the butter lab's basil cake, basil whipped cream, and macerated strawberries
The idea of this cake was an obsession of mine for months. I don't even really like cake. Or at least not the kind you think of when you think of cake—a cloying birthday cake with sprinkles and frosting. I'd rather eat a pastry any day. But there are cakes, and then there are cakes. I mean the kind of cake that doesn’t just taste of sugar—a lemon-loaf cake that puckers your lips, a dark-gray sesame snacking cake, a ginger cake made with real ginger, fresh plums and apricots suspended in a buttery almond cake. I get those cakes. Those are the cakes I crave, when I crave cake.
Back in April, I started fantasizing about a cake that would look and taste like the end of spring and the beginning of summer. I envisioned a cake that was impossibly green and vegetal, paired with ripe red-pink strawberries. (That color combination is full-on 1970s, and I like it.) I found the perfect recipe from Brooks Headley, former pastry chef at Del Posto, and the person who brought you Superiority Burger. His 2014 cookbook—wryly entitled Fancy Desserts—punches you in the face. Brooks was a drummer in a punk rock band, and he wants you to know it. Reading his book is like watching the movie Whiplash, but more punk rock and more classical at the same time. Anyway, Brooks has a fairly elaborate recipe (courtesy of his Del Posto boss, Lidia Bastianich) for a green sweet pea cake which he tops with strawberry gelato, macerated strawberries, and candied split peas. Bingo. This is so much what I’m looking for, it’s actually kind of creepy. I immediately make the cake, the strawberry sauce, and the split peas. I’m not as interested in making the gelato for my first trial, so I buy some fresh strawberry gelato from Eataly. The cake is good, but not as good as I want it to be. It has a weird inexplicable aftertaste. And overall, it's just too fussy. It's the kind of dessert that I would be happy to savor at Del Posto, but not something I would uncontrollably devour at home on my couch, instantly want more of, and then dream about for days. At least, not the way mine came out.
After the pea cake, some time goes by, and I give up on peas and spring. But I still want my verdant green cake with red-pink strawberries, an ode to warm weather bounty and a promise of beach days ahead. And suddenly I realize exactly what I have to make: a basil cake. I poke around for recipes, but none of them seem to be basil-y enough, and they certainly don’t seem to produce a naturally gorgeous green cake. They’re recipes for cakes with a hint of basil; I want basil with a hint of cake. So, in my head, I start to run through my favorite cake recipes and think about potential ways to adapt them to create the basil cake of my dreams, and the choice becomes obvious: Roberta’s parsley cake. Roberta’s—if you’ve never heard of it—is a “pizzeria-turned-garden-and-gastro-commune…[that] has come to embody everything that people love, and sometimes mock, about the Brooklyn food scene.” (Thank you, New York Times.) Regardless, Roberta’s makes a killer pizza, and its most well-known dessert is a parsley cake, which Kristen Miglore wrote about in her Food52 column back in 2014. The cake is not as strange as you think. It’s herbaceous and barely sweet and surprisingly delicious. It’s also bright green, especially after resting the batter overnight, which also makes for a lighter crumb. I actually modified the recipe years ago when I made a version of it with kale to delight (and tease) a friend who was super into kale. Not only did it work, it was insanely good. And this time, when I eventually substitute it with basil, it’s everything I hoped it would be and more.
The cake is baked thin in a sheet pan; at the restaurant, they serve it in roughly torn pieces topped with fennel caramel gelato, lemon zest granita, and cake crumbs. If you’ve bought into my basil and strawberry summer edition, you could certainly serve this basil version with strawberry sorbet and lemon zest, with or without macerated strawberries. I did, and it was great. But I also played around with it and made a couple of mini-cake versions, layering slightly sweetened cream between basil cake and macerated strawberries. The first time, I used a strawberry mascarpone cream which looked pretty, but slightly overpowered the basil. Then I tried a basil-infused whipped cream; I pureed some basil and sugar, let it hang out in some heavy cream, strained and chilled it before whisking it to soft peaks. I added a bit of lemon zest before tucking into the little cakes. And, you know what? They tasted good. They tasted really good. The basil on basil was not too much basil. The strawberries satisfied more than just a 1970s aesthetic; they made sense. This is a cake that transports you to a place and a season. It’s comforting. But also exciting and different. What I’m saying is, you can have your cake and eat it too.
the butter lab’s BASIL CAKE, BASIL WHIPPED CREAM, AND MACERATED STRAWBERRIES
The basil cake recipe is adapted from the parsley cake recipe in Roberta’s Cookbook via Food52. The basil whipped cream is inspired by a recipe for basil mousse by Stella Parks from Serious Eats. A note on timing: the cake batter requires an overnight rest. Both the whipped cream and the macerated strawberries need to sit for about thirty minutes, and the whipped cream can be infused twelve hours ahead of time.
