“…the smell of newly picked wild strawberries is like special music; it gives me a concrete conception of paradise, infinity—perfection.” —Ingmar Bergman
A few years ago in Stockholm, on a summer day when it couldn’t decide whether to rain or shine, B and I spent a dreamy afternoon at Rosendal Tragard on the island of Djurgarden. Once upon a time, Djurgarden was the site of bucolic farms and dairies. King Karl Johan XIV built a summer pleasure palace there, but the real attraction for us was the biodynamic garden, probably the most idyllic on the planet.
Oh, the memories of that place are so seductive that I’m going to write about it soon—and show you the pictures that I took. In summer the perfume of blowsy roses hangs heavy in the garden and children clamber up the sturdy limbs of old apple trees.
But about the strawberries: In the Rosendal Garden Café cookbook, there’s a letter from Ingmar Bergman, the legendary Swedish film director, to Monika Ahlberg, the café’s beautiful baker, in which he confesses:
“I have been allergic to wild strawberries all my life…”
“… Five wild strawberries are all right. But if I sin and eat seven, then I am afflicted by small firey [sic] red, madly itching rashes round my wrists and ankles. Sometimes—very rarely—I really indulge. In the woods behind my house there is a field. It is reddened with wild strawberries several times during the summer, big heavy fragrant wild forest-strawberries…I indulge without a thought for the consequences, which promptly make themselves known…it is terrible and typically Bergman-like….”
The irony is that one of Bergman’s greatest films was, of course, Wild Strawberries (1959). A vision of the tiny, sun-warmed fruit, a symbol of the ephemeral Swedish summer, provokes a flood of disquieting memories for an elderly doctor (played by Viktor Sjostrom) who must revisit unhappy events in his past.
Did Bergman ever taste Ahlberg’s Strawberry Tart with Elderberry and Lemon Balm, or quaff a refreshing glass of soda flavored with Strawberry and Rhubarb Fruit-Syrup, both made during the brief summer moment when red berries were ripening at Rosendal? He doesn’t say.
Around here, early May is strawberry season. Most farmers seem to be growing a high-yielding, flavorful variety called Chandler: The delicate berries are mostly tart, but have a luscious strawberry fragrance. They’re perishable, easily crushed, with lots of juice. Perfect as a topping for sponge cake.
I grew up eating strawberry “shortcake,” which, as you surely know, has more to do with biscuits than with the tooth-achingly sweet packaged sponge cakes that were served at our table. (You can still find them in the supermarket.) Sponge does have a couple of advantages, however—namely its propensity for drinking up all the lovely berry juices and then dissolving into the mounds of whipped cream which necessarily accompany it.
The recipe for this sponge cake is adapted from my grandmother Patricia’s copy of The Boston Cooking School Cookbook. The pages are spotted and crumbling, and the binding has fallen apart, so I had a book box made to keep it safe—the kind of box normally reserved for rare first editions, the bookbinder tartly commented. I couldn’t bear to lose it, though, especially with a handwritten Old Southern Recipe for Soft Gingerbread inscribed inside the back cover.
The recipe for sponge cake is definitely old-fashioned. Six eggs, one cup sugar, one cup flour and a little lemon for flavor. In Fanny Farmer’s view, a “genuine sponge cake contains no rising properties, but is made light by the quantity of air beaten into both yolks and whites of eggs, and the expansion of that air in baking. It requires a slow oven.”
To inflate the egg whites and yolks, Farmer advocates the use of a Dover egg-beater, a manual contraption with a crank handle that was so popular that, for a time, the term “dovering” was synonymous with “beating” eggs.
Fortunately we now have electric hand mixers to do the job. Be sure to whisk the egg whites, all six of them, until they hold stiff peaks and are quite billowy—they will increase in volume three or four times—and until they are dry inside. Then partially fold in the yolks beaten with sugar (reduced to 2/3 cup) and cut in the flour—the trick is to blend the ingredients, but not so much that the batter deflates. You can then spoon it into a cake tin—which I advise lining with parchment paper—or make individual sponges, as I did, using lined pastry rings and a baking sheet.
But the sponge cake is really just a vehicle for strawberries and whipped cream. By a happy coincidence, the first boxes of Chandler berries appeared the same day that I brought home a few pots of geraniums with rose-lemon scented leaves. As Monika Ahlberg observes, with these sorts of flavors around, “it’s easy for your thoughts to take wing.” One day before making the cake, I sliced the berries, sprinkled them with just enough sugar to bring out their natural goodness, and layered them a bowl with scented geranium leaves. Twenty-four hours later they had softened, exuding the most delicious juice very lightly redolent of roses.
