We recently celebrated belated birthdays of my sister-in-law and nephew in Long Island. I brought the components of Japanese Strawberry Shortcake (sponge cake, whipped cream, and fresh strawberries) and assembled it at their house.
This lovely cake reminds me of the ones I used to eat in Japan when I lived there as an exchange student. This was way back in the 80s when I was first introduced to European style bakeries. These little cute shops filled with beautiful French tarts, pastries, and cakes — many individually packaged and arranged like precious jewels in the display cases–were a far cry from the large American bakeries and doughnut shops I grew up with in my rural home town.
A few years later, I returned to work in the hinterlands of Japan (Iwate Prefecture) after I graduated from college, and because I was around 22 at the time, I was the “perfect” marrying age. I used to teach English on the side to adults in the city. The well meaning moms would hint at this and attempt to set me up, though marriage was nonexistent on my “to do” list at the time.
They would chide: “You don’t want to become ‘Christmas Cake!'” — the English equivalent of “old maid”. In Japan, a mainly Buddhist country, people celebrate December 25 by having Christmas Cake as a secular tradition. I loved having the strawberry shortcake — my favorite — with friends. On December 26, the unsold Christmas cakes are discounted or thrown out. So a woman at age 26 is metaphorically ‘stale cake’, that is, past her prime for marriage. The thinking has probably changed by now (I hope!) as more and more Japanese women have been delaying marriage.
Addendum: My friend, Elaine, whom I worked with back then in Japan and who still lives there, tells me that times have indeed changed: Now the phrase is “‘Oomisoka’ — ie, New Year’s Eve, ie age 31”.
At 22, I was happy to become “Christmas Cake” any day — especially when it was as delicious as my beloved Strawberry Shortcake!
This recipe comes from La Fuji Mama. The only change I made was to omit the gelatin for the whipped cream. For some reason it hardened before I could add it! It didn’t seem to matter though — the whipped cream held up well even though it had been transported in a cooler to Long Island, and the cake had been assembled hours before we ate it (and had been sitting in the refrigerator). I also added a dash of almond extract with the vanilla in the sponge cake. For some reason I didn’t have quite enough frosting to do the sides, so the next time I make this, I might make extra.
I have to say this will definitely be my go-to recipe for a plain sponge cake. The texture is perfect. You don’t have to be Japanese to enjoy this cake — it was gobbled up by everyone in record time! 🙂