Strawberries, as God Intended


“Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God ever did.”–William Butler 1600.

As you most likely noticed in yesterday’s photograph, I aquired some fresh, (just picked yesterday morning, in fact) locally grown strawberries, and I must tell you, they were a far cry from the plastic nubbins of nonsense that are sold in typical grocery stores. Not only are these fine beauties fragrant and brilliant crimson, they fairly burst with flavor when you bite them. The flesh yields to the teeth with tender grace without the slightest tendency to the swampy mush that berries will turn into if overripe or left to sit too long after picking. Honey sweet juice scented with floral delicacy rushes into the mouth, kissing the tongue with the promise of summer, while the faintest tang of acidity cleanses the palate and lingers as an aftertaste.

They are, in a word, delightful.

And so, I bought two quarts of them, just as I did last week.

And instead of eating them on top of french toast with maple syrup or folded into sour cream like we did last week, I decided I must do something more ambitious and jolly with them, and I knew just thing.

I had to make strawberry shortcake.

But, of course, it is foolish to make strawberry shortcake for only two people–it is rather a chore to bake the cakes and macerate the strawberries and then make some sort of creamy bit and then put it all together if only two people are going to be enjoy it. And I utterly refuse to purchase pound cake or worse, those little sponge cakelets with the divet in the center. Yes, I grew up eating those little squishy things, but I abhor them now; the little air pockets in the cakes fill up with strawberry juice and soon become soggy pink puddles of goo.

In a word: ugh.

No, I don’t like angelfood cake as a base for shortcake, either.

As far as I am concerned, strawberry shortcake is properly made with a slightly sweetened biscuit as the base, not a bit of spongy cake that is mostly air. Etymology and history are on my side in this case; according to Merriam-Webster, “shortcake” is “a dessert typically made with a very short baking powder biscuit…spread with fruit.” A “very short” biscuit is one made with shortening, meaning solid fat. In other words, the cake of a shortcake is a baking powder biscuit made with lots of solid fat. There is no mention over whether or not it should be sweetened, nor is there any about the presence of cream.

Historically speaking, however, strawberries and cream are a perfect pair, and have been eaten together in Europe probably ever since there were strawberries and cream available at the same time, which means at least as long as there have been people milking cows and goats and whatnot. There is a mention of how fond English ladies were of strawberries and cream in the writings of Henry IV’s physician dating to 1560, so it is obvious that the pairing of dreamy dairy products and berries has been classic for at least 445 years or so.

As for where the idea of pairing the biscuit with the berries comes from, I had always assumed it was a British innovation, but I may be wrong. It seems as though strawberry shortcake is a homegrown American invention that may have been inspired by a native American strawberry bread that was made from mashed wild berries (which were supposedly better than the European berries) mixed with a cornmeal dough, then baked on a hearthstone. The English colonists took the idea, and applied their knowledge of baking and used wheat flour, and a classic recipe was born. With the invention of baking powder in the nineteenth century, the dish took off and became wildly popular from the 1850′s on to the present day.

I am not sure when the spongecake abominations started to appear on grocery store shelves, nor am I going to waste the time to find out. I suspect it was an innovation of the 1950′s or 1960′s when mass-produced processed foods began to explode on the market and were eagerly adopted both by working mothers and stay-at-home housewives alike. It seems likely. I just know that I ate enough of those sodden sweets to last a lifetime and I refuse to eat any more.

So, where was I? Oh, yes–yesterday’s conundrum: I wanted to make shortcake, I had the ingredients, but didn’t want to make it for just two people. I was stewing on this problem when when the phone rang.

Zak answered it.

It was our dear friend Dan, who wanted to know if he could bring the new episodes of Dr. Who, downloaded from the Internet and burned to VCD for us to watch. Aha! An excuse! An excuse to make dinner and an excuse to make shortcake! And on top of it all, I get to see the new Dr., about whom Dan has been raving for the past several weeks or so.

So, the deal was made–he and Heather would come over, I would make dinner and then we would watch the good Dr. and all would be well. So, we bustled about, tidied up the house, beat the cathair off of the couch and I ran upstairs and started cutting up bits for Thai Basil Chicken.

Zak questioned the wisdom of pairing Thai Basil Chicken with strawberry shortcake.

“They won’t go together,” he said.

“Strawberry shortcake goes with everything,” I answered and returned to my slicing and dicing.

When they got there, I informed them that I was making strawberry shortcake for dessert, and there was great rejoicing.

And so it came to pass, that after dinner, I rolled up my sleeves, and proceeded to make dessert. It is quite easy, though it requires a bit more effort than simply opening packages of spongecake and shaking up a can of whipped cream.

I make cream scones as the shortcakes using a recipe that I adapted from one in a tiny volume called, Simply Scones by Leslie Weiner and Barbara Allbright. I confess to having only used one other recipe in the book besides the one for cream scones, but to my taste, those scones are the ones I measure all other scones against. They are the Ur-Scone in my culinary universe, and few others measure up to the velvety, melting crumb and the hauntingly delicate flavor of these scones.

But before you make the scones, you have to make the filling so that the berries have time to macerate and release their juices, and the cream has time to come to full flavor. Strawberries are related to roses, so I add a splash of rosewater to them while they sit and come to room temperature. It heightens the flavor of the berries while adding an elusive, seductive note to the fruit. And instead of using whipped cream, I follow the Eastern European tradition of using lightly sweetened sour cream. I learned this from Zak, whose mother always ate strawberries with sweetened sour cream; the idea probably was passed from her family who were Lithuanian.

At any rate, here is the recipