I didn’t know Imitation Strawberry Extract was in season.
That was Bryan’s response to the McCormick bottle sitting on our kitchen counter.
It’s always in season.
Admittedly, it was an odd sighting in our apartment. It was even an odd sighting on the pages of a Saveur. Most contemporary recipes don’t call for imitation anything—it just isn’t cool anymore. But not so long ago, it was very cool. So modern! I am sure we consume more flavorings and colorings now, we just don’t like to talk about it. At least not those of us that read magazines like Saveur. I don’t have any major philosophical issues with a teaspoon of artificial extract, so I decided to give this crazy strawberry cake a try.
When I walked into the dining room with carrying this beauty, I was greeted by a chorus of “whooooah”—and I don’t think they were entirely positive “whoa’s”. There was some level of concern. Cakes that look like this, often don’t taste very good. It looks artificial. But this one managed to defy its tawdry exterior and was actually quite delicious.
The recipe is from Bertha’s Kitchen, a soul food restaurant in South Carolina. Showstopping layer cakes are common in the South. They are often as sweet as they are beautiful. This cake features two fairly standard cake layers robed in a cream cheese frosting that is flavored with a hint of strawberry extract. The end result is a pleasantly nostalgic eating experience. Even the skeptics were won over by the flavor.
I’m not sure if I’ll be buying another bottle of imitation anything anytime soon, but I’m glad I did. And some of you might try to make a less-imitation version of this cake, but I doubt it will taste as good.
Strawberry Cake (adapted (just barely) from Saveur)
- 16 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, plus more for greasing pans
- 3 cups flour, plus more for pans
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 cup milk
- 1/2 cup seedless strawberry jam
- 3 tablespoons red food coloring (optional, also amounts will vary depending on the dye you use)
- 1 3/4 cups sugar
- 1 cup canola oil
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3 eggs
- 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
- 1 pound confectioners’ sugar, sifted
- 1 teaspoon strawberry extract
Heat oven to 350°. Grease and flour two 9″ round cake pans; set aside. Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl; set aside. Whisk together milk, jam, and 2 tablespoons food coloring in a small bowl; set aside. Beat together sugar, oil, vanilla, and eggs in a mixer on medium-high speed until pale and smooth, 2–3 minutes. In 3 additions, alternately add dry and wet ingredients to sugar mixture, beginning and ending with dry; mix until combined. Divide batter between prepared pans and smooth tops; bake until a toothpick inserted in the middle of cakes comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Let cool 15 minutes, unmold, then cool completely.
In a large bowl, beat butter and cream cheese on high speed of a mixer until smooth and fluffy, 1–2 minutes. Add remaining food coloring, confectioners’ sugar, and strawberry extract; beat until smooth. Place one cake upside down on a cake stand, and spread 13 frosting over top. Cover with second cake, top side up; frost top and sides of cakes with remaining frosting; refrigerate for 1 hour before serving. Serve at room temperature.
fernanda mendez says:
May 20th, 2011 at 7:49 am
May 20th, 2011 at 7:53 am
Wow. That first photo is crazy awesome. That day-glo shot brightened my morning.
May 20th, 2011 at 8:25 am
I actually love the color – I can get behind this! Nice work, it is always rewarding to go out on a limb!
May 20th, 2011 at 8:55 am
That would make a great birthday cake. I view my occasional use of “imitation” anything as “preservatives”. :-)
May 20th, 2011 at 9:27 am
Anything that pink has to be good! I wonder if there are other jams/extracts you could use, like cherry or raspberry. Or blueberry! Imagine a brilliant purple cake!
May 20th, 2011 at 9:35 am
What a knockout –I can almost taste the ripe berry goodness! Strawberry cake was a childhood favorite–thanks for a dose of sweet nostalgia.
May 20th, 2011 at 9:37 am
This is very exciting to me. Mostly because a) I love a good Southern layer cake and b) if you ever try to make a cake with REAL strawberries it often ends up a watery mess! As we say in the Bay Area, I am hella making this….
