For me, picnics historically meant the biannual, church-wide events that took place in a suburban subway park in my hometown. The entire congregation of my Korean church, young and old, camped on the grass and spent the day socializing and enjoying the great outdoors. Instead of cheese, sausages or sandwiches there was a (mostly) Korean feast: rice, bulgogi, kimchi, fish donuts and the like, with the occasional chicken tenders as an addition.
These sumptuous al fresco meals served juicy slices of watermelon as dessert – traditional sweets were never very common at gatherings in all churches. While the fruit has always been a welcome (and thirst-quenching) finish, memories of it recently got me thinking: what would a picnic cake look like if it existed? While a picnic-specific cake didn’t evoke immediate associations, it nonetheless implied a treat that was easy to transport and eat, and not laden with rich, meltable frosting. That gave me an idea where to start: corn bread. Although it is usually eaten with savory foods, its potential as a centerpiece dessert seemed promising: it has a unique crumb, a touch of sweetness, good travel properties, and a strong summer vibe, among other things.
If cornbread got a glow, I’m convinced this blueberry-balsamic-glazed cornbread cake would be the result. I used honey to enhance the sweetness of the cake and sour cream for a soft but not too moist texture, and combined yellow cornmeal with all-purpose flour to reflect the signature bite of cornbread. Although I originally tried to incorporate whole blueberries into the cake, they just went down, whether I dusted them with flour before baking or sprinkled over them halfway through bakingwomp womp). At some point a light bulb came on: Why use whole berries when you could just mash them into a glaze? This allowed me to keep blueberries as a (visible) part of the cake while avoiding problems with sinking fruits. Although the purple icing doesn’t add much flavor intensity, it does add a playful dash of color to the cake.
While I’ve always thought of corn bread as a (very desirable) side dish for dinner, this cake convinced me that it is probably even better in dessert form. Like its inspiration, it’s casual and familiar. But don’t let its simplicity fool you. Cut into squares, it’s hard to stop eating – it’s sweet and savory, but not pushy or heavy, and has a soft but textured texture. It’s also stable and easy to transport: you won’t struggle with shifting layers and melting frosting. In other words, this is a picnic cake that embodies the essence of summer and proves that dessert is sometimes just a few delicious tweaks away.
Corn bread cake with blueberry balsamic glaze
Makes an 8 by 8 inch cake
For the cake:
¾ cup (105 grams) of all-purpose flour
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons (55 grams) of yellow corn flour
1 teaspoon of baking powder
¼ teaspoon of baking powder
½ teaspoon of kosher salt
1 stick (113 grams) unsalted butter, soft
¾ cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
2 teaspoons of honey
2 large eggs, room temperature
½ teaspoon of pure vanilla extract
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons of whole milk, at room temperature
⅓ cup (80 grams) of full-fat sour cream, at room temperature
For the glaze:
¼ cup of fresh blueberries
¼ teaspoon of balsamic vinegar
1 cup (120 grams) of powdered sugar (spooned into the measuring cup and leveled), plus more as needed
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease an 8 by 8 inch square cake pan with nonstick cooking spray. Line the bottom with parchment pro, leave a 5 cm protrusion on the sides (to make it easier to remove the cake after baking) and grease the parchment.
Step 2: In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Put aside.
Step 3: In a large bowl, stir the butter with an electric hand mixer or a food processor with a mixer attachment until smooth. Add sugar and honey and cream the mixture for 2 to 3 minutes until it is light and fluffy. Scrub the bowl with a rubber spatula.
Step 4: Stir in the eggs one by one, scrape out the bowl after each addition, then stir in the vanilla.
Step 5: Add half of the dry ingredients to the egg mixture and beat until everything has combined. Carefully stir in the milk and sour cream, then stir in the remaining dry ingredients until the batter is smooth.
Step 6: Pour the dough into the prepared form and smooth the surface with a small offset spatula. Bake the cake for 30 to 35 minutes, turning the pan halfway until it is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Step 7: Let the cake cool for 15 minutes, then gently rub a small offset spatula around the edges to loosen it. Use the parchment loop to place the cake on a cooling shelf.
Step 8: To make the icing: In a medium bowl, mash the blueberries thoroughly with the back of a large spoon. Let the berries sit for a minute to allow the juice to accumulate. Add balsamic vinegar, powdered sugar and a few pinches of salt to the bowl and stir until smooth; it will come together at some point. The consistency of the glaze should be pourable, but not too runny – add more powdered sugar, spoon by spoon, if necessary.
Step 9: Line your workspace with a parchment, wax, or plastic cloth, or line a baking sheet with a rim (any of these options will make it easier to clean later). When the cake is completely cool, place the cooling rack (with the cake on top) over the parchment or baking sheet. Pour the icing over the cake, spread it around the edges and let it run down the sides as you like. Let the icing set completely before cutting and serving.
Joy Cho is a Brooklyn pastry chef and freelance writer. After Joy lost her job as a pastry chef at the start of the pandemic, she started Joy Cho pastries, an Instagram store that sells her gem cakes to the New York City area.
Celeste night is a Filipino-American food, travel, and portrait photographer based in Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco.
Recipe tested by Deena Prichep