I am traveling on the West Coast, and have been diligently eating my way southward. I’ve been to Victoria, B.C., for a conference on agriculture and sustainability; to Sooke Harbour, B.C., where I visited Sooke Harbor House and took a tour of their organic garden and on-site water reclamation plant; and to Vancouver, B.C., where I had dinner with Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon, authors of the local-eating manifesto Plenty. In Seattle, I met the Grist staff, and in Portland, I had dinner at Fife, a restaurant that’s applying for organic certification.

By chance, I happened to get to Portland just in time for the Rose Festival. The roses here are breathtaking, and they are everywhere — a friend from the area drove me all around the city, and we kept running into street after street that was closed due to the Rose Parade, which was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first time it was held. (If I understand this correctly, the parade wasn’t held during World War II because it was considered a potential bombing target, so it wasn’t literally the 100th parade.)

As my friend toured me around, she mentioned again and again that some brothers had helped revitalize the downtown area by creating group hugs. After pondering that for a while, I finally said, “I can’t believe that group hugs could revitalize a downtown area!” My friend corrected me, laughing: “Brew pubs, not group hugs!” I instantly thought about a quote I once read that was attributed to Tom Lehrer. It said the difference between the East Coast and the West Coast is that on the East Coast, you don’t get to hug the people you’d like to hug — and on the West Coast, you have to hug people whether you like them or not.

Mmm … berry good.

Photo: iStockphoto

Over the weekend, I visited Salem, Ore., where my friend and her family live. It’s an interesting town, as it is the state capital and also a place where traces of agriculture, one of the state’s main industries, are still evident. There’s a cannery not too far from the capitol building. There was something about the proximity of it that seemed really appropriate.

While in Salem, we were able to get our hands on some fresh Oregon strawberries. They were so ripe they were practically glowing, and I knew immediately that I wanted to make a blitz torte.

It’s a cake that my mom used to make. My mother hated to cook — and with a full-time job, two kids, and an elderly, sick parent to care for, who could blame her? — but she was a highly motivated maker of desserts. This was one of her favorites.

Blitz Torte with Fresh Strawberries

Serves eight

This cake is topped with a layer of cinnamon-flavored meringue. You can put a filling of whipped cream, or even brown-sugar-sweetened sour cream, between the layers. The meringue remains puffy and crunchy in some places, but collapsed and chewy in others. It’s the perfect accompaniment to fresh berries.

If you can’t get fresh berries, you can make a nice filling by combining equal parts raspberry and apricot jam (and you can add a tablespoon of liqueur if you like, like apricot brandy or Chambord), or try combining strawberry jam and peach jam and add a tablespoon of amaretto. Needless to say, try to get organic berries and jam if you can. Berries are always at the top of the list of the “dirty dozen.”

When separating the yolks from the whites, you want to do only one at a time so that you don’t end up having to try to dig out any yolk or shell that gets into the whites. The best way to do this is to use a small bowl for the separating procedure and two other bowls or measuring cups to store the whites and yolks. First of all, rinse the eggs in room-temperature water and dry them slightly with a paper towel. You want to get the shells pretty clean so that if the whites touch the shell while you are separating the eggs, they won’t get contaminated by touching a dirty shell.

Break open an egg by cracking it decisively on the side of the bowl. Now pull the two halves apart while holding them over the center of the bowl, and turn the egg shells so that one half catches the yolk. Let as much of the white fall into the bowl as possible. If there’s still white left in the egg, pass the yolk delicately into the other half of the shell while letting the remaining white fall into the bowl below. Repeat this process until the white is gone and only the yolk remains. Then move the white from the “separating” bowl into the storage bowl and drop the yolk into the yolk bowl and start again.

It’s important not to get any yolk in the whites (because it keeps the whites from whipping properly) but if there is a little bit of white still surrounding the yolk, that’s fine. It won’t hurt the cake.

By the way, this cake is not a thing of beauty, so don’t worry if it turns out looking like Jabba the Hutt. It tastes spectacular.

Cake Layer

1/2 cup butter (or 1 cup if you want a really rich cake)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 tsp salt
4 egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla
3 Tbsp milk
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder

Meringue Layer

4 egg whites
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 cup sliced blanched almonds (optional, better with the jam version than with the berries)

Whipped Cream

1 cup whipping cream
2 Tbsp sugar

OR

Brown Sugar Sour Cream

1 cup sour cream
2 Tbsp brown sugar
1/2 cup whipping cream

Berries

2 cups berries
2 Tbsp sugar

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Grease and flour two round, 8- or 9-inch cake pans.

Cream the butter with 1/2 cup sugar and salt, then beat in egg yolks, vanilla, and milk. Stir in flour and baking powder. Beat until well incorporated and the batter is smooth. Spread mixture in cake pans.

Beat egg whites with 3/4 cup sugar and the cinnamon until stiff. Spread meringue over the batter in pans. It’s hard to do this evenly. Don’t worry too much about it. Top with almonds.

Bake the cake layers for 30 minutes (or about 25 if you use the bigger pans) or until cake just begins to pull away from sides of pan. Remove from oven, cool slightly, and remove cakes from pans to cool completely on a wire rack.

To make the whipped cream, just add the sugar to the chilled cream and whip. (It helps slightly to chill the bowl and beaters, but it isn’t necessary.)

If making the sour cream mix, add the brown sugar to the sour cream. Whip the whipping cream until it holds stiff peaks and then mix it into the sour cream mix. It lightens it and makes it creamier and a little less tangy.

Wash the berries and then take out the stems. (Never take the stems out before washing them — that lets water into the berries.) Slice them into a bowl and toss them with the sugar. Do this about 20 minutes before serving.

Just before serving, place either some berries and cream or some jam on the bottom layer, then place the top layer on and add more berries and cream or, if you are using jam, just put whipped cream on top. Serve immediately.