All year the kids in my “food appreciation” classes have been bugging me to make something sweet. And all year I’ve been the tough taskmaster, keeping them focused on things like corn and cabbage and sausages.
Well, the strawberries are in and they’re irresistible. And fast. And easy.
Perhaps one of the best desserts in the world, and fitting all of the above descriptions, is strawberry shortcake, pictured here in a photo from the Beyond Wonderful website.
The first settlers found Native Americans eating strawberries. It wasn’t too many steps to combine them with a quick, chemical-rising bread, in this case called “short” cake because of the fat (nowadays usually butter or vegetable shortening or a combination of the two) that is incorporated in the dough.
Shortcake has a venerable history. John Thorne, author of the Simple Cooking newsletter, says the dessert has origins in Great Britain but is truly American. It started as a “dense rich concoction made from flour, butter and sugar,” but sometime in the middle of the 19th Century, after the invention of chemical rising agents, Americans went wild for biscuits.
Now, shortcake simply means “the richest-tasting biscuit possible,” and certainly not that spongy nonsense you so often see stacked next to the strawberries in the supermarket this time of year.
The cake itself, sometimes made on top of a griddle in days past, should be savory, not sweet. In fact, a real shortcake “is a mouthful of contrast,” says Thorne. “The rich, sweet cream, the tart juicy berries, and the sour, crumbly texture of the hot biscuit all refuse to amalgam into a single flavor tone, but produce mouth-stimulating contrasts of flavor–hot and cold, soft and hard, sweet and tart, smooth and crumbly.”
Strawberry shortcake is our go-to dessert this time of year. To serve six, first trim about a pound of ripe strawberries and slice into quarters. Mix with about one tablespoon granulated sugar and mash roughly with a potato masher. Flavor with a few drops of vanilla extract. Then slice a few more strawberries into the mix. Refrigerate at least an hour, allowing the strawberries to macerate. The sugar will draw the juice out of the berries and make a nice sauce.
For the the biscuits, we use the classic recipe out of the Joy of Cooking. (In fact, the binding of our copy is broken at page 632, where the recipe begins.) Note that when making biscuits you want all of your ingredients and tools chilled if possible so that whatever shortening you are using stays firm in the mixing.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Sift (or mix) into a bowl 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 3 teaspoons double-acting baking powder. Cut in (with knives, forks or fingers) 4-6 tablespoons (I use 5 tablespoons) well-chilled butter, shortening or a combination. Work the flour and shortening briskly but not too much, until it is a grainy consistency. Add 3/4 cup cold mild and stir until just combined.
Biscuits don’t want to be kneeded hardly at all. Some chefs, looking for a light and airy result, just push the ingredients until they hold together. So turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surfaced and flip it around a few times, pushing it together, until it holds. It should be soft and light. Now use hands or a rolling pin to press it out to a thickness of 3/4- or maybe 1 inch. The thicker the dough, the taller the biscuit (and the fewer of them).
Cut with a biscuit cutter dusted with flour. Place the rounds on an ungreased baking sheet. Brush the tops with milk and dust with sugar (granulated or crystals). Bake 12-15 minutes, or until just lightly browned.
While the biscuits are cooling a little, whip your cream with sugar to taste. Now split the biscuits in half. Heap some strawberries with juice on the bottom half. Add a dollop of whipped cream, replace the top of the biscuit and serve.
As simple as strawberry shortcake may be, people always swoon over it. Kids will lick the plate.