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Strawberries and almonds and pastry cream oh my!

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At their peak ripeness, summer fruits need little adornment. It’s tough to improve the flavor of a meltingly delicate, sweet tart raspberry or a succulent peach on the verge of bruising.

But when you find yourself up to your elbows in fragrant baskets of the summer bounty that you simply couldn’t leave at the farmers market, it’s time to think about baking.

Pies, crisps, crumbles, buckles, and cobblers are old favorites (with good reason). A slow simmer in the oven can dramatically change a fruit’s demeanor. Things mellow in there; they turn softer and more fragrant. The transformation can be stunning, but some fruits are so vibrant in their natural state it seems a shame to put them through all that.

That’s where this twist on the classic strawberry shortcake comes in. Think slices of bright red strawberries tossed with a little sugar, a dollop of rich pastry cream, and a crumbly little almond cake to nestle them on.

At home at a backyard cookout or at a dinner party, this dessert is familiar enough to pass for summer comfort food and just surprising enough to feel like something new. The toasty layer of sliced almonds on the top dresses the cake with an unfussy elegance. This version is portable and picnic friendly, as the pastry cream, unlike its whipped relative, will travel well in a cooler. It goes down easy just about anywhere and puts all that wonderful fresh fruit to good use.

Almond Cake with Strawberries and Vanilla Pastry Cream

Source: Cake adapted from Gourmet June 2007, p. 143. Original recipe available here. Pastry cream adapted from Apartment Therapy: The Kitchen.

This would be excellent with other flavorful summer fruits–peaches, raspberries, and pitted sweet cherries come to mind as good options. I used vanilla pastry cream here for its portability, but if you are making this at home you could certainly use whipped cream or lightly sweetened whipped Greek yogurt if you prefer. This cake, if stored in an airtight container or wrapped well in plastic wrap, is even better on the second day.

For the pastry cream:

1 cup whole milk
1 cup whipping cream (or heavy whipping cream)
3 egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the almond cake:

3/4 cup whole almonds
1/2 cup sliced almonds (for the top)
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
1 1/4 cups sugar (preferably superfine, or regular granulated sugar zizzed in a food processor for 30 seconds)
1/3 cup whole milk
3/4 cup butter, melted and cooled

For the strawberries:
1 quart (1 1/2 pounds) fresh strawberries, sliced
2 tablespoons sugar

Make the pastry cream. In a medium mixing bowl, mix the eggs, sugar, and flour until well blended. In a heavy medium saucepan, bring the milk and cream to a low simmer. Turn off the heat. Whisk a few tablespoons of the warm milk and cream into the egg mixture, then gradually add a few more tablespoons of milk/cream and whisk thoroughly. Add the egg mixture to the saucepan with the remaining milk/cream and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until thickened, about four minutes. Whisk in the vanilla extract. Remove from heat. Refrigerate for at least one hour before serving.

Make the cake. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 9-inch square baking pan with cooking spray (Bakers Joy works well) or butter and flour. In a dry skillet, toast the whole almonds over medium heat just until they start to smell fragrant. Remove from heat and add them, half at a time, to a blender or food processor and pulse until they resemble a fine powder (but before they become a paste, err on the side of coarseness here).

In a medium mixing bowl, mix the ground almonds, flour, baking powder, and salt.

In a separate large mixing bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer), add the eggs and beat on high speed until they look foamy, about 15-30 seconds. With the mixer running, add the sugar slowly and beat until the mixture is the thick and the beater leaves a noticeable trail when lifted, about 10 minutes (perhaps a few minutes shorter in a stand mixer or a few longer with a hand mixer). Slowly add the melted butter and the milk and beat until well mixed. Add the flour and ground almond mixture and stir by hand until just combined. The batter will be thick.

Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pan and sprinkle with the sliced almonds. Bake until the cake begins to pull away from the sides and the almonds on the top look golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30-40 minutes. Cool on a rack before removing from pan.

In a medium bowl, mix the strawberries with sugar and let them macerate in the refrigerator for an hour or so.

To assemble, cut a piece of cake, and slice it in half horizontally. Add strawberries and a dollop of pastry cream to the bottom half and replace the top of the cake. Enjoy.

Yields about 8 servings.

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