May 20th, 2011 at 9:53 am
I know a lot of people out there are anti-imitation anything, but come on. Sometimes you need a drop or two, just to change things up a bit :) This looks delicious!
May 20th, 2011 at 10:27 am
oh my gooooodness. your photos are so beautiful!!! I’m going to post my version this weekend and it’ll be a fun counterpoint to yours– b/c, well: I didn’t spring for the extract! crazy I know. ;)
May 20th, 2011 at 11:10 am
Wow, that is a knock-out pink! The eight-year-old girl in me is bowled over.
I’ve never heard of strawberry extract before. Is it something common that I’ve just overlooked at the grocery store?
Nancie McDermott says:
May 20th, 2011 at 11:24 am
So beautiful and clearly a treasure of a cake. Cannot wait to
Make it, but I ‘m on a southbound train till evening so wait I
must. Love me some food coloring — it has a place within the kitchen. Tandoori chicken , char siu pork , red velvet cake, pistachio ice cream. Thanks for the true treats of your posts .
May 20th, 2011 at 11:59 am
wow, that’s epic techno neon awesomeness! love.
May 20th, 2011 at 2:18 pm
I wouldn’t have been convinced to make this from Saveur’s photograph; you’re giving them a run for their money. Gorgeous pics….I think this just might be my birthday cake this year . . . was also thinking shredded coconut would give it a fun snowball appeal.
Meister @ The Nervous Cook says:
May 20th, 2011 at 2:32 pm
Oh gosh, when I saw that cake in the magazine I was wowed, too, but to see it re-created so beautifully makes my mouth water even more! It’s apparently ol’ Bertha knows what she’s doing—and so, apparently, do you.
May 20th, 2011 at 2:53 pm
Wow. I’m totally smitten by this. The colour!!! Love. Now to find some strawberry extract!
Caroline Shields says:
May 20th, 2011 at 3:38 pm
For this cake I don’t think I’d say, “Just a small piece.”
May 20th, 2011 at 4:13 pm
gorgeous, delicious & so pretty. I am in cake making mode today…making a buttermilk with raspberry cake for my f-inlaw’s 75th! have a good weekend. dayle
Susan W. says:
May 20th, 2011 at 4:15 pm
Making this tomorrow! Looks gorgeous!
heather @ chiknpastry says:
May 20th, 2011 at 4:52 pm
I heart. It’s sorta nice to see imitation stuff in the blogosphere every now and then; makes me remember my gramma, who probably used imitation-everything, since it was so cool back then :).
May 20th, 2011 at 4:54 pm
Whoa. That’s some color going on! I have no desire for strawberry extract, but I would grind up freeze-dried strawberries from Trader Joe’s to use – a la Week of Menus…
May 20th, 2011 at 6:56 pm
In the 21rst century, literally *anything* we can wish for is available on the internet, including the most amazing, alllll natural! flavor extracts from the amazing site below. Go crazy! (I don’t work for them but prob. should!)
PS: strawberry cake was my very favorite birthday cake while growing up!
May 20th, 2011 at 6:59 pm
You can also just juice strawberries ( or drain thawed frozen ones through a cheesecloth) for an excellent strawberry pink coloring…a little beet juice works Great as well.
May 20th, 2011 at 9:38 pm
In my family its tradition to make raspberry cake for everyone’s birthday. We don’t use raspberry extract though, we use raspberry jello mix along with some frozen raspberries. It’s delicious :)!
May 20th, 2011 at 10:08 pm
That is insanely beautiful. Yum yum.
May 21st, 2011 at 8:11 am
Ha! This is gorgeous! I am definitely going to buy some imitation strawberry extract and make this because I have a sick fondness for boxed strawberry cake topped with funfetti icing (I request it whenever my sister, who only makes boxed cakes and whose favorite cookbook is Sandra Lee’s semi-homemade one, offer to bake for me). I bet a few teaspoons of strawberry extract and some red food coloring are nothing compared to what’s in those boxes, so this recipe is actually a healthy step forward from my perspective.
