Picnics, for me, have historically meant the semiannual, church-wide affairs that took place at a suburban metro park in my hometown. The entire congregation from my Korean church, young and old, would set up camp in the grass and spend the day socializing and enjoying nature. Instead of cheese, charcuterie, or sandwiches, you’d find a (mostly) Korean feast: rice, bulgogi, kimchi, fish fritters, and the like, with the occasional catered chicken tenders thrown in for good measure.
At these bountiful outdoor meals, slices of juicy watermelon served as dessert — traditional sweets were never very prevalent at all-church gatherings. While the fruit was always 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 bring up any immediate associations, it still implied a treat that was easy to transport and eat, and not laden with rich, meltable frosting. That gave me a hunch about where to start: cornbread. Though it’s normally eaten alongside savory foods, its potential as a center-stage dessert seemed promising: Among other virtues, it has a unique crumb, a touch of sweetness, the ability to hold up well to travel, and strong summertime vibes.
If cornbread were to get a glow-up, I’m convinced that this blueberry-balsamic-glazed cornbread cake would be the result. I used honey to bump up the cake’s sweetness and sour cream for a soft but not-too-moist texture, and combined yellow cornmeal with all-purpose flour to echo cornbread’s characteristic bite. Though I originally tried to incorporate whole blueberries into the cake, they just sank, regardless of whether I dusted them with flour pre-bake or sprinkled them on top halfway through baking (womp womp). Eventually, a light bulb went on: Why use whole berries when you could just mash them to make a glaze? This allowed me to keep blueberries a (visible) part of the cake while avoiding any issues with sinking fruit. Although the purple-hued glaze doesn’t contribute much intensity of flavor, it gives the cake a playful pop of color.
While I’ve always thought of cornbread as a (highly desirable) dinner side, this cake has convinced me it’s arguably 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 hearty but not cloying or heavy, and has a soft but structured texture. It’s also stable and easy to transport: You won’t be battling shifting layers and melting frosting. In other words, this is a picnic cake, one that captures the essence of summer and proves that dessert is sometimes only a few delicious tweaks away.
Cornbread Cake with Blueberry-Balsamic Glaze Recipe
Makes one 8-by-8-inch cake
For the cake:
¾ cup (105 grams) all-purpose flour
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons (55 grams) yellow cornmeal
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 stick (113 grams) unsalted butter, softened
¾ cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
2 teaspoons honey
2 large eggs, at room temperature
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons whole milk, at room temperature
⅓ cup (80 grams) full-fat sour cream, at room temperature
For the glaze:
¼ cup fresh blueberries
¼ teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1 cup (120 grams) powdered sugar (spooned into the measuring cup and leveled off), 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 paper, leaving a two-inch overhang 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. Set aside.
Step 3: In a large bowl, beat the butter with an electric hand mixer or in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until smooth. Add the sugar and honey and cream the mixture until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula.
Step 4: Beat in the eggs one at a time, scraping the bowl after each addition, then beat in the vanilla.
Step 5: Add half of the dry ingredients to the egg mixture and beat just until combined. Carefully beat in the milk and sour cream, then beat in the rest of the dry ingredients just until the batter is smooth.
Step 6: Transfer the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the surface with a small offset spatula. Bake the cake for 30 to 35 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Step 7: Let the cake cool for 15 minutes, then gently run a small offset spatula around the edges to loosen. Using the parchment sling to assist, transfer the cake to a cooling rack.
Step 8: Make the glaze: Thoroughly mash the blueberries in a medium bowl with the back of a large spoon. Let the berries sit for a minute, allowing the juices to accumulate. Add balsamic vinegar, powdered sugar, and a few pinches of salt to the bowl and whisk until smooth; it will eventually come together. The consistency of the glaze should be pourable but not overly runny — if needed, add more powdered sugar, a tablespoon at a time.
Step 9: Line your workspace with a sheet of parchment, wax paper, or plastic wrap, or set out a rimmed baking sheet (any of these options makes for easier cleanup later). When the cake is completely cool, set the cooling rack (with the cake on it) over the parchment or baking sheet. Pour the glaze over the cake, spreading it to the edges and letting it run down the sides as desired. Allow the glaze to set completely before slicing and serving.
Joy Cho is a pastry chef and freelance writer based in Brooklyn. After losing her pastry cook job at the start of the pandemic, Joy launched Joy Cho Pastry, an Instagram business through which she sells her gem cakes to the New York City area.
Celeste Noche is a Filipino American food, travel, and portrait photographer based between Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco.
Recipe tested by Deena Prichep