Strawberry shortcake – a sure sign that summer has arrived though you wouldn’t know it around here. The combination of a crumbly, not too sweet, cake topped with deep red berries bursting with flavor and a big scoop of sweet cream is a highly anticipated treat each year. And let’s face it: grocery store strawberries tend to disappoint. You need berries with some flavor! Strawberries that taste like strawberries! When was the last time you had some of those?
Yes, I know. I’m fortunate. Our farmer’s markets are bursting with little wooden baskets of gorgeous berries, red all the way through. It wasn’t until a trip to a San Diego farmer that I learned I even liked strawberries again; I’d become so resigned to bland, flavorless fruit. But I’ll give an inch on grocery store berries if you make you own cakes and whipped cream. Do we have a deal? Makes all the difference in the world.
When I was a kid, shortcakes consisted of a package of cello-wrapped yellow, spongey cakes with a circular indent in the center. We used a lot of Cool Whip back then too. My mom, while a really fantastic cook, isn’t much of a baker and hey, it was the 70’s. This we what most of us ate in the 70’s. I loved these things with all their pre-fab twinkie-like goodness. We all loved them.
But I’ve matured and learned what makes a good shortcake and it didn’t come in a package. I started making my own, fresh from the oven. Sometimes they lean toward the biscuit end of the scale, other times more toward the scone-like end. I learned that I liked the scone-like cakes best. A little sweet and just the slightest touch on the dry side to absorb those beautiful berry juices.
This time, I added a little cinnamon to the dough, a recipe I picked up from one of my catering gigs, and I like how the spice accents the cake. To the berries, I sugared them as usual to let the juices flow but I added a little red wine to enhance that flavor as well as a little lemon verbena, one of my favorite herbs. If you don’t have that, mint would be nice as would a little basil, or skip it entirely.
The technique is simple – one bowl, one spoon. To keep them flaky, freeze the stick of butter until firm then grate it on the large holes of a cheese grater right into the dry ingredients. The butter will be exactly the right size and stay nice and cold. Gently mix in the egg and cream and there’s your dough. Simple but be sure to keep the dough cold. The cakes should go into the oven cold as they have a tendency to spread if the slightest bit warm.
Topped with those delicious, juicy berries and a beautiful spoonful of sweetened whipped cream accented with some vanilla and you have a classic summer dessert.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: FULL ON BERRY GOODNESS. Sure, this is a great dish to cap that summer BBQ you’re about to have. However, I’ll let you in on a little secret. Technically, if you work your dough just right, you’ll get 9 shortcakes and well, as we all know, that’s just one too many. Have to do something about that. So take that odd cake, put it on a plate, top it with some berries, a little of that delectable juice and a good plop of whipped cream. Then walk immediately to that great chair you love, preferably outside, and eat the thing yourself. You’re only doing you civic duty to even out the numbers. Good job.
For the shortcakes:
1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 ¼ teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 ½ Tablespoons sugar
½ cup unsalted butter (1 stick) – frozen
1 large egg
½ cup heavy cream
2 Tablespoons sugar + 2 Tablespoons heavy cream, for topping
for the berries:
1 quart strawberries, washed, stemed and sliced
½ cup sugar
2 teaspoons red wine
1 Tablespoon lemon verbena, finely minced (optional)
for the cream:
2 cups heavy cream
1 ½ Tablespoons powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla (or vanilla paste)
- Preheat the oven to 325°F and place the stick of butter in the freezer if you haven’t already.
- For the shortcakes: in a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder and cinnamon then whisk in the sugar.
- Using the large holes on a box grater, grate the frozen butter into the flour mixture and toss to coat. Alternatively, cut the butter into very small pieces.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the egg and ½ cup cream.
- Add the egg/cream mixture to the flour mixture and stir until just combined.
- Turn the dough onto the work surface and knead gently until all dry bits are incorporated. Do not overknead.
- Lightly flour the worksurface and the top of the dough and roll to a thickness of 1”.
- With a 2” round cutter, press straight down, without twisting, cut out as many circles as you can, minimizing the scraps as much as possible.
- Reroll the scraps and cut circles. Try to use all the scraps on the second pass– the more you reroll, the tougher the dough.
- Place rounds on a parchment or Silpat lined baking sheet.
- Lightly brush the biscuit tops with the 2 Tablespoons cream and sprinkle with the 2 Tablespoons sugar (you probably won’t use it all.)
- Bake until lightly golden brown – about 15 minutes.
- For the berries: toss the cut berries with the sugar, red wine, a pinch of salt and the lemon verbena if using.
- Set aside to macerate – at least ½ hour or up to several hours. (The berries will break down over time so you don’t want to do this a day ahead.)
- For the cream: in the bowl of a standing mixter fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the cream, powdered sugar and cinnamon to soft peak.
- To serve: place a shortcake on a plate, top with a good scoop of berries, some of the juice and a big spoonful of whipped cream. Serve immediately.