Makes approximately 12 servings/mini-cakes.
180 grams (5 cups tightly packed) basil leaves
165 grams (3/4 cup) good olive oil, plus more for the pan
290 grams (2 cups plus 1 tablespoon) all-purpose flour
15 grams (1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons) cornstarch
7 grams (2 1/4 teaspoons) kosher salt
8 grams (1 1/2 teaspoons) baking powder
4 large eggs, at room temperature
330 grams (1 2/3 cups) sugar
BASIL WHIPPED CREAM
1 ½ loosely packed cups basil leaves
12 ounces heavy cream
2 tablespoons to 1/3 cups sugar, to taste
6 tablespoons crème fraiche or sour cream, to taste
1 pound ripe strawberries, hulled and sliced
1 ½ tablespoons sugar, or more as needed
2 teaspoons lemon juice (optional)
1 teaspoon lemon zest (optional), plus more as needed
MAKE THE CAKE:
Put a fourth of the basil in a strong blender or food processor, and blend it on low speed. Use a blender stick to help crush the herbs or occasionally stop the machine to push the basil down toward the blade. Slowly increase the speed to medium (or a steady puree, in a food processor) and continue adding the rest of the basil until you have added all of them.
In a steady stream, add half of the olive oil. Mix on medium-low speed (or pulsing, if using a food processor) until combined. Add the remaining olive oil and blend for no longer than 10 seconds. The mixture will look loose and stringy. Transfer to a bowl, and refrigerate until ready to use.
In another bowl, combine the flour, cornstarch, salt, and baking powder and set aside.
In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, whip the eggs for about 30 seconds. Add the sugar and mix on high speed until the mixture is very thick and turns a pale yellow color, about 3 minutes. Turn the mixer speed down to low and add the basil-oil mixture.
With the machine still running, add the flour mixture and mix until just combined. Do not over mix. Pour the batter into a container and refrigerate it for at least 6 and up to 24 hours (the cake will turn out much greener than it would if you baked it right away).
When you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 340°F and lightly oil a sheet pan (13-x18-inch for a thinner cake, 10-x15-inch for a thicker cake). Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper and lightly oil the paper. Pour the batter into the sheet pan and smooth out the top with a spatula.
Bake for 12 to 18 minutes, rotating the cake halfway through. If the top begins to brown before the inside of the cake is done, turn the heat down to 330° and let it cook a couple of minutes longer. When a cake tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, it's done. Let it cool in the pan.
To make mini-cakes, use an approximately 3-inch cookie cutter (or water glass or whatever else you have on hand) to cut out your cake layers. You can also just tear up pieces of cake or use whatever other method for whatever other shape of your choosing.
MAKE THE BASIL WHIPPED CREAM:
Combine basil and 2 tablespoons of sugar in a blender or food process and puree to a wet pulp. In a 2-quart stainless steel saucepan, combine basil-sugar with cream and warm over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture is hot, but not simmering. Remove from heat and allow mixture to sit for 30 minutes.
Using a fine-mesh strainer set over a large bowl, strain mixture, pressing on the basil solids to extract as much liquid as possible without forcing the pulp through the sieve; discard basil solids. Cover and refrigerate until cold. The mixture can be refrigerated for up to 12 hours.
When ready to use, whip cold cream to soft peaks, adding more sugar to taste. Fold or gently whisk in crème fraiche (this will add shine, smoothness, a fuller flavor, and it will stabilize the cream so it lasts longer).
MACERATE THE STRAWBERRIES:
In a large bowl, gently toss together the strawberries, granulated sugar, lemon juice, and lemon zest if using. Let macerate at room temperature for at least 30 minutes and up to 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
ASSEMBLE THE CAKE:
Spread whipped cream onto cake cut-outs and top with strawberries. Top with another cake layer, more whipped cream and more strawberries. Drizzle with strawberry juices and sprinkle with lemon zest, if desired. Alternatively, serve torn pieces of cake in a bowl with whipped cream and strawberries and go to town.