Today's recipe is for a classic Japanese celebration cake that is enjoyed all year round, especially on Christmas. Fluffy, melt in the mouth sponge cake with layers of fresh whipped cream and packed with delicious strawberries, there's nothing not to like about this Japanese Strawberry Shortcake!
Where did it come from?
It is said that the first strawberry shortcake recipe was found in an English cook book from 1588. Shortcake in the UK usually refers to more of a biscuit (cookie) a little similar to shortbread. But the base of a strawberry shortcake as we know it, is made of a light Italian sponge cake called "genoise".
Genoise sponge is light and fluffy, but also rich and moist. What sets it aside from a regular sponge cake is the use of butter to make it richer and more flavourful. It also uses eggs as the only rising agent, no need for baking soda or baking powder in this recipe.
Christmas Cake in Japan
Although Strawberry Shortcake or "Ichigo Shōtokēki" (苺ショートケーキ) is enjoyed during birthdays and other celebrations in Japan, its true time to shine is at Christmas. It might be very different to the raisin filled cakes you find in Europe, but the snowy white whipped cream and bright red strawberries really scream Christmas. It's a beautiful, elegant and festive dessert for sure.
Christmas in Japan
Christmas in Japan is very different to anywhere else. Firstly, it's considered a holiday for kids (presents!) and couples. It doesn't carry any religious meaning here, rather, Christmas is a time to spread happiness. We also usually celebrate on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day itself. And the most Christmassy food to us is Kentucky Fried Chicken and Strawberry Shortcake!
Traditionally, Japanese homes don't have ovens (although, it's changing in recent years) and so many people don't make strawberry shortcake from scratch. In fact, if you visit a Japanese supermarket near Christmas time, you will find lots of plain sponge cake bases and decorations for if you want to assemble your own Christmas cake. Of course you can just buy them too, but where's the fun in that?
Making the Sponge
The sponge is probably the most important part of strawberry shortcake.
I can't lie, making the perfect sponge cake can take quite a few attempts because ovens vary and you might need to change the heat or baking times. But I have lots of advice for you and if you follow this recipe as closely as possible, I promise you, you'll have a melt in the mouth, fluffy sponge that will surely impress your friends and family.
So first, I recommend a few pieces of kitchen equipment for this recipe.
- Electric whisk or mixer- sure it's possible to make it without, but you run the risk of not getting enough air into your mixture and it takes a lot longer too. (If you want to try making it by hand, try buying a balloon whisk. It's especially for getting air into meringues and cakes by hand.)
- Cake tin with a removable base - this will make it easier to remove your cake from the mould without damaging it.
- Silicone spatula - for gentle mixing.
- Icing spatula - in a pinch you can use a knife but it's harder to make it neat.
- Piping bag with star nozzle
I have made this recipe tonnes of times and here are the techniques that have worked for me!
I like to have my ingredients all measured out and ready. Egg whites in a bowl, with the lemon juice, sugar and yolks in arms reach. Make sure your bowl and whisk are clean and properly dry. If you just washed it, dry it thoroughly with a paper towel. Drops of water can affect your meringue.
Room temperature eggs
Eggs at room temperature tend to fluff up nicer than cold ones. That being said, it's easier to separate the eggs when they are cold. I usually break the eggs whites and egg yolks into two separate bowls, cover them in cling film or a damp dish towel and let them reach room temperature.
Adding lemon to the egg whites
Many people use cream of tartar to stabilize egg whites but its personally not something I keep in my cupboard. I tried both and didn't see a significant difference in the looks, but the one with lemon juice tasted better.
Soft peaks or stiff peaks?
This recipe requires you to make meringue with the egg whites. My first tip is to whisk the egg whites with the lemon juice until they have doubled in size, then add the sugar in one third at a time. I personally whisk the egg whites until they are firm peaks. This means when you take the whisk out, the peak of the meringue should point up straight rather than folding over.
How to add the yolks
I've seen lots of sponge cake recipes with different methods, but I personally find adding the yolks one by one to the meringue after it has reached stiff peaks works best. Continue mixing with the electric mixer until the egg yolks are incorporated.
First, make sure you're using a weak flour, preferably cake flour.
I like to sift the flour twice, then once more when adding it to the cake batter. This makes the flour light and airy.
When adding the flour to the batter, I add it in thirds and mix gently with a spatula in-between. This helps keep as much air in the cake batter as possible.
Adding the butter
I usually melt my butter in the microwave first (40 seconds 600W) and then leave it in a warm place like on top of the preheating oven. When I'm ready to mix it in, I add 1 tbsp of milk a spoonful of the cake batter and whisk it with the butter. This will make it easier to incorporate with the rest of the cake batter, protecting those precious air bubbles.
Before putting the sponge cake in the oven, I drop it on the counter top from about 10cm high twice. This sends the air to the surface and helps prevent sinking cakes. Then when you take it out of the oven after it's baked, drop it once from about 20cm to shock it and stop it from shrinking.
Flip it onto a wire rack and take it out of the tin straight away. Cool it upside down and don't peel off the baking paper until its cooled down. All these techniques are to prevent shrinking and sinking.
All ovens are different and sponge cake recipes tend to recommend between 160°C and 180°C (320°F - 356°F). It might take a few tries to get the temperature perfect as all ovens run at slightly different temperatures. I used a tall 15cm (6 inch) cake tin so I cook mine at 180°C for 23 minutes. I made a handy guide for different cake tin sizes! This is based on cooking at 180°C in an electric fan oven. (If you're cooking a bigger cake you might want to try decreasing the temperature if you find it browns too quickly)
Why is my sponge dense?
This is often to do with the meringue. If you don't whisk it enough then there won't be enough air to make it rise. That said, the same goes if you mix it too much. If you whisk too much after it gets firm peaks, you will start losing air too.
It could also be mixing the batter too much after adding the flour and butter. Stop using a whisk and switch to a silicone spatula after you've added the egg yolks.
Why did it shrink/sink?
Shrinkage can happen if your oven temperature is too high or cooked for too long. If you see the cake shrinking in the oven and its already golden brown, take it out.
It can also be because it's undercooked. Do not be tempted to open the oven while it's cooking. If you want to check it, at least don't open the oven until it's golden on top and pierce with a toothpick when you take it out, if it comes out clean then it's cooked.
Also, don't forget to drop the cake tin on a hard surface before and after putting it in the oven! The first time moves the air bubbles to the top and the drop after baking shocks the cake. It shouldn't shrink too much after that.
The top is cracked
The surface being cracked usually means that the temperature is too high so the top cooked too quickly and then ripped when the middle expanded. I cook my sponge at 180°C (356°F) but if it doesn't work for you, try lowering the temperature.
The top is too round
I cool the cake upside down to flatten it out. And you can cut it off too or use the bottom as the top when adding the whipped cream. You can also use this cut off to test the taste and fluffiness of your cake before decorating.
I hope this post helps you make the perfect sponge cake! If you have anymore questions, comment below and I'll do my best to help you!