May 21st, 2011 at 8:12 am
P.S. I bet this tastes better than the boxed kind too. Of course.
Kim Lennert says:
May 21st, 2011 at 9:50 am
Now if you could make a nail polish or lipstick that color…..looks terrific!
May 21st, 2011 at 11:10 am
Haha wow! That is some pink cake! You did what most of us in this farm-to-table age are too timid to do, use artificial ingredients. Everything in moderation right? Glad to hear it tasted as good as it looked : )
May 21st, 2011 at 11:55 am
This looks great, Tim! As a kid, my favorite kind of cake was the boxed strawberry variety, and my mom dutifully made it for me every year on my birthday even though she usually cringed at boxed cake mixes. I *must* try this recipe out! I know food coloring stresses some people out, but it’s such a fun color! Would be perfect for a barbecue or something outdoors. Ooh lala!
May 21st, 2011 at 12:58 pm
Glad to see that so many of you are nostalgic for cakes like this! And yes, this would be great for a bbq.
May 22nd, 2011 at 12:01 am
Whoa indeed. That’s pink :D I think a cake like this could be a major hit for my little girl though. I think I would get tons of applaus if I made this for her and her little friends. Because.. well.. you know… PINK! :)
May 22nd, 2011 at 2:50 am
Wow! This looks amazing! What a showstopper!
May 22nd, 2011 at 11:37 am
Oh my goodness! I kept bumping into that recipe on the Saveur site and I interpreted my desire to make it as some kind of baking-sensibility anomaly on my part. But there is something about it’s pink-ness that’s irresistible. Seeing your awesome results, I think I’ll finally try it out!
Neil Butterfield says:
May 22nd, 2011 at 11:19 pm
This looks really delicious. Love the pink cake!
Kartik @ Bakeology 101 says:
May 23rd, 2011 at 8:53 am
Wow, those cakes look great! I wonder how many strawberries it would take to get the same color if food coloring was not used – now that’s all natural!
Lisa (dinner party) says:
May 23rd, 2011 at 11:23 am
So glad you tried this. I love that color!
Dawn (KitchenTravels) says:
May 23rd, 2011 at 11:40 am
Tim, Tim, Tim. So you were taken in by the bright, shiny red, huh? Love ya, I must turn my back on my Southern roots and just say no to this one. If you want a strawberry cake throw-down, the recipe from the Sky High cake book is out of this world and guaranteed to give this one a run for its money in the taste department… sans artificial anything. xo
May 23rd, 2011 at 1:06 pm
Hey Dawn, I realize this isn’t for everyone. I love the Sky High recipe (I’ve even blogged about it) but it is a LOT of work. This is the cheap and fast alternative. ; )
May 23rd, 2011 at 4:33 pm
This is the craziest post of any blog I have ever seen on the internet, in the history of the internet. OMG.
emily @ http://scrambledpreservedfriedcured.wordpress.com/ says:
May 24th, 2011 at 11:22 am
Electric color! Good for ’80s theme party?!
May 24th, 2011 at 7:57 pm
I tasted Amelia’s version of this delightful cake and was blown away. So beautiful in it’s pinkness but also so nostalgic and sweet. Loved. Yours is gorgeous!
May 24th, 2011 at 8:31 pm
Love the brightness and the artificial flavor. It’s like sprinkles and M&Ms… sometimes crap is good.
May 26th, 2011 at 6:21 am
Round about my parts we’re just at the end of strawberry season and I spent quite a lot of time searching interesting ways of using strawberries in a dessert, other than atop a tart. While this cake does look rather garish it does look amazing too.
I’m wondering if it could work using a comnination of fresh pureed strawberries and vanilla extract in place of the strawberry extract?
