For Love of Lychees
When I visited Amai Tea House in New York, one of their treats I sampled besides their tea cookies was a moist lychee brownie. The brownie was pleasantly thick and fudgy, but it didn't have quite enough lychee flavor for my taste - I am quite fond of the fruit, so perhaps I hoping for a bit more punch.
I carried the thought back with me to San Francisco, and last week when I picked up some of the season's first strawberries, it all came together - a light lychee butter cake with strawberries and rose cream.
Lychees are surely a fruit for the sweet-toothed - with their honeyed, floral flavor and ambrosial fragrance, they are nature's bonbons, albeit in a prickly-than-usual package. Lychees aren't quite in season yet; they are found in abundance during the summer months at Asian markets, and a frosty lychee tapioca drink is one of my favorite thirst quenchers on a hot day. However, canned lychees can be found year round; they're usually packed in sweet syrup, much like many canned peaches, which can render them even more shockingly sweet. In this cake though, I found the syrup can be used advantageously to boost the lychee flavor.
The cake is a sunshiny cloud of happiness - I was aiming for a looser, fluffier texture rather than a tight, pound cake-like crumb. Gorgeously golden, it promises rich buttery flavor and delivers, along with a dose of fruitiness from the bits of lychees sprinkled throughout and laced into the cake batter. The lightness and delicacy of the cake helps showcase the lychees instead of competing against it like a heavier, more intense cake might. I also found that using the syrup from the canned lychees really helps boost the flavor - as well as making the cake irresistibly fragrant! If you're a little uncertain as to how sweet you want your cake, you can always decrease how much syrup you add in. Also, dry off the lychees before you add them to the batter - that will also get rid of more syrup and prevent them from sinking to the bottom of the cake.
In pondering what to serve the cake with, I first thought of some obvious tropical companions like coconut or macadamias, but I really wanted to use those strawberries - they were too tempting to ignore. So really, this dessert ended up being a minor riff on the Ispahan - raspberries would be wonderful with the cake too, as their tartness would match well with the sweetness of the lychees - but I think the strawberries, draped with a spring-pink rose-scented cream, fit the bill just fine.
The strawberries are adapted from Alice Medrich's Pure Dessert, but I added some rose syrup to the whipped cream to intensify the flavor and give it color. If you can't find it, rosewater will work just as well, but if you do get your hands on some rose syrup, it's a fun ingredient to work with; it's jewel-pink color never fails to bring a smile to my face.
It's awfully windy and blustery out here in San Francisco, but the bright skies and lengthening days tell me that spring is definitely here. And when strawberries start showing up at the market, who am I to disagree?
Lychee Butter Cake
1- 14 oz can lychees (about 1 cup lychees, reserve the liquid)
2 cups (240g) flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (160g) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup (160 g) sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8x8 baking pan.
Drain the lychees and cut into small pieces; set aside.
Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into a bowl and set aside.
In a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar together on medium speed for several minutes until light and fluffy.
Add the eggs, one at a time, and then the vanilla. Mix to combine.
Add in about 4 -6 tablespoons of the reserved lychee liquid slowly. Mix between additions to fully incorporate before adding more.
Toss the lychee pieces in the flour mixture to coat (this will help keep them from sinking to the bottom of the batter).
Add flour and lychee mixture to the batter and mix to combine.
Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake for 30-45 minutes, until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on wire rack before serving.
Strawberries with Rose Cream
adapted from Alice Medrich's Pure Dessert
makes about 6 to 8 servings
3 pints ripe strawberries
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon rose water
2 teaspoons rose syrup
Wash the strawberries. Hull and cut them if desired.
In a stand mixer, whip the cream, rose water, and rose syrup into soft peaks. Do not overwhip.
Serve over strawberries.