Strawberry Cream Cake

Before growing up and getting married and getting a house and a dog and making a baby, I used to be a sort of healthy eating specialist. It was the uncharted part of a job that I loved to do, which was just teaching people about cooking and how to make stuff taste good. I already knew how to make honest food from real ingredients — I wasn’t afraid of a week without sugar in my coffee, but I also wasn’t afraid of a little butter to finish those spring peas — this job just upped the ante by challenging me with new ingredients and interesting limitations.

Tell one person something is vegan and they lunge for it, desperate for food that tastes (or at least looks) virtuous in order to polish some invisible lifestyle halo. Tell someone else the same thing and they veer away, cutting a wide swath around you, fumbling murmured apologies and a sheepish smile, as if you’re their doctor or mother.

The job taught me, essentially, how to cook vegan food for the latter group: people who were not vegans and in their heart of hearts, didn’t want to be. Any “healthy” food they’d encountered was under-seasoned or overcooked, “too green” (a real quote), or just didn’t track with any food memories they had, making it hard to place and therefore easy to dismiss. My job was to make exciting, approachable food according to strict guidelines:  no animal products, very little if any added oil, and no added sweetener or salt. Daunting or even a dealbreaker for some, for me it was an interesting challenge and an appeal to my competitive side. Each time I cooked was a step in a long quest to answer the question: can I get a roomful of omnivores to lose their minds over this without telling them it’s vegan? Can I simply serve this to people as Food and make everyone happy?

The answer became (and remains) a resounding YES. And though I don’t cook that way for us all the time at home, there are some seriously ace techniques that plant-based cooking taught me, like soaking then blitzing nuts into silky, creamy bases for sauces; the magic of massaging and/or marinating raw kale; the caramelly miracle of a Medjool date.

Those labels — vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free, even healthy — are useful to an extent, but when you’re feeding a group of people with a range of special diets due to health issues, allergy restrictions, ethical choices, and even strong preferences, and you have zero interest in making anyone’s diet A Thing, labels serve only to distract. With labels, lots of questions ensue: some factual, some rhetorical, some inappropriate or loaded, all of them tedious.

So when it was time to think about what to serve as Jack’s birthday cake this year, I had to call upon all of my yankee-doodle know-how. In each seat a different diet, a different dream of the perfect summer dessert. Together, a colorful, bonkers Venn diagram with terrifyingly little overlap.

Jack, the birthday boy: loves all fruit, obsessed with strawberries, is wary of cake, pie, or ice cream. (Basically still doesn’t know what “dessert” is; at times I am unsure if he is my child)

My brother: Type 1 diabetic, vegan by choice

My brother in law: lactose intolerant

My 92 year-old grandmother: never met a cheesecake she didn’t like; might secretly reject vegan- and vegetarianism as new age nonsense; tenuous grasp on what vegan even means

Me: determined to make one dessert to rule please them all; ideally something that is also pretty, seasonal, and can be made ahead of time. Quietly angling for something that becomes everyone’s new favorite thing, regardless of dietary restrictions. Also (!) sitting on a suspicion (later confirmed) that I myself had developed a mild wheat allergy, so extra points if it was wheat-free.

OK NO PROBLEM.

I thought back to vegan desserts I’d made in the past: cocoa-banana cake was nice but looked a bit humble; raw macaroons using dates and coconut oil were indulgent but rather on the snacky side; fruit salad dressed with lime juice and fresh mint would thrill Jack and depress everyone else. I kept circling back to this raw mango-macadamia tart thing I’d once made for a competition: it had a date-nut crust pressed into the pan as a base, then a creamy filling of cashew butter, silken tofu, and soaked dates all whizzed up together, with slick slices of ripe mango on the top, finished with honey-candied, crushed macadamias.

