Love and Olive Oil
Strawberry Crunch Sheet Cake with Buttermilk Frosting

Strawberry Crunch Sheet Cake with Buttermilk Frosting

This pretty in pink sheet cake tastes like pure nostalgia, with a moist and tender strawberry cake, tangy buttermilk frosting, and a generous sprinkle of crunchy strawberry shortcake crumbs that add the perfect sweet and salty finishing touch.

Inspired by an ice cream truck classic, this strawberry crunch sheet cake combines all the elements you love about the frozen treat in sheet cake form: a tender strawberry buttermilk cake topped with a cloud-like buttermilk frosting and a scratch-made strawberry crunch topping.

Strawberry Crunch Sheet Cake with Buttermilk Frosting cut into serving squares, on a piece of parchment with messy crumbs, cake server, and a bowl of more crumbs and frosting in the background.

There are few things more nostalgic than the ice cream truck, the tinkling sound of the melodic jingle that starts softly at first but gets louder as the anticipation grows. I strongly recall the breathless feeling of frantically running around the house scooping up the loose change from the couch cushions and bolting out the door before it passes you by.

The sound (and taste) of the ice cream truck is a particularly strong childhood memory for me, maybe because we grew up in an area that ice cream trucks did not frequent, so my only experiences with them were when we were visiting our grandparents in Los Angeles, making it an extra special experience.

The ice cream truck felt like a carnival on wheels, but for your tastebuds.

And of all the classic ice cream truck treats, the strawberry shortcake crunch bars are certainly one of the most memorable flavors, with a core of bold strawberry surrounded by creamy vanilla ice cream and an outer coating of crunchy strawberry shortcake crumbs. I’m usually a chocolate girl through and through, but something about that combo of creamy and crunchy, vanilla and fruit hit all the right notes.

This recipe is inspired by that nostalgic ice cream treat, with all the same flavors and textures, reimagined in a party-ready sheet cake.

Slice of Strawberry Crunch Sheet Cake with Buttermilk Frosting on a dessert plate, with a forkful of cake on the side showing the texture, full cake out of focus in the background.

Adding strawberry flavor to baked goods like cake and cookies is a notoriously difficult task, fresh fruit adversely affecting the texture far more than whatever mild fruit flavor it adds. Cooking down and reducing fresh strawberry puree can help remove some of that extra moisture, but it’s also time consuming and finicky and is still likely to give your cake a weird gummy texture (Strawberry gummy candies? Good. Gummy cake, not so much.) Even freeze dried strawberries, which are my go-to for adding strawberry flavor to frostings and fillings, can also affect the texture of baked goods.

Most strawberry cake recipes call for strawberry gelatin mix for this reason—it adds strawberry flavor (if the fake-tasting flavor could be called as such) without adversely affecting the texture.

But here’s the thing: there are already more than enough recipes for strawberry cakes using cake mixes and flavored gelatin powders, if that’s what you’re looking for. There are a number of reasons I’m not a fan of such a shortcut, for one it makes the cake not vegetarian-friendly which seems like a mean trick for those who may not be expecting it.

Instead, I wanted something more… more flavorful, more homemade, more delicious. Which meant figuring out a way to add bold, natural-tasting strawberry flavor to the cake while preserving the tender, fluffy texture and without using flavored gelatin.

Strawberry Crunch Sheet Cake with Buttermilk Frosting, two squares on dessert plates with forks, focus on a bottle of Amoretti Wild Strawberry Artisan flavoring.

Enter: Amoretti Natural Wild Strawberry Artisan Flavor, which turned out to be the perfect way to add a lovely strawberry flavor to the cake without adversely affecting the texture. It has a bright, candy-like strawberry flavor that tastes much more natural than other strawberry flavorings I’ve tried, which makes sense considering the Artisan flavors are made with real fruit. I’d describe the flavor almost like a strawberry milkshake (which, since we’re going for an ice-cream flavor-inspired cake, seemed like a perfect application for it.)

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It’s really the best of both worlds: no fake-tasting gelatin dessert mix, but also no dealing with prepping and pureeing and reducing fresh strawberries (and while I love strawberry season, the fact that you don’t need fresh fruit for this cake means it’s something that can be enjoyed all year round).

