Ollie Walleck’s Strawberry Cassata Cake

updated Aug 21, 2023
Pride Bakeshop
Strawberry Cassata Cake

This pretty cake features layers of lemon-scented cake, vanilla custard, and gin, fresh herb, and cardamom-macerated strawberries.

Serves8 to 10

Makes1 (3-layer) 9-inch cake

Prep1 hour

Cook30 minutes to 35 minutes

Jump to Recipe
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strawberry cake slices on table next to glasses
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: CC Buckley; Prop Styling: Stephanie De Luca

This recipe is part of our Pride Bakeshop package, featuring five of our favorite queer bakers and the celebratory dessert that’s bringing them joy right now. Check out all the amazing treats here.

I grew up on the west side of Cleveland, where strawberry cassata cake is a mainstay during the summer months. The cake, a moistened sponge cake layered with ricotta and candied fruit, has Arabic and Sicilian origins.

My mom and stepdad had it as their wedding cake, and so did my wonderful sister and her husband. My sister’s cake was made by Scott Totten (of Great Scott’s Bakery in Brunswick, Ohio), and this recipe was inspired by the memory of his effortlessly airy vanilla cake layered with velvety custard and perfectly ripe strawberries.

The Best Way To Describe Strawberry Cassata Cake

When I think about this beloved cake in the context of celebrating Pride and sexuality/gender identity, three words come to mind: being, longing, and belonging.

Being: Each component of this cake stands on its own, but it’s better eaten all together. Our identities are also made up of many components, but seeing them together is what makes us whole.

Longing: The word “craving” usually only refers to decadent foods and fulfilling loves. In this cake, the natural sweetness of the strawberries isn’t cloying because the berries are macerated in gin and tossed with Thai basil and mint, which leaves you yearning for more. 

Belonging: This cake, which was served at family weddings — and hopefully mine someday— is about the joy and relief of being exactly where you should be. Love in its purest forms should never be undervalued and, to quote my mom, “There is always something to celebrate.”

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: CC Buckley; Prop Styling: Stephanie De Luca

Strawberry Cassata Cake

This pretty cake features layers of lemon-scented cake, vanilla custard, and gin, fresh herb, and cardamom-macerated strawberries.

Prep time 1 hour

Cook time 30 minutes to 35 minutes

Makes 1 (3-layer) 9-inch cake

Serves 8 to 10

Ingredients

For the custard:

  • 2 cups

    whole milk

  • 2/3 cup

    granulated sugar, divided

  • 6

    large egg yolks

  • 3/4 teaspoon

    cornstarch

  • 1 tablespoon

    cold unsalted butter

  • 1 tablespoon

    vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract

  • 1 teaspoon

    kosher salt

For the cake:

  • 2

    large egg whites

  • 3

    large eggs

  • 3 sticks

    (1 1/2 cups) unsalted butter

  • 1 1/2 cups

    buttermilk

  • Cooking spray

  • 3 2/3 cups

    cake flour

  • 2 teaspoons

    baking powder

  • 1 teaspoon

    kosher salt

  • 3/4 teaspoon

    baking soda

  • 1 1/2 cups

    granulated sugar, divided

  • 1 tablespoon

    vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract

  • 2 teaspoons

    finely grated lemon zest

For the strawberries and whipped cream:

  • 1 pound

    fresh strawberries

  • 1/4 cup

    granulated sugar

  • 1

    small handful fresh Thai basil sprigs

  • 1

    small handful fresh mint sprigs

  • 1 tablespoon

    freshly squeezed lemon juice

  • 2 teaspoons

    dry gin

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    ground cardamom

  • 1 cup

    cold heavy cream

Instructions

Make the custard:

  1. Place 2 cups whole milk and 1/3 cup of the granulated sugar in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Meanwhile, place the remaining 1/3 cup granulated sugar and 6 large egg yolks in a medium bowl and whisk until pale in color and fluffy.

  2. When the milk just comes to a boil, reduce the heat to maintain a very low simmer. Sprinkle in 3/4 teaspoon cornstarch into the egg mixture and whisk vigorously until smooth and no lumps remain.