What if I took that crust and pressed it into a springform pan? What if I toyed with that filling, omitting the tofu and swapping in coconut oil for a sturdier body once chilled? What if I pulled a total Pinterest move and did an ombre thing, turning half the filling pink with pureed strawberries? (What if I didn’t hate myself for it?) What if I could throw that whole thing in the freezer the day before? What if instead of a crunchy nut topping, I just crowned the whole thing with a tumble of tiny, gorgeous strawberries that need only a quick wash and hulling before showtime so that if nothing else, Jack could eat a mountain of toddler-sized strawberries for his birthday dessert (which is essentially what I think his little dreams are made of anyway)?

I rolled the dice, and the risk was worth the reward. Everyone loved it, my (omnivorous) husband asked for it as his birthday dessert, my grandmother raved about its silky texture and light, fresh flavor, and my brother and brother-in-law didn’t have to spend half of dessert explaining their diets (again). Of course Jack experimented with the cake, but was really there for the strawberries.

The thing I think most everyone loves about food is that it has the ability to bring people together. While that’s sometimes no easy feat in these modern times, as we stand dizzy amid a constellation of diverse ingredients and dietary choices and health discoveries, it’s a comfort to know it’s still entirely possible.

 

Notes:

  • Though dates are beautifully sweet on their own, I do call for a smidge of agave nectar for the crust (it’s also in the filling). I found it makes the mixture more cooperative and easier to press into the pan.
  • You can vary this flavor with any fruit, or just keep it plain vanilla all the way through and top with crunchy roasted and candied/honeyed nuts, fresh fruit, big shaved coconut flakes, or chocolate chips or cacao nibs.
  • I decided to call this a “cream cake” rather than a cheesecake, though the finished product will look for all the world like the latter. I was worried it would invite immediate commentary on whether or not it tasted like an actual cheesecake, which was not at all the point. Happily, it did actually taste rather like cheesecake, but “cream cake” is more evocative and pretty-sounding to me, so I kept it.
  • For the filling, I used plain old grocery store strawberries, but for the top, I held out for some adorable, tiny rubies from the farmer’s market, cleaned them up quickly, and tumbled them right on top before serving. Certainly, you can use whatever strawberries are available and tasting good.

Ingredients

For the crust

  • 1 cup walnuts
  • 1 cup almonds, unsalted (raw or roasted is fine)
  • 2 cups pitted Medjool dates
  • 1-2 tablespoons agave nectar
  • 1 teaspoon salt

For the filling

  • 4 cups cashews, soaked overnight
  • 1/2 cup agave nectar
  • 3/4 cup melted coconut oil
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • seeds from 1 vanilla bean
  • 1 cup strawberries, hulled and halved, plus more for topping

Method

First, make the crust. Process the almonds and salt in a food processor until very roughly ground. Add the dates and continue processing until the whole mixture is just about uniform. Stop here to test the texture of the mixture — if it’s fairly sticky (this will have a lot to do with the moisture in your dates: depending on handling and age, some are more moist, some are drier), you won’t need much agave at all, maybe a scant tablespoon; if it doesn’t seem to want to stick together, add closer to two tablespoons.

Once the texture feels right, press the mixture into the bottom of a 10.5 inch springform pan. (If you only have a smaller pan, like a 9-inch, that’s fine too — the cake will just be a bit thicker, which is no big deal since it doesn’t need to be baked anyway. With a smaller pan, you can work the crust mixture as far up the sides as possible to make sure it’s evenly distributed.) Set aside.

In a blender, combine all of the filling ingredients except the strawberries. If you’ve got a fancy, high-speed blender, this will be a joy and should go fairly quickly. If you’ve got an old blender that’s sturdy and reliable but not so high-powered (like mine!), it’s still fine. You’ll just need to shut it off and scrape down the sides every so often to make sure it’s blending uniformly.

Add half of the filling mixture into the pan with the crust. Cover and chill (or, better, freeze) while you make the strawberry filling.

Add the strawberries into the remainder of the mixture, then blend until smooth. Add this to the chilled cake pan, cover, and chill again (or freeze) for a few hours before serving, and up to two days. Top with fresh strawberries just before serving.

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