Spoon this wondrous fruit over the individual sponge cakes—cut off the tops so they can absorb the juices—and pile on the whipped cream.
Can summer be far behind?
Strawberry-Rose Geranium Sponge Cakes with Clouds of Whipped Cream
(The sponge recipe is adapted from The Boston Cooking School Cookbook.)
Makes 8 or 9 individual sponges
Ingredients for the Strawberries:
4 pints strawberries
Sugar to taste
12 organic rose-scented geranium leaves
Method for the Strawberries:
1. Briefly rinse 3 pints of strawberries, keeping 1 pint in reserve. Drain in a colander and either crush or cut them in half. In a mortar and pestle, bruise the geranium leaves so that they release their scented oils.
2. Spoon some strawberries into a large bowl and sprinkle with sugar to taste. The amount of sugar will depend upon the relative sweetness of the berries, but do not add so much that you obscure their natural flavor. Top with 2 or 3 geranium leaves. Continue layering and sprinkling with sugar until you’ve used up all the berries and geranium leaves.
3. Refrigerate, covered, for 24 hours.
Ingredients for the Sponge Cakes:
6 egg whites
6 egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tsp grated lemon rind
1 cup flour
¼ teaspoon salt
You will also need 8 or 9 pastry rings, 2 inches tall and 2-3/4 inches in diameter; a baking sheet; canola oil or butter, and parchment paper.
Method for the Sponge Cakes:
1. Set the oven to 300 degrees.
2. Prepare the pastry rings: Rub the inside of each ring with canola oil or a little butter. Cut out 8 strips of parchment paper, 2 inches by 9inches, and line each ring with one strip. Cover the baking sheet with a large sheet of parchment paper and place the rings, evenly spaced on the sheet. Be sure to leave at least 1 inch between rings.
3. Prepare the batter: Whisk the egg whites on high speed until they have increased substantially in volume and hold stiff peaks. When they are ready, they will look quite billowy and will be dry inside. Set aside.
4. Beat the egg yolks on high speed until they are thick and have turned pale yellow. Beat in the sugar, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Set aside.
5. Sift the flour and salt together into a medium bowl.
6. Using a rubber spatula, lift about ¼ of the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture and fold, using a circular motion, scraping the batter from the bottom over the top of the whites, until they are just combined with the yolks. Continue with the rest of the egg whites, lightly folding them into the yolk mixture, 1/3 at a time, but only until they are partly combined.
7. Sprinkle 1/3 of the flour mixture into the batter. Using the edge of the spatula, “cut” the flour into the batter, carefully folding it into the mixture but taking care not to reduce the volume of the egg whites. Repeat with the rest of the flour, 1/3 at a time. Cut and fold just enough to ensure that there are no pockets of flour, but do not stir or mix so thoroughly that the volume of the mixture decreases.
8. Spoon the mixture into the pastry rings, until each is 2/3 full. Bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes, until the tops are very lightly browned and a cake tester or straw comes out clean when inserted into the center of a sponge.
9. Remove from the oven and let cool for a few minutes. Using a spatula remove each ring from the parchment paper and let cool on a pastry rack for another 10 to 15 minutes. Slip the sponge cakes out of the rings and let them cool to room temperature. If any of the sponges have overflowed the top of the ring and have stuck to the sides, take a sharp paring knife and cut straight down about ½ inch to release the cake from the ring.
Ingredients for assembling the cakes:
Strawberries macerated with geranium leaves and sugar
Reserved pint of strawberries
1 pint heavy whipping cream
Powdered sugar (to taste)
8 or 9 individual sponge cakes
Organic rose geranium blossoms (optional)
Method for assembling the cakes:
1. Briefly rinse the reserved pint of strawberries and drain in a colander. Cut the strawberries in half. Remove the rose geranium leaves from the bowl of macerated strawberries and stir in the sliced strawberries. Set aside.
2. Whip the heavy cream until it holds soft peaks. Add just enough powdered sugar to lightly sweeten it.
3. Cut off the top 1/3 of each sponge cake. (Reserve the tops.) Drizzle 2 or 3 tablespoons of strawberry juices over each sponge and top generously with as many strawberries as you like. (Let them tumble down the sides!) Spoon whipped cream over the cake. Garnish with rose geranium flowers, if using. Set the reserved top of each cake on the plate—it’s good for sopping up all the extra juice and cream—and serve without delay.