  3. Transfer 1/2 cup of the milk into the egg mixture and whisk until incorporated. Pour the remaining milk into the eggs and whisk to combine. Pour everything through a fine-mesh strainer back into the saucepan. Discard the contents of the strainer.

  4. Increase the heat to medium, whisking constantly. When the mixture becomes too thick to whisk, switch to a heatproof spatula and continue to cook, stirring constantly and scraping down the sides of the saucepan as needed, until the mixture simmers, thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon, and reaches 185ºF, 4 to 6 minutes.

  5. Remove the pan from the heat. Add 1 tablespoon unsalted butter and stir until melted and combined. Add 1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste and 1 teaspoon kosher salt and stir to combine.

  6. Transfer to a medium bowl. Press a sheet of plastic wrap directly onto the custard to prevent a skin from forming. Let cool 10 minutes at room temperature, then refrigerate until completely chilled, at least 2 hours or up to overnight. Meanwhile, make the cake.

Make the cake:

  1. Place 2 large egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl if using an electric hand mixer). Place 3 large eggs, 3 sticks unsalted butter, and 1 1/2 cups buttermilk on the counter and let sit at room temperature until the butter is softened.

  2. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 350ºF. Line 3 (9-inch) round cake pans with parchment paper rounds, then coat with cooking spray. If you don’t have 3 pans, plan to bake the cakes in rounds instead.

  3. Place 3 2/3 cups cake flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and 3/4 teaspoon baking soda in a large bowl and whisk to combine.

  4. Add 1/4 cup of the granulated sugar to the egg whites and beat with the whisk attachment on medium speed until stiff peaks form, about 2 minutes. Transfer the beaten egg whites to a medium bowl. Wash and dry the stand mixer bowl.

  5. Add the softened butter and remaining 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar to the stand mixer. Beat with the paddle attachment on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, stopping and scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed, 3 to 5 minutes. Beat in the 3 large eggs one at a time, waiting until each egg is incorporated before adding the next.

  6. Add 1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste and 2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest and beat until just combined. Add the flour mixture and beat on low speed until just barely combined. With the mixer on low speed, pour in the buttermilk and mix until just combined, about 15 seconds. Turn off the mixer. Fold in the beaten egg whites by hand with a rubber spatula in four additions.

  7. Divide the batter into the cake pans, about 2 1/3 cups per pan. Bake until a toothpick or tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 23 to 26 minutes. Let cool at least 30 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the strawberries.

Macerate the strawberries:

  1. Trim 1 pound strawberries. Thinly slice 3 for garnish and refrigerate. Quarter the remaining strawberries and place in a large bowl. Pick and set aside any blossoms from 1 small handful Thai basil sprigs for garnish. Pick the leaves and finely chop until you have 1 tablespoon. Pick the leaves from 1 small handful fresh mint sprigs, then finely chop until you have 1 tablespoon. Add the chopped basil and mint to the bowl.

  2. Add 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 2 teaspoons dry gin, and 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom, and stir to combine. Let sit at least 20 minutes at room temperature or refrigerate overnight.

Build and frost the cake:

  1. Remove the cakes from the pans and discard the parchment. Using a serrated knife, trim the domed tops from the cakes so that they are level.

  2. Place 1 cup cold heavy cream in a large bowl and beat with a whisk until stiff peaks form, about 2 minutes. Add half of the custard to the whipped cream and gently fold to combine.

  3. Place one cake layer on a serving platter or cake plate. Spread half of the remaining custard onto the cake. Spoon 1/2 of the strawberries onto the custard in an even layer. Stack the second cake layer on the strawberries, then repeat spreading on the remaining custard and adding the remaining strawberries. Top with the third cake layer.

  4. Frost top and sides of the cake with the whipped cream-custard mixture. Decorate with the thinly sliced strawberries and reserved Thai basil blossoms.

Recipe Notes

Storage: Leftover cake can be loosely covered and refrigerated up to 2 days.