So if you want a made-from-scratch strawberry cake that is bursting with strawberry flavor, this recipe is for you.

Strawberry Crunch Sheet Cake with Buttermilk Frosting cut into serving squares, on a piece of parchment with messy crumbs, and a bowl of more crumbs and frosting in the background.

I wish I’d known about this product earlier, I would have used it in my popular Strawberry Cake Roll recipe to add some strawberry flavor to the cake itself (instead of just the filling). Because again, the texture of the cake is key so you can’t go messing with fresh fruit and expect the same results. If you want to try for yourself I’d recommend adding 1 teaspoon of Amoretti’s Natural Wild Strawberry Artisan Flavor to the cake batter along with the food coloring (which you may not need as much of or at all since the Amoretti flavoring includes some natural color already).

You could also use it in other recipes that call for strawberry extract like my Chocolate-stuffed Strawberry Sugar Cookies (use 1 teaspoon in place of the 1/4 teaspoon of extract called for in the recipe), or add it to recipes where you want an extra kick of strawberry flavor, like this Strawberry Banana Bread. But really it’d compliment and enhance the flavor in just about any strawberry recipe (no matter if it uses fresh, frozen, or freeze-dried strawberries.)

Strawberry Crunch Sheet Cake with Buttermilk Frosting, two cut squares on small dessert plates with forks, and a bowl of more crumbs and frosting in the background.
Cut piece of Strawberry Crunch Sheet Cake with Buttermilk Frosting on a pink dessert plate with a bite sitting on the fork on the side.

Here’s how to make it:

The cake base is a pretty standard yellow cake recipe (though can I still call it a yellow cake if it’s pink?) with well-creamed butter and sugar, eggs, and a bit of buttermilk for added moisture and tang.

My first test of this cake used cake flour, and while the cake itself wasn’t dry necessarily, it felt like you were eating a handful of cotton balls (and, sorry Buddy, but that’s just not very appealing).

My next attempt nixed the cake flour and upped the fat, resulting in a coarser, butterier cake not unlike my favorite sour cream coffee cake (though with buttermilk in place of the sour cream). And while I tried going even denser, with a sugar cookie-like base, ultimately I decided that the contrast in textures between the crunchy crumb topping and the soft, buttery cake was the perfect match.

Remember that when making cakes using the creaming method, temperature is key—ideally all your liquid ingredients, including butter, eggs, and buttermilk, should be at room temperature, around 68-72 degrees F.

If your butter or your eggs are too cold, they won’t form a proper emulsion and you’ll end up with a curdled looking batter (which, if it happens, will still bake up into an edible cake, it’ll just be somewhat denser, with a rougher texture and uneven crumb with lots of little air pockets).

Tip: To quickly bring eggs to room temperature, soak them in a bowl of warm water for 20 to 30 minutes, changing out the water once or twice if it gets too chilled.

The Frosting on the Cake

The frosting for this cake is a cloud-like buttermilk buttercream, with a sensuous, silky smooth texture and a balanced flavor and sweetness. The little bit of acid and tang from the buttermilk (just 1/4 cup worth) cuts the sweetness and makes for a beautifully balanced buttercream that’s not cloyingly sweet like American buttercreams can so often be.

As a personal preference I am not a fan of cream cheese buttercream, so this buttermilk frosting is a good alternative that will give you a similar tang to the cream cheese but without the obvious cream cheese flavor. Even if you’re a die-hard cream cheese frosting lover, I’d implore you to give this buttermilk frosting a try.

The technique is a little different than you might be used to, and is actually somewhat similar to what I called a ‘mock meringue’ buttercream that I used for my blood orange cupcakes, just with dairy (cream and buttermilk) in place of the orange juice as the liquid component.

But I realized that the liquid sugar mixture does not even need to be heated (which, in the case of buttermilk, heating will cause it to curdle which we very much didn’t want), which speeds up the process even more as you’re not waiting for a syrup to cool.

First you’ll mix up a liquid sugar mixture using heavy cream, buttermilk, milk powder, and powdered sugar.

The liquid dissolves the powdered sugar, resulting in a super creamy, silky buttercream that’s not at all gritty like American buttercream can sometimes be (the grit is a result of the undissolved powdered sugar because there’s simply not enough liquid present in butter to do so).

