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When I imagined writing this post after reading Elissa’s recent blog entry, I didn’t think for a second that I would be opening it up to people I know. I’d made such a conscious effort to remove every single trace of Plumful from anywhere where I could conceivably be discovered by my friends and family that it hasn’t taken a direction I expected. Despite the coveted spots on Tastespotting and the hard work I’ve put into this, it’s not what I wanted, and I think this has shown in my somewhat erratic posting schedule and dark words.

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Depression is not something that I had planned for this year. By rights, I should have finished my first year of university by now. I certainly put the effort in, but something went wrong along the way. When I reached the point that talking to friends was painful, when hearing my favourite music made me want to throw the radio at the wall, when I could no longer explain why I was doing this degree, why I was crying, why I couldn’t bear to leave the house, all the fight left me. I knew that I was ill, but I wasn’t willing to give in to it, and I couldn’t comprehend how other people could be happy and successful and have left me languishing behind.

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Now I’m just feeling some kind of grief, numbness and detachment, which at the moment is better than the desperation, loneliness and intimidation of a few months ago, when thinking about study sent me into a wild panic. Everything that I expected to happen, now won’t, and I feel like I’m emulating a version of Caitlin, because I’m not really sure who Caitlin is at the moment, without this future I had planned. So, this is my clumsy way of saying that, in being entirely open about this blog, and by being able to share it with the people that I care about, I’m hoping that it will improve, and that I’ll be able to piece together what happens now. So, hi! I’m sorry. I missed you.

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But maybe you just came here for cake? I’ve been wanting to try out some permutation of the strawberry and balsamic vinegar combination for some time, after discovering it nestled in the pages of a Nigel Slater book. However, the time for luscious, sweet British strawberries is only just beginning, so when mid June hit, and an excuse for a birthday cake appeared, I finally got to test it – and it is not at all how I expected. The two flavours are not, as I had thought, distinct. They muddle together and balance each other out, the fresh sweetness and the tart earthiness, and make this impossibly unsophisticated cake a little more complicated beneath it’s pretty pink veneer.

Strawberry + Balsamic Layer Cake | plumful

For the cake:
6oz softened unsalted butter
2oz low fat cream cheese
8oz golden caster sugar
4 large free range eggs
8oz self raising flour
50ml milk
2tsp good quality vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon good fine sea salt

Cream the butter, cream cheese and sugar with an electric beater for 5-7 minutes, or until soft, fluffy and very pale. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well but briefly after each addition. Sift half of the flour into the bowl, and fold in with a rubber spatula, before adding the milk, vanilla and salt and folding again. Mix in the remaining flour, being careful not to overfold, to avoid overworking the gluten in the flour and creating a tough cake. Split between three 20cm cake tins, greased and lined with parchment, before baking for 15 mins at 180 degrees Celsius. Allow to rest in the tins once cooked for ten minutes, before turning out and cooling on a wire rack.

For the strawberry Swiss buttercream:
3 egg whites (around 90g)
150g caster sugar
200g softened unsalted butter
5 large strawberries, blended into a purée
A few drops of natural red colouring
1tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp good fine sea salt

With a piece of kitchen paper and some lemon juice, wipe the inside of a metal bowl, a whisk, and the whisk attachments of an electric beater, to remove traces of grease from the utensils and prevent you meringue from deflating. Combine the egg whites and sugar in the bowl with the whisk, before placing over a pan of simmering water, and stirring gently until the sugar has dissolved and the egg whites are hot to the touch. Remove from the heat, and beat the mixture on the medium speed of an electric mixer for around fifteen minutes, or until the bottom of the bowl has reached room temperature. Cube the butter once measured, and on a slow speed, beat the butter into the meringue cube by cube. Once combined, add the salt, vanilla and strawberry purée, as well as the food colouring if required, beat until combined, and put to one side.

For the fresh strawberry and balsamic compote:
200g fresh strawberries
4 tbsp caster sugar
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
A pinch of salt and a crack of black pepper

Hull and halve the strawberries, and add to a heavy bottomed pan along with the rest of the ingredients. Cook on a medium heat until boiling, then reduce to a simmer for 10 minutes. Leave to cool in the pan until ready to fill the cake.

Assembly
Place the presentation plate on a turntable, and place the first layer of cake on top. Layer the three sponges with two layers of the strawberry compote, and refrigerate for ten minutes. Then, with a large offset spatula, apply a thin coating of buttercream to the top and sides of the cake (the crumb coat) and refrigerate for a further half an hour. Finally, heap the remaining icing on top of the cake, and coax down the sides with the spatula. Once finished, heat the spatula in boiling water, and smooth the icing to create a more precise finish. Decorate with a ring of pastel vermicelli sprinkles.

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