A summer dessert, like the proverbial revenge, is best served cold.
A refrigerator cake is the "great aunt" of such desserts a little old-fashioned, yet exuding a bit of quiet elegance whenever she arrives on the scene. A serene square of chilled fruit, cool cream and a bit of cake provides a welcome antidote to a steamy evening, or a pretty dessert for a bridal shower (and is a whole lot more satisfying than a dish of sorbet).
Even better, such a cake has to be made ahead of time so it can chill thoroughly.
The term "refrigerator cake" encompasses a wide range of desserts, many of which had their origins in a layered combination of whipped cream and purchased chocolate wafers or graham crackers, so that kitchens never needed to be heated up by baking.
Fruit was sometimes added. Then, perhaps with the advent of air conditioning or better-insulated ovens, cake rose to claim its place as the best way to sandwich fruit and cream.
We used strawberries for our cake, but you can use almost any fruit you like: velvety mangoes, tart blueberries, fresh pineapple, even bananas with a sprinkling of toasted coconut. This isn't an especially sweet dessert, with no added sugar on the fruit and only a bit in the whipped cream, which means it's important to use fruit at peak ripeness.
With the whipping cream stabilized with some mascarpone cheese, the cake will keep in the fridge for two days, letting you slice off a bit of summertime solace whenever the heat and humidity start to toy with your sanity.
Summer's best refrigerator cake
Prep time: 50 minutes plus 4 hours chill time
Bake time: 35 minutes for a 9-by-13-inch pan
Serves 12 to 15
Note: Mascarpone cheese is added for both flavor and to stabilize the whipped cream.
The basic cake recipe, adapted slightly from "The King Arthur Flour Baking Companion," may be baked in a 9-by-13-inch pan or in two (8- or 9-inch) round pans. We like fresh strawberries as a filling, but other fruits such as mangoes or blueberries would work, too. Tossing the fruit with a liqueur such as Grand Marnier or Chambord adds another layer of flavor, but is optional.
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 3/4 cup superfine or granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
5 egg whites
2 3/4 cups cake flour
1 cup milk
2 quarts strawberries, or equivalent of other fruit
2 tablespoons liqueur (Grand Marnier, Chambord or other), if desired
8 ounces. mascarpone cheese, at room temperature (see note above)
1/4 cup powdered sugar
4 cups heavy cream (see below)
To make the cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking pan or pans with parchment paper cut to fit, to aid in flipping the cake out of the pan.
In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter, baking powder, sugar, salt and extracts until fluffy and light, at least 5 minutes. Add the egg whites to the butter mixture one at a time, beating well after each addition. (Save the yolks to supplement scrambled eggs, or mix with milk for French toast.)
Mix one-third of the flour into the creamed mixture, then half the milk, another third of the flour, the remaining milk, and the remaining flour. Be sure to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl occasionally throughout this process.
Pour the batter into prepared pan(s). For a 9-by-13- inch cake, bake for about 35 minutes. For 8-inch round pans, bake 23 to 26 minutes. For 9-inch round pans, bake 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool on a wire rack.
While cake is cooling, wash and hull strawberries, then cut them into 1/4-inch slices too thin and they'll lose their "strawberry-ness." If using liqueur, toss berries in it. Set aside.
When the cake is cool, run a knife around the outside edges, then cover with a cookie sheet or other flat tray that will fit inside your refrigerator. (You can also reassemble the cake in the original pan, if desired.) Carefully flip the pan upside-down, releasing the cake onto the tray. Gently peel off the parchment paper.
Using a long, serrated knife, carefully split the cake horizontally into two thin layers. To help keep the knife level, you can insert toothpicks into the sides of the cake as a guide.
Work your hands under the top layer of cake and transfer to a cookie sheet. Set aside.
To make the filling: In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the mascarpone cheese and powdered sugar until light and fluffy, then add the heavy cream, beating until the cream holds a peak. Watch carefully; it may seem like it's not going to thicken, then it will suddenly come together.
Measure out about one-third of the whipped cream and drop in dollops across the cake, then spread to cover the entire surface. Cover the cream layer with sliced strawberries, several slices thick, making sure to go all the way to the edges; reserve some for top of cake. Carefully top with reserved layer of cake, pressing gently to adhere to fruit.
Use remaining whipped cream to cover the top and sides of the cake. (Note: If reassembling cake in the baking pan and not frosting the sides you will need only to whip 3 cups of heavy cream.) Cover with plastic wrap, sticking toothpicks over the surface of the cake to hold the wrap away from the whipped cream. Refrigerate at least 4 hours. Garnish with additional fruit before serving. Serve cake cold.
KEEP YOUR OPTIONS OPEN
While we think whipped cream and berries is one of summer's best combinations for this cake, several other variations seem just as appealing.
Use this cake as a canvas to come up with other choices.
Combine a little lemon curd or lemon zest with the whipped cream (with or without the mascarpone) for a light and lemony filling.
Chocolate more your style? Fold in mini chocolate chips to the filling (with or without the mascarpone) or add finely chopped chocolate to the mixture.
Or think crumbs, as in Oreo crumbs, if you're a fan of the Blizzard-style summer treat. Fold those into the whipping cream filling instead, in a variation of the Nabisco chocolate wafer/whipped cream dessert.
Or, make this a cake with more than two layers by baking it in round pans and slicing each into two layers, for a total of four. If you have a cake carrier, this is a particularly handy way of storing the cake in the refrigerator and carrying it elsewhere as needed.