May 26th, 2011 at 8:35 am
Hi Val- Yes, of course. Feel free to experiment. My friend Amelia made a version with fresh strawberries in the frosting: http://www.bonappetempt.com/2011/05/strawberry-cake-big-fat-thank-you.html
Also, you might want to check out this cake: https://www.lottieanddoof.com/2008/12/baby-cakes/
It remains my favorite strawberry cake, but is a lot more work. Totally worth the efforts!
May 28th, 2011 at 9:48 pm
I made mine today.. Love love love this frosting imitation strawberry and all..in fact I made enough extra to frost a few dozen vanilla bean cupcakes..this being said my cake tended to be a little more heavy/more dense than I would have liked. I was hoping for a fluffier texture I think I got carried away on the strawberry jam as I do that sometimes never really using measuring cups or spoons.. nevertheless it was a good cake and provided the finishing touch to the BBQ. Not what to do with the remaining strawberry extract…
June 1st, 2011 at 3:45 pm
I’ve got to try this. The strawberry crumble cake you posted last year (or the year before) is in my top 2 cakes category, the other one being an ice cream cake that has religious deity status among my family and friends. Suffice to say, I trust you, imitation strawberry and all.
June 4th, 2011 at 7:58 pm
Saveur doesn’t actually call for imitation strawberry extract – just strawberry extract – and you can buy pure strawberry extract. Imitation stuff scares me; imitation vanilla is made from wood pulp – yuck. I don’t subscribe to Saveur, did it reference imitation somewhere besides the recipe?
Curious about the red food coloring. The recipe says it’s optional, did you use it? I’m assuming you did, based on the vibrancy of the cake.
June 4th, 2011 at 10:01 pm
Hi Cara- I guess the recipe doesn’t specify imitation extract, but I’d be willing to bet that is what Bertha’s is using (and what Saveur used). Pure strawberry extract is difficult to find, and in my experience tastes worse than the imitation stuff. But obviously, you can and should do whatever you are comfortable with. As I said, I feel fine using the imitation stuff.
June 5th, 2011 at 2:20 pm
I am totally digging it. I think I may make it for my families annual bake-off on the 4th of july. :)
July 2nd, 2011 at 1:59 am
i made this and while it was delicious, 40 minutes was far too long. it was partially burned (yet oddly still super tasty) by 35. also i did not have strawberry extract, nor could i locate it anywhere, so we used creme de cassis for the icing and it made this lovely lavender colour. yay, how fun!
Kelly Jo says:
July 11th, 2011 at 8:55 am
I made this for my most recent True Blood watching party and it was a big hit. I also found that 40 minutes was too long. It was still moist and tasty but developed a very hard crust around the edges. I found strawberry extract at my local Meijer store without trouble.
One, 1 oz bottle of food coloring was enough for my cake. I used about two tablespoons worth in the cake itself and the remainder of the bottle I tossed in the frosting.
October 18th, 2011 at 11:14 pm
This looks delicious! I would like to make this but I don’t have any imitation strawberry extract. With just the jam, is that enough strawberry flavor? My boyfriend loves strawberries so I would like to make this for his birthday. Is this a pink cream cheese frosting on the cake?
October 25th, 2013 at 8:39 am
i cant eat strawberry jam, do you think you could give that a miss??
October 25th, 2013 at 8:52 am
You probably can, but the cake won’t taste like strawberries. It will also be less sweet. Maybe not the best cake for you?
January 12th, 2014 at 7:51 pm
I’ve made this several times, and it’s been a huge hit every time!
January 14th, 2015 at 9:06 am
Omg! It is soooo good! I made it yesterday! The color is so great!!! Love it,
April 25th, 2017 at 5:51 pm
Looks beautiful! Do you remember what brand of food coloring you used? I am going to make this next week and want the color to be intense like yours!
May 17th, 2017 at 2:09 pm
Jayne! So sorry for the delay. I know you made the cake already, so I am useless. But I used McCormick red.