If you grew up in the late 70’s, early 80’s, the cartoon character, Strawberry Shortcake with all her scratch-and-sniff paraphernalia may be the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear her name. She and her cat, Custard are still around but hopefully some of us remember her namesake as the early summer dessert consisting of a creamy, slightly-sweet biscuit, cut in half, piled high with freshly sliced strawberries and topped with loads of whipped cream. You could say it’s old-fashioned but it’s the dessert that made shortcake famous and it has stood the test of time. I was surprised when Lily, almost 5, not only knew about the dessert but wanted to make one herself. Her strawberry shortcake was an excellent 1st birthday cake for her Dolly.
Beautiful, ripe, local strawberries are available from Billy’s Gardens at our farmers markets. I’ve been surprised at their sweetness considering how wet and cool our spring has been. The weather certainly hasn’t sweetened me up but having fresh strawberries to eat and Lily helping me bake is definitely helping.
The only part of making strawberry shortcake that’s even slightly challenging is making the shortcake and that’s easy once you decide it’s okay to make a mess. Cleaning up flour isn’t my favorite chore but it’s so worth it to have freshly baked sweet biscuits. Slice your berries ahead of time, sprinkle with sugar and allow them to macerate so you’ll have plenty of juice to soak into the shortcake. If you feel like making it more sophisticated, add a little balsamic vinegar to balance out the sugar. Whip cream at the last minute or add creme fraiche, if you wish.
I used a version of Scott Peacock’s sweet cream biscuits for my shortcake. His biscuit recipe is one of many techniques to learn by heart in Alice Water’s new book, In the Green Kitchen. This book has a portrait, literally and figuratively, of several notable Slow Food chefs and foodies. Each one gives simple instructions for the most basic foods in their area of expertise. The idea is that once you’ve learned these techniques, you can cook without recipes and improvise to your heart’s content. Amen.
Shortcake or Sweet Cream Biscuits (for 7-8 biscuits)
2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 t sea salt
1 3/4 t baking powder
2 T sugar
5 T cold unsalted butter
1/2 cup half-and-half
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 T unsalted butter, melted
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Place all the dry ingredients into a bowl and blend thoroughly using a whisk. Add the cold butter, cut in pieces and work in quickly using your fingers until about half the butter is coarsely blended and half is in larger pieces about 1/2 ” in diameter. (Leaving some larger pieces will result in flakier biscuits).
Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in half-and-half and heavy cream. Stir briefly, just until dough is blended and begins to hold together. The dough will be soft and sticky. If it’s too dry, add a little more cream to incorporate the dry flour.
Place the dough on a floured surface and with floured hands, knead 8 or 10 times until a cohesive ball of dough is formed. Gently flatten and using a floured rolling pin, roll out to a thickness of about 1/2″. With a dinner fork, pierce the dough completely through at 1/2″ intervals.
Using a 2 1/2″ to 3″ biscuit cutter or a glass, stamp out rounds as close together as you can. Try not to twist the cutter as you stamp. (This is a hard habit to break and I didn’t have the heart to mention it to Lily. For as much as her dough may have been “over-worked”, the results were still delicious).
Bake in the upper third of the oven for 10 – 15 minutes until they’re lightly browned. Remove from the oven and brush with melted butter. Cool on a rack.
Now comes the artistic part. Arrange the berries and whipped cream any way you like and remember to sneak in a bite or two whenever you feel the urge — which in our case was pretty often.