I make strawberry shortcake every summer, haven’t missed one in as long as I can remember. As soon as I get a whiff of the first local berries of the year, it’s like a siren goes off in my mind that’s not silenced until I get my first bite of biscuit, juice and cream. Why such strong feelings about a fairly basic dessert? Because shortcake symbolizes family and reminds me of my childhood: picking strawberries in the warm sun, learning to bake biscuits and whip cream, hulling and slicing mountains of berries with my Nana and aunt, berries so sweet they hardly needed sugar.
I’ve mentioned before that my Grampa had a u-pick strawberry farm when I was growing up; it was open to the public until just a few years ago. My aunt ran the show, for the most part, and my cousins and I were her helpers, assigning rows to the customers, weighing berries and making change, picking berries after dinner to sell on the roadside stand and to local stores. It was a small operation but felt so grand at the time; I was so proud to work there and so excited to tell people about all the strawberries produced on the farm each summer. We counted quarts and pounds by the thousands, an unimaginably huge amount for a child to envision. My aunt gave us true responsibility, relying on us to charge customers fairly and make accurate change from the time we were 10 or so (honestly) and to ensure that each picker had a fair amount of berries available. (If there weren’t, we got to put up the “Picked Out” sign and go swimming. Oh, how we loved to be picked out.) Really, how impossibly idyllic is it to have a job where you sit outside (shaded by an old ice-fishing shack on the especially hot days), playing endless hands of gin rummy and war with cousins, listening to music and eating handfuls of fresh strawberries whenever you needed a snack? Many customers knew us by name and asked after our grandmother or mentioned that they knew an uncle or older cousin in high school. My sister and brothers both helped in the gardens after I had gone on to a comparatively boring supermarket job to make money for college. I treasure every memory of those summer weeks in the strawberry garden.
So, back to shortcake. My grandmother was a champion biscuit maker, turning out the fluffiest, most flavorful, perfect-every-time biscuits you have ever seen in your life. My mother and aunt aren’t so bad themselves, and it was a given that someone would eventually teach me the ropes. During strawberry season on a u-pick farm, you literally eat berries for three meals a day because there are so many, you can’t freeze or jam them fast enough to keep up. (Plus, if you have a steady supply of strawberries, who wouldn’t eat as many as possible?) Shortcake was for dessert a few nights a week, in a rotation that included fruit salad, pie, summer pudding (a type of cobbler), cake and berries over ice cream. My Nana and Aunt E made sure that my Grampa had dessert every night of the week, and shortcake was quicker to make than pie and less involved than a cake, so it showed up fairly often. It gets very hot and humid in Maine in July; biscuits could be made early in the morning while it was still cool enough to bake, and a day-old biscuit is almost preferable for shortcake, since it soaks up the wonderful juice.
My version bucks tradition a little in that I use drop biscuits. I like the crispy edges on them; they stand up to the juicy fruit without dissolving like a fresh milk biscuit, but still soak up the flavors as you expect. As a fastidious child, I hated having my biscuit “ruined” by juice and would request just berries, no juice, with a biscuit on the side and a dollop of cream on the biscuit. These days, I like all the components in one bite, though I still hold fast to one rule: shortcake must only be made with fresh, local berries that smell like strawberries, not plastic and are bright red and soft in the middle, not hard and white. You can call me a berry snob if you must, but the reward is worth the rule. Otherwise, you can make them with extra berries or extra cream or both, however you like. We still have a few weeks left of strawberry season here in Seattle, and it’s just beginning in Maine. I plan to make shortcake at least once more, and will reminisce about the strawberry farm with every bite.
Strawberry Shortcake (biscuits adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook)
For the biscuits:
- 2 1/4 c. flour
- 2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
- 3/4 tsp. baking soda
- 2 tsp. sugar
- 1 tsp. salt
- 6 T. cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- 1 c. well-shaken buttermilk
For the berries:
- 3 c. fresh strawberries, washed, hulled and sliced
- 1/4 – 1/2 c. sugar (will depend on the sweetness of your berries)
- pinch of salt
For the cream:
- 1 c. heavy whipping cream
- 3 T. sugar or powdered sugar
- 1 tsp. vanilla
Preheat your oven to 450 degrees. Grease a large baking sheet and set aside.
In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar and salt. Using a pastry blender, fork or your fingertips, blend in the butter until you have a coarse mixture with pea-sized bits of butter distributed evenly. Make a well in the center and pour in the buttermilk; gently stir it into the flour mixture, just until combined. You will have a lumpy, sticky dough, but that is to be expected. Use a tablespoon to drop dough into 12 equal mounds on your prepared pan. Bake for 18-20 mins., until biscuits are golden brown. Remove from the oven and cool for about an hour (or longer) before serving.
At least an hour before you plan to make shortcakes, mix the sliced strawberries with the sugar and salt and allow to sit at room temperature. The sugar will draw juice out from the berries and make a simple, delicious syrup. This step can even be done the day before– rest the mixture, covered, in the fridge instead of at room temperature.
Make the cream just before serving. Whip the cold cream at high speed with a mixer or immersion blender. When it thickens enough that you can lift the beater out and see a formed peak, add the sugar or powdered sugar and vanilla. Continue beating the cream until it is as thick as you like.
To assemble, place a biscuit, whole or cut in half like a clamshell, in a bowl and ladle a spoonful of strawberries and syrup over the top. Dollop with whipped cream and serve immediately.