I know it might seem like there’s no way that liquid sugar is going to incorporate with the fluffy whipped butter, but somehow, it does, and the result is magical.

The trick to this style of buttercream is to really whip the butter (whip it good). Seriously, beat it way longer than you would for cookies or for the cake (I’m talking a solid 7 to 10 minutes). The butter should be almost bright white in color before you start adding any sugar whatsoever.

Then, with the mixer running on low, slowly drizzle in the liquid sugar/cream mixture, about 1/4 at a time, beating it for a solid minute or two until completely incorporated before adding the next 1/4.

Once again, temperature is key here! Your butter, cream, and buttermilk all need to be at warm room temperature, 70-75 degrees ideally. If any one component is too cold, the buttercream will not be as silky and fluffy and may appear curdled/separated.

If you find your buttercream seems curdled or separated as you incorporate the liquid sugar, just keep whipping and it should come together eventually as the mixture warms.

If the frosting seems greasy and gloppy rather than fluffy, it’s probably just a little bit too cold. Try melting a little bit of the frosting for 10-15 seconds in the microwave (on 50% power), then slowly pour it back in to the rest of the buttercream with the mixer on low. Increase the speed and beat it for a few minutes more and voila! Super fluffy buttercream.

On the other side of the spectrum, if it seems soupy and overly warm, you can refrigerate the whole bowl for 15 minutes or so and then whip it some more.

The buttercream can be made ahead of time and refrigerated for up to 3 days. However, refrigerating buttercream will re-solidify that whipped fat, and you’ll lose all the fluffiness you worked so hard to achieve.

Luckily, you can ‘re-fluff’ buttercream quite easily using the same method I mentioned above, by simply melting some of it and then rewhipping that melted buttercream into the rest of the batch to bring it back up to ideal fluffing temperature.

Strawberry Crunch Sheet Cake, freshly frosted with buttermilk frosting and sitting on a piece of parchment with a cake server and messy crumbs scattered around it.
Glass bowl of Strawberry Shortcake Crunch Topping on a marble background, with a few crumbs scattered alongside the bowl.

Crunch Time

My strawberry crunch topping is also entirely scratch-made as well (surprise surprise). Most other recipes for this kind of thing call for, again, strawberry gelatin mix, but also crushed up golden Oreo cookies, which I also didn’t want to use. Instead I mixed up a milk bar-style shortcake crumb, baked until light and crispy, and then tossed with freeze dried strawberries for flavor and color.

The freeze-dried strawberries add color and flavor, tossed with a little over half the shortbread-like crumbs with finely ground freeze dried fruit to coat it in bold color and bright berry flavor. To be perfectly honest, the crunch topping was good enough I was more than tempted to eat it on its own with a spoon.

While I adore the textural contrast of the crunchy topping with the soft, tender cake and silky smooth buttercream, this recipe could be made without the crunch component if you choose. In which case I’d recommend decorating it with some fresh strawberry slices (if it happens to be strawberry season), or some cute pink sprinkles instead.

Overhead, messy scene with cut pieces of Strawberry Crunch Sheet Cake with Buttermilk Frosting on pink dessert plates, marble background, and a bowl of more strawberry crunch crumbs on the side.
Strawberry Crunch Sheet Cake with Buttermilk Frosting, two cut squares in focus one leaning up against the other.

Sizing & Scaling

I went back and forth over whether to write this recipe as a 13-by-9-inch sheet cake or a smaller 8-by-8-inch square, because the recipe would really work as either one.

Ultimately I went with a 13-by-9-inch because the frosting is slightly easier to make with a larger quantity (sometimes the mixer has a hard time really mixing smaller quantities of frosting).

That said, you can easily halve the recipe for an 8-inch square pan or a 9-inch round cake pan. A 9-by-9-inch square pan would work with a half recipe as well, just with a shorter bake time to make up for the slightly thinner cake.

If you want to make a true sheet cake, make 1.5 times the recipe and bake it in a 13-by-18-inch half sheet pan (bake time will be significantly less because of the thinner size). A full double batch would need a deeper pan (2″ compared to the 1″ depth of sheet pans), which is not a very common pan size.

Strawberry Crunch Sheet Cake with Buttermilk Frosting, focus on one piece of cake sitting on a pink dessert plate with a fork alongside and messy crumbs, and a bowl of more crumbs and frosting out of focus in the background.

