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Strawberry cake forever



When my mother started dating my stepfather, he introduced me to the only song that reliably makes me cry every time—Arlo Guthrie’s rendition of “City of New Orleans”; keep your ballads of star-crossed lovers, that one has me bawling by the second verse—and the only album cover art that did the same—David Harris’s painting of a funeral on the cover of Joan Baez’s “Blessed Are.”

Neither of them spent the ‘60s turning on, tuning in or dropping out; for one thing, what would their mothers have said? But they both liked the softer side of pop music from their high school and college years, especially folk like Peter, Paul and Mary or Simon and Garfunkel.

He played a Gibson guitar himself, in a purely hobbyish sort of way, but my mother, like any otherwise sensible woman, had a hard time resisting the lure of a man singing to her while making music. It helped that he was also solid, dependable, kind and responsible, a gentleman in all regards, unless the Redskins happened to be losing. He still yells at the TV when that happens, but never at any of us.

My mother, for her part, has the sort of direct energy that gets things done, the ability to nurture illness with infinite kind patience and a soft spot for indulging her loved ones. It helped that he found her to be the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, which he told her point blank.

Being as experience had taught them there was nothing so romantic as quiet compatibility and a shared love of seafood, they got married. This netted me two nifty stepsisters and gave Mom a chance to expand her culinary repertoire, partly out of the burden of necessity—no more living with Grams, her mom, to fall back on—and partly out of the freedom to cook whatever she wanted, as it’s a rare dish my stepfather doesn’t like.

I recall the angel food trifle, the homemade pizza, the grilled zucchini and several other dishes that have come and gone as Mom tried on new culinary ideas. She’s a good cook and she enjoys it, which I thankfully inherited. But one thing popped up early on and stayed for the duration, specifically because my stepfather enjoys it and Mom, though not a pushover, is keen to keep people happy at the table, a trait I also inherited.

Mom isn’t intimidated by complicated dishes. I came home for a visit a few years ago and was greeted late at night by a salmon filet wrapped in a savory crepe and topped with a lemon dill Hollandaise sauce, casually presented the way some people are tossed a grilled cheese sandwich. But one of the things that he loves most, and that gets the most requests from their circle of friends, is something sweet and easy to make: a strawberry cake.

It travels well if done as a sheet cake.  It also somehow winds up as a hot weather favorite, although it can also be reproduced in the middle of winter. Or to please an amateur musician on his birthday, come to that.

Strawberry Cake

1 box white cake mix

1 3-oz. package of strawberry Jello, undissolved

¼ cup vegetable oil

½ cup water

4 eggs

1 lb. frozen strawberries, pureed in a blender or food processor

Preheat oven to 325F and grease pans—you can use a tube pan, 2-3 round cake pans or a 9 x 13” sheet pan. Mix together the cake mix, Jello, oil and water. Add eggs one at a time and beat in. Add all but 2 Tbsps. of strawberry puree. Pour into pans and bake for 50 minutes in a tube pan, 20-25 minutes in round pans or about 35 minutes for a sheet pan. Test for doneness by inserting a toothpick in the center; if it comes out clean, you’re good. Turn out onto rack (except for a sheet cake), cool completely, plate and frost.

Strawberry Icing

There’s actually two of these; the first one is the one she uses most often, but either is delicious.

1 stick butter, softened

2 Tbsps. strawberry puree

1 box powdered sugar

Blend together and frost cake when cool.

1 8-oz block cream cheese, softened

2 Tbsps. strawberry puree

1 box powdered sugar

Dash of almond or vanilla extract (optional)

Blend together and frost cake when cool.

The frosting is rather pale, but the cake itself comes out a bright, not quite psychedelic pink, like the color of a slightly faded album cover, or a valentine given happily, over and over again.









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