Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Strawberry Shortcake

Along with apple pie, strawberry shortcake is among the most quintessential of American desserts – simple, delicious and steeped in tradition. In my gastronomic mind, strawberry shortcake is a metaphor that inspires an entire genre of desserts with dozens of variations. Before I talk about this concept in detail, let’s talk about strawberries and other summer fruit.
The season for strawberries in New England is late spring. It is the first of local fruits to ripen, followed throughout the summer by raspberries, blackberries, blueberries and then tree fruits.
New England may not be close to other regions, like Florida and California, in terms of production of berries, but the quality of our strawberries is second to none. In fact, I would dare say that the “imported strawberries” available in our markets for a good part of the year are a poor excuse for the real fruit.
Unlike pineapples and melons that somehow have improved in sweetness and flavor over the years, the berries I speak of are imposters – they look like strawberries but the resemblance ends there.
When our local berries are picked and still warm from the sun, you can smell them from 15 feet away (I can, anyway); they taste like strawberry candy.
I love picking berries because I get to eat them as I go, and it is a wonderful activity to share with young children, who are often removed from the source of their foods. Berries are never better than when they are sun-kissed and just picked. Refrigeration retards the flavor of berries – I recommend that you keep them in a cool place and eat them the same day. If you are holding them longer than one day, they will need to be refrigerated.
Strawberry shortcake (the genre) consists of four parts: the macerated berries and/or fruit, the shortcake or other pastry, the whipped cream or other soft creamy substance and the garnish.
Berries and fruit for shortcake should be macerated with sugar and in some cases other liquids. The reason is that the juices are essential to the success of this simple dish. They soak into part of the pastry and extend the flavor of the overall dessert while giving the pastry a variety of textures.
Strawberries should be halved or sliced, depending on their size, and then sprinkled with sugar; smaller berries should be left whole. This will create syrup when left to stand for an hour or so. At this point you can also add a little flavoring liquid, like lemon or orange liquor, anise liquor, orange juice or other fresh-squeezed juice.
You can mix any combination of berries and fruits. For example: strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries.
Blueberries are the only berry that doesn’t make its own juice, so they are best mixed with other berries or fruit. Ripe peaches, nectarines, plums, figs and apricots are wonderful in shortcake in any mixture with each other or with berries. They will leach out flavor and juices when combined with the sugar, and again, they can be combined with liquors and other liquids, sweeteners and flavorings, like maple syrup, honey and almond or vanilla extract. The only restriction is your own imagination.
Shortcake is so named because the dough is “short,” a term that means high fat content (shortening). The shortcake for this dessert can be a plain unsweetened biscuit or a lightly sweetened one (my preference). It can be made with shortening, butter or a combination of the two and baked in one large round or as individual cakes.
I recommend that you make the cake or biscuits well ahead, keep refrigerated and then bake them shortly before serving so that they are still warm from the oven when served.
Angel food cake is a wonderful substitute for shortcake, as is sponge cake or even pound cake. Pound cake should be served in a small portion and can be toasted or griddled for an extra nice effect.
Whipped cream is essential to this dessert. It should be whipped by hand with a whisk in a chilled stainless steel bowl. Electric mixers often cause overmixing; I serve hundreds of desserts a day in my restaurants and all the whipped cream is made by hand. It’s very quick and easy to do.
When cream is overwhipped, the fat comes to the surface and leaves the mouth with a greasy feeling. Use heavy cream, not whipping cream; it has a higher fat content, is richer and whips faster. (If fat is a concern, this is the wrong dessert for you altogether.) The cream should be whipped only to soft peaks, adding a little vanilla extract (optional) and granulated (not confectioner’s) sugar toward the end.
Granulated sugar can be replaced in part or whole by maple syrup, honey or even molasses. Whipped cream can also be flavored with small amounts of liquors or extracts, adding even more variations to this theme.
Lemon curd, orange or another pudding-like substance can also be used in tandem with (never omitting) the whipped cream. Shortcake with strawberries, whipped cream and a little lemon curd is sublime.
The garnish can be a simple sprinkle of confectioner’s or brown sugar or a sprig of mint or lavender. Flavored and/or colored sugars or sprinkles (jimmie-like things) can add dimension and beauty to the finished dessert.
I have some expensive German licorice sprinkles at home that I put sparingly on strawberry shortcake to give an extra surprise to my guests. I love the whisper of licorice with strawberries. Toasted or candied nuts can also be used as garnish. I’m sure you can think of more, like white chocolate shavings or fruit syrups – the possibilities are endless.
Serving shortcake
Split the shortcake or substitute while warm (if applicable), top with the berry and or fruit mixture, being sure to let some of the natural juices soak into the cake, then top with a nice dollop of soft whipped cream (and other substance if desired) and put the top over all that. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and or other garnishes. Serve immediately and enjoy.
Strawberry shortcake is what many chefs call a “cooks dessert”: The only part of the recipe that is precise is for the pastry, the rest is subject to imagination, style and personal preferences. I have mentioned more than two dozen ingredients that could be incorporated into this dessert. There are many more.
I don’t want you to go crazy and ruin the simplicity of this dessert or overwhelm the natural flavor of the berries and/or fruit you serve, but I wanted to open your minds and palates to the wonderful variety of flavors and textures that are possible with this classic American dessert.
Jasper White is a chef, author, entrepreneur and owner of Summer Shack restaurants and the Fish Market at Derby Street Shoppes in Hingham. Got a question for him? Send an e-mail to with “Jasper White” in the subject line. Food Is Love ™ is a trademark of Jasper White.

The “short” in shortcake refers to the high content of shortening (in this case, butter), which makes this slightly sweet biscuit so tender. For equipment you will need a large bowl, a rolling pin, a sheet pan, a 3-inch biscuit cutter and a pastry brush.

- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 8 tablespoons butter (4 ounces), cut into small pieces (hazelnut size)
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- 1/3 cup milk
- 3 more tablespoons butter, melted

You can make the shortcake biscuits in the morning and keep refrigerated. Pull them out one hour before you want to bake them and let them warm to room temperature. Bake the biscuits 15 minutes before you want to serve them so they are still hot when they reach the table.
1. Adjust the racks to the lower middle positions and heat the oven to 425° F.

2. Place the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl and mix to combine. Scatter the butter over the surface and rub the butter and flour mixture together until the butter is in small pea-size pieces and the flour picks up a yellow tinge.

3. Combine the milk and egg  in a glass measure or small bowl and stir lightly with a fork. Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry, toss to combine. Turn the dough onto a floured work surface and knead it lightly until it is smooth, about a minute. Roll the dough out into large rectangle 1-inch thick. Dip a 3-inch biscuit cutter in flour and stamp out 6 round biscuits. Transfer the biscuits onto a sheet pan lined with parchment paper and brush with melted butter. Bake the biscuits until they have risen and are deeply browned, 10 to 12 minutes.

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