Each of us have this dessert in our memory bank, the one that is deep and profound and triggered by a sight, smell, a sound. That dessert is strawberry shortcake for me, not a dazzling layer cake, not a fancy Bundt, just this sweetened biscuit, split, buttered and piled with fresh strawberries.
Back when strawberries weren’t available year round you waited until spring to eat them. They were your spring fling. That was late April or May in Tennessee, and the season ran to June. Knowing those berries wouldn’t last forever, you ate as many as possible in as little time as you had!
At our house, everyone’s hands-down favorite strawberry recipe was shortcake, and we predicted the usual conversation between my parents. There was my mother who thought the more proper way to eat the dessert was with actual cake, like pound cake. And there was my father, who argued that there was only one way to eat shortcake – those sweet biscuits like his mother used to make.
Fortunately, the conversation never got to the he said-she said stage, and we all have good memories about it. My sister requested strawberry shortcake every year for her late April birthday. She still longs for it.
What You Might Not Know About Strawberry Shortcake
For the past year I’ve been researching the history of American cake. It is for a cookbook that will be published in the fall of 2016. And it has been one of the most fascinating projects of my life. More to come later on this book, but I will tell you that Strawberry Shortcake is one of our great American cakes. Yes, I use the word “cake” loosely when I include it, but it is a dessert and sweet, and it is leavened, and it is as American homegrown as desserts get.
The word “shortcake” implies a baked good that has some solid fat incorporated to make it “short” or flaky. The softer the flour, with less gluten and protein, the better the shortcake (and biscuit), so it does make sense that shortcakes made with the softer, starchier flour of the South, were hard to beat. That is not to stay shortcakes cannot be made in other parts of the country – and they were. In 1857, the New York Tribune called strawberry shortcake “a luxury.” An earlier reference, in 1839 in Raleigh, NC, referred to the “short cake” as a cake that is “hastily baked” and spends little time in the oven. Another possible way this dessert was named.
When the first American settlers arrived, strawberries grew wild. And the most common berry in the eastern region was the Virginia strawberry, which would go on to parent the common strawberry we know today. You can still buy Fragaria virginiana plants and grow them, or you may have wild strawberries growing near you and know how pungent and bright the flavor is compared to supermarket berries grown far from home. It wasn’t until the railroads were criss-crossing America in the 1880s that strawberries were packed from local farms and trekked to other parts of America. Strawberry shortcake was invented to use those berries picked close by, and that still is the best way to experience the old-fashioned flavor – so buy strawberries from farmers in your area and then make shortcake. Our local berries come from all parts of Tennessee, and we enjoyed Hartsville berries last weekend.
So Let’s Bake Shortcakes!
How to begin?
Start with some soft flour, like White Lily, or the all-purpose flour you normally buy, plus a little sugar, baking powder, butter, an egg, and cream. (Hey, you don’t eat these all year, so they need to be good!).
You’ll need a large bowl and two sharp paring knives to blend in the fat, and then stir the wet ingredients into the mixture with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Turn the dough out onto a floured countertop or board. The less you work the dough, the more delicate and fragile your shortcakes will be.
Cut into rounds or squares and bake in a hot oven – 425 degrees – until they are golden brown around the edges. Sprinkle with sugar before they bake, if you like.
It really is that easy. The recipe I share makes a bunch, eight or more shortcakes. Pat the dough out to a generous one- inch tall and then cut into 2- to 3-inch rounds or squares. We always begin cutting into rounds, and then cut out squares from the trimmings. Nothing, absolutely nothing, goes to waste.
And on top, after the shortcakes baked, after they are split and buttered and piled with berries, we top with cream, whipped and barely sweetened with sugar. Then, we eat. And don’t expect a lot of conversation when you serve warm shortcakes. This is quiet eating, slow food at its finest.
Strawberry shortcake is the dessert to make right now. Yes, you can find strawberries year round, but right now those berries might be picked closer to you and be softer and more fragile and more flavorful than berries that grow on the other coast and ship well. In fact, I really don’t like food that ships well. If it does, that just means it’s been designed and modified to last longer, and who wants food to last longer when we’re on to the next season? Peaches will be here in a little over a month, then apples and pears, and then citrus. So strawberries, sorry, but you are my spring fling. You are the momentary star of the shortcake, and you had better just get used to it!