I usually make strawberry shortcake once a year when I find first-of-the-season berries in late June at our Missoula farmers’ markets. I split the just-baked rich buttery rounds of shortcake, fill them with lightly sugared berries and whipped heavy cream, top the cakes with more cream and berries, and eat away with a knife and fork.
Just last week while I was in Chicago with my wife visiting our three grandsons, I was astonished to find ripe local strawberries at the Lincoln Park Farmers’ Market. “The berries are three weeks early,” a seller told me. “And it’s because of the amazingly warm weather we’ve been having. Here. Try one.” I bit into the tender berry and was amazed by its sweet and abundant juiciness. There is simply nothing like the deliciousness of a homegrown organic berry. I bought two quarts and decided to make strawberry shortcake with my grandsons.
The boys, ages 6, 8 ½ and 11, like to help out in the kitchen. I had them measure out the flour, cut in the butter, and stamp the dough into individual shortcakes. I hulled the berries, whipped the cream, and assembled the desserts. My wife, Dorothy, took the pictures.
This year I just may have to make strawberry shortcakes once more when our local berries ripen. But you can’t blame me, can you?
Old-Fashioned Strawberry Shortcake
Strawberry shortcake must be made with the tenderest, most succulent, in-season berries or not at all. Whoever was inspired to make the first one is anybody’s guess, but recipes for biscuits began appearing in American cookbooks in the early 1800s, so I’ll bet it wasn’t long before someone had the idea to enrich biscuit dough with butter and sugar and use it as the base for a sweet dessert with cream and fruit.
The recipe here uses a rich, tender, biscuit dough, made especially moist by the addition of cooked egg yolk, a technique James Beard used. I like to make individual shortcakes because the dessert is more special that way. You can get the biscuits ready for baking hours ahead and refrigerate them. Combine the strawberries with sugar about an hour or so before you serve the shortcakes to encourage the berries to release their delicious juices. Be sure to use the best heavy cream you can find. Strawberry shortcake is an indulgence, but when the berries are really fine, there is no better dessert.
1 1/2 pounds (2 pints) ripe strawberries, preferably local and organic
2 to 4 tablespoons sugar
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (spooned into the cups and leveled)
5 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon (3 teaspoons) baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon-size pieces
3 mashed hard-cooked egg yolks
3/4 to 1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon butter, melted
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Prepare the strawberries about 1 hour before serving. Rinse them under cool running tap water and pat them dry on paper towels. Hull them and halve, quarter, or slice the berries depending on their size. Taste the berries and place them in a medium bowl. Add sugar according to their sweetness, and set the fruit aside.
To make the shortcakes, combine the flour, 4 tablespoons of the sugar (reserve remaining tablespoon to sprinkle onto the shortcakes), the baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Add the chilled butter and cut it in with a pastry blender (or work it into the flour mixture using your fingertips) until the particles are very fine.
Force the egg yolks through a fine sieve and stir them into the flour mixture. If you wish, you can use the food processor to cut the butter into the flour until the mixture is very fine; add the egg yolks and pulse them in until very fine. If using the food processor, transfer the mixture to a medium bowl.
Add 3/4 cup of heavy cream and stir gently with a fork until the dough is moistened and just holds together. It should be a fairly stiff dough. If it seems too dry, add more cream a little at a time, and stir until the dough just gathers together. Scrape the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and dust all surfaces lightly with flour. Knead gently 3 or 4 times and pat the dough to a scant 3/4-inch thickness.
With a floured 3-inch plain round cutter, cut out 4 biscuits and place them 2 inches apart on a heavy baking sheet.
Gather the scraps and reform them as gently as possible into a smooth mass. Pat the dough out again and cut 2 more biscuits. Place them on the baking sheet. The shortcakes may be baked hours before serving.
Adjust an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Brush the tops of the biscuits lightly with the 1 tablespoon melted butter and sprinkle them with the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar. Bake about 15 minutes, or until the biscuits are golden brown and cooked through. A toothpick inserted into the center of a biscuit should come out clean. Let the biscuits stand until cool.
When ready to serve, whip the cream with the vanilla until it holds a soft shape. The biscuits are fragile. Using a sharp serrated knife, carefully split them in half horizontally. Spoon some of the strawberry juices over them. Place a bottom half of each shortcake on dessert plates and heap them with strawberries and any remaining juices. Spoon large dollops of cream over the berries, cover with the tops of the shortcakes, a bit more cream and berries, and serve immediately. Eat with knives and forks.
Makes 6 servings.