and packaged at the peak of ripeness, is your secret weapon. When it came to the mixing, I reworked my recipe and held the strawberry pulp until the very end. I wanted to add the strawberries to a neutral batter and eliminate the risk of the berries losing their color from the acid in my liquid ingredients. Finally, I chose to bake my cake layers in three 6″ cake pans as opposed to the two 8″ pans that I’d normally divide the batter into.
The Finishing Touches
When it came time to assemble my cake I chose to go with a semi-naked look. I took a step back and felt that it lacked some contrasting color. I hadn’t gotten rid of the liquid that I’d pressed out of my strawberries, so I slowly added the red strawberry juice to my remaining lemon buttercream to create a naturally tinted pink buttercream. That color pop was the perfect touch to finish off the top of my strawberry lemon drop cake.
Lemon Drop Swiss Buttercream Recipe
12 ounces finely crushed sour lemon hard candies
4 ounces granulated white sugar
8 ounces egg whites
2 tablespoons water
16 ounces unsalted butter, softened
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Combine the crushed candies, granulated sugar, egg whites, and water in a metal bowl. Heat the mixture over a pan of simmering water, whisking frequently to dissolve the sugar and candy. The egg white mixture should register around 160° Fahrenheit when measured on a candy thermometer. Pour the egg white mixture into the bowl of your stand mixer, fitted with the whip attachment. Whip the meringue on medium-high speed until it forms medium/stiff peaks and is cool to the touch, 15-20 minutes. Add half of the softened butter and whip to combine. Add the remaining butter, lemon juice, and vanilla and whip until smooth and fluffy. Scrape the bowl and give the buttercream one final mix.
Dan’s Tips: Hard candies are easily crushed in a food processor, or in a gallon-size plastic bag, placed between two kitchen towels and hammered with a rolling pin or skillet. Some chefs slowly add chunks of butter to their meringue when making SMBC. I prefer to add an entire half of my butter, whip the mixture, and add the remaining half. I find that my buttercream retains more fluffiness when I combine the two components quickly. If you find that your buttercream has become too stiff, it may have gotten too cold. You can use either a kitchen torch on the bowl while whipping the buttercream, or quickly warm your metal mixer bowl over a low stove flame for a few moments then whip it on the mixer. The heating action softens the buttercream and allows more air to be whipped into the mixture.
Strawberry Cake Recipe
Yields 45 oz
12 ounces granulated sugar
9.5 ounces cake flour
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3 ounces unsalted butter, softened
7 ounces full fat sour cream, at room temperature
4 ounces buttermilk, at room temperature
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 ounce vegetable or canola oil
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3 ounces strawberry pulp *see note*
Note: You’ll use about 7-8 ounces of fresh or frozen strawberries to make 3 ounces of strawberry pulp. To make pulp, take freshly washed berries, or thawed frozen berries, and press them into a fine strainer. Your goal is to press out the watery liquid, leaving behind the richly flavored pulp. Mash the pulp to a smooth consistency as you strain it.
Preheat your oven to 350°F.
Grease 2 (8″ pans) or 3 (6″ pans) with pan grease, and line the bottom and sides with parchment.
Combine the sugar, cake flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda in your mixer bowl. Blend on low speed with the paddle attachment for 30 seconds to sift together the dry ingredients. In a measuring cup, combine the buttermilk, eggs, oil, and vanilla and whisk until smooth. Set aside. Add the sour cream and softened butter into the dry mixture and blend on low to combine. Raise the mixer speed to medium-high and beat for 90 seconds, scraping the bowl halfway through. Add half of the egg mixture and blend on low just until combined then scrape the bowl. Add the remaining egg mixture and the strawberry pulp and blend on low to combine. Give the batter a few folds to incorporate any final liquid ingredients. Scrape the batter into the pans and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cakes comes out with a few moist crumbs.
6″ round pans bake for 35-40 minutes
8″ round pans bake for 25-30 minutes
Allow the cakes to cool for 10 minutes in their pans, then turn out on cooling racks to cool completely.
Dan’s Tips: The natural flavor of the strawberries is best when this cake has been allowed to rest overnight before it is eaten. It is best enjoyed at room temperature. The weight of the batter is given to allow for the use of a scale to divide your cake batter evenly between pans. If you desire your cake to have a deeper color, you can brighten the batter with a few drops of pink or red food color gel. This cake recipe is a good base for other berry-based cake flavors.