April 10, 2011

Cornmeal Berry Buckle

I mentioned last week that I teach at a French bilingual school. Once a month, we have a full faculty meeting, and to keep the masses happy, there is usually a snack of some kind. Sometimes it's some nuts and chocolates and dried fruits from the grocery store across the street from the school. And sometimes one of the teachers or staff members prepares something. This month, I decided to prepare something, since I think everyone is happier at the meeting if they have something good to eat, and I like it when good food makes people happy.

When I came home and announced, "I'm baking snacks for 70 people for the faculty meeting next week," I think what Michael heard is "I'm going to make a huge mess in the kitchen and only half clean it up." Despite that, he gamely agreed to help me out by first deciding what to make, then making a little test, then finally preparing the real thing.

So the first question was what to make. It's a tricky audience because it's made up of just over half French people; the rest are American. French people certainly care a lot about food, but they can be very particular in their tastes. For example, these are things French people don't like (or claim they don't like): fried chicken, cinnamon, spicy things, and frosting. I say claim because I'm pretty sure that at least in the case of fried chicken, they secretly love it but feel that they must dislike it on principle and as a matter of national pride.

(By the way, since this post is just words on the internet and you can't hear the tone of my voice or see my face, I have to ask - are you picking up on my tone here? It's affectionate and semi-serious).

The first berries of the season have started showing up in the market, so we wanted to do something fresh and springy with them. Last year, at Smitten Kitchen and at a wonderful local bakeshop called Sweet Adeline, we discovered the greatness of the buckle, which is basically a cake with fruit baked in (sort of a giant muffin that you eat by the slice). You may have noticed that we're into polenta and cornmeal, and we thought that the sweetness and crunch would be welcome additions here. We also like the texture that yogurt gives to a cake, and found the great idea of a topping made from lemon zest and sugar over at America's Test Kitchen. We set about combining all these ideas into a single, French-friendly cake, which is only mildly sweet, tender with a bit of crunch, very fruity, and would be good for breakfast as well as dessert.

Interestingly, our test cake, which we made as half this recipe in a 7 inch pan, came out a bit differently than the final result. The test cake didn't buckle up as much around the fruit, so the pretty pattern we made was still visible. The larger cakes buckled and though it swallowed up our artistic work, the result was a better texture on top. When we made the final set of cakes, we did 6, so we worked in two batches with two nonstick cake pans and one springform pan. The springform let us down - it took much longer to finish and in the end was not fully baked on the bottom and in the middle. We'd recommend using an insulated pan for this recipe. Oh, and in the test we put lemon zest in the cake as well as in the topping, which I liked and Michael didn't - it depends how into lemon you are. 

Cornmeal Berry Buckle (makes one 9 inch cake - about 12 servings)

For cake
- About 1 and 1/2 cups of mixed berries (we used straw, blue, and rasp)
- 1 and 1/3 cups flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2/3 cup cornmeal
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1 cup yogurt
- 4 tbsp butter, melted
- 2 eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla
- Juice of one and one half lemons

For topping
- 1/3 cup sugar
- Zest of 1 lemon

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter and flour a nine inch cake pan.

Prepare your fruit: if you are using strawberries, slice them. Rinse all the fruit and put it into a bowl with the juice of half of a lemon and a light sprinkling of sugar (especially if you are using early season fruit, as the lemon juice and sugar will help bring out the flavor - if you have really great summer fruit you might skip this step).

In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, cornmeal, salt, and sugar, and mix well.

In a medium bowl, combine the yogurt and butter, then add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla and lemon juice.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ones and stir until just combined. Add half of the fruit and fold into the mixture, then pour the batter into the prepared baking pan. Press the remaining fruit into the top of the cake.

To prepare the topping, use your fingers to combine the sugar and lemon zest in a small bowl. Squeeze them together until the mixture becomes crumbly. Pour it on top of the cake, then put it in the oven and bake for 45 minutes or until a tester comes out clean (be aware that the moisture of the fruit might make it a little difficult to tell; if the tester is pretty clean and the edges and top of the cake are golden brown it's probably ready).

Serve topped with crème fraiche or whipped cream.


  1. Yum! That's so cool that you teach at a French Bilingual school. French has been such a tough language for me in college with no one to practice with (Spanish, So-cal). I hope everyone loved it!

  2. Kelsey, I took French in college too, and never imagined that I would end up using it every day. I hope you get a chance to practice! Oh and yes, the cake was a success!

  3. French is so hard to learn, but it's a beautiful language. We actually have a French bilingual school near my residence - all I can say is that I'm super jealous I didn't get an opportunity like that.

    The cake looks great and the berries look uber fresh!