Ingredient Notes & Substitutions

Amoretti Natural Wild Strawberry Artisan Flavor: This is what gives the cake its strawberry flavor. Unfortunately there really isn’t any comparable substitution here. I can’t advise as to other brands of strawberry extract, which will likely have vastly different strengths, and you’ll need to use your best judgement to determine how much you might need.

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Whole Milk Powder: Whole milk powder is used in both the shortcake crumb and in the frosting for extra structure, stability, and rich dairy flavor (remember we’re trying to make the cake taste like ice cream!) While I like the added richness of whole milk powder, nonfat dry milk powder will work in a pinch; you can also use buttermilk powder in both components if you want a tangier flavor. Malted milk powder might be ok in the crumb mixture, but I think the flavor would be too overpowering in the frosting.

The milk powder could be left out of both components if absolutely necessary, it won’t cause the recipe to fail or anything, however I think it adds a lot to both crumb and frosting and would strongly suggest getting ahold of some for this recipe.

Buttermilk: I used buttermilk in the cake as well as the frosting to give it a nice tangy flavor and help contrast the sweetness. You can use plain whole milk in the cake, and all heavy cream in the frosting if you want, though the flavor won’t be as tangy.

The best buttermilk substitute is whole milk mixed with sour cream (try 3/4 cup milk to 1/4 cup sour cream), or 1 cup milk mixed with 1/4 cup buttermilk powder. I do not recommend the lemon juice method, especially in the frosting where the curdled texture would be a disaster (please, just don’t).

Messy shot of smashed strawberry crunch cake on a marble background, two forks smeared with cake and frosting and scattered crumbs.

Freeze-dried strawberries/strawberry powder: Grind freeze-dried strawberries (NOT dried strawberries which are not the same thing) in a spice grinder or clean coffee grinder until you have a fine powder. Add a spoonful of granulated sugar if necessary to help it grind more evenly.

You can also get freeze dried strawberry powder, which is already finely ground and allows you to skip the extra step. Look for one that contains 100% freeze-dried strawberries and no sweeteners or additives.

If you can’t find freeze-dried strawberries (and aside from other kinds of freeze-dried fruit, there really is no suitable replacement), then just leave it out entirely and embrace the plain shortbread crumbs (which are delicious in their own right). You could mix in a little bit of the Amoretti Wild Strawberry Artisan Flavor to some or all of the crumb dough if you wanted a little extra strawberry flavor in the topping.

Red food coloring: While the Amoretti flavoring includes some natural coloring, it’s not quite enough to give the cake a perfectly pink hue, so I added an extra drop or two of red gel food coloring to enhance the color, but this is totally optional.

Strawberry Crunch Sheet Cake with Buttermilk Frosting

Strawberry Crunch Sheet Cake with Buttermilk Frosting

Inspired by an ice cream truck classic, with a tender, strawberry buttermilk cake, topped with a tangy buttermilk frosting and a scratch-made strawberry crunch topping.
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Ingredients

For Strawberry Crunch Topping:

  • ¾ cup / 95 g all-purpose flour
  • 6 tablespoons / 75 g granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons / 16 g whole milk powder
  • 1 tablespoon / 8 g cornstarch
  • ¼ teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 6 tablespoons / 84 g unsalted butter, melted
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3 tablespoons / 21 g freeze dried strawberry powder

For Strawberry Buttermilk Cake:

  • 1 ¾ cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • ½ cup / 113 g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 cup / 200 g granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • cup / 80 g buttermilk, at room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons / 28 g vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon Amoretti Natural Wild Strawberry Artisan Flavor
  • 1-2 drops red food coloring, optional

For Buttermilk Frosting:

  • 1 cup / 226 g (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • ¼ cup / 60 g heavy cream, at room temperature
  • ¼ / 60 g buttermilk, at room temperature
  • 1 ¾ cups / 210 g powdered sugar, sifted
  • 2 tablespoons / 16 g whole milk powder
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • pinch salt

Instructions

For Strawberry Crunch Topping:

  • Preheat oven to 250 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
  • In a mixing bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, milk powder, cornstarch, baking powder, and salt until evenly incorporated. Drizzle in melted butter and vanilla and mix until no dry ingredients remain; it should stick together into a crumbly dough.
  • Chill dough for 20 to 30 minutes (this makes it easier to crumble), then use your fingers to crumble dough onto prepared baking sheet, spreading crumbs into a single layer and breaking up any extra large pieces (ideally you want mostly pea-sized pieces).
  • Bake for 30 minutes or until just starting to turn light golden brown (they will crisp up more as they cool). As soon as you remove the baking sheet from the oven, use a spatula to lightly toss and break up the crumbs into smaller pieces where they've stuck together.
  • Separate out about 2/3 of the warm crumb mixture on the pan, and sprinkle this section with 2 tablespoons strawberry powder. Gently toss to coat crumbs evenly with strawberry. Sprinkle with remaining strawberry, and toss once more. Let cool completely, then mix the two colors of crumbs together to blend.
  • Crumbs can be made a few days ahead of time and stored in an airtight container at room temperature until ready to use.

For Strawberry Buttermilk Cake:

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly butter or a light or medium colored metal 13-by-9-inch baking pan, then line with parchment paper. If using a glass or dark-colored metal pan, I recommend decreasing the temperature to 325 and baking for a few minutes longer.
  • In a bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt and set aside.
  • In a mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, beat butter for a minute or two until fluffy, then add sugar and continue to beat for 3 to 5 minutes or until very fluffy and aerated.
  • Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each and scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.
  • Add half of dry ingredients, mixing on low speed until almost incorporated. Add buttermilk, oil, vanilla, Amoretti Natural Wild Strawberry Artisan Flavor, and red food coloring (if using), mixing until just incorporated. Scrape down the bowl again, then add remaining dry ingredients and mix until just incorporated.
  • Pour into prepared pan, spreading the batter into an even layer.
  • Bake for 18 to 22 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out mostly clean with a few moist crumbs attached.
  • Let cake cool in the pan set on a wire rack while you prepare the frosting. You can also wrap the cake tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate it overnight, or freeze for up to 2 weeks (ok to frost it while it's frozen, just let it warm up to room temperature before serving).

For Buttermilk Frosting:

  • Combine cream, buttermilk, sifted powdered sugar, milk powder, salt and vanilla in a bowl, whisking until smooth.
  • In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat butter on medium-high speed for 5 to 7 minutes (seriously, that much) or until very pale white and fluffy.
  • With the mixer running on low, drizzle in about 1/4 of the cream mixture. Increase speed to medium-high and beat until fully emulsified and fluffy once again, another 2 to 3 minutes. Repeat with remaining cream mixture, 1/4 at a time. When all the cream has been incorporated, increase speed once more and beat for another few minutes or until frosting is very smooth, fluffy, and creamy. Reduce mixer speed to low for a minute or two to work out any air bubbles.
  • If the frosting seems greasy and not very fluffy, it's likely your butter was too cold. Spoon about 1/2 cup of the frosting into a small microwave safe bowl. Microwave on 50% power for about 10 to 15 seconds or until just melted. Slowly drizzle melted frosting into bowl with mixer running on low speed, then increase the mixer to high and beat for 3 to 5 minutes. It should be nice and fluffy now. (You can also use this trick to 're-fluff' buttercream that has been refrigerated, if you wanted to make it ahead of time for example. Let it sit at room temperature for an hour or so, then start mixing it as you pour in a small amount of melted frosting).
  • Conversely, if the frosting seems soupy and separated, your ingredients were probably too warm or you tried to incorporate them too quickly. Keep beating it, up to 5 or even 10 minutes, and it should come together eventually. You can also try chilling the entire mixing bowl in the refrigerator for 15 to 20 minutes, then beat it some more until it comes together into a light and fluffy buttercream.
  • Spread or pipe frosting onto cooled cake. Sprinkle with strawberry crunch topping, pressing lightly to adhere it to the frosting. Slice and serve at room temperature. Or refrigerate, covered or in an airtight container, for up to 3 days (let come to room temperature before serving).
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3 Comments

  1. If I make the cake the night before, should I leave the crunch topping off until the day we’re eating it? Will they get soggy, or will they be fine if I put them on the day before?

    • The crumb does soften a bit especially in humid climates. You could make the cake the night before, then add the frosting and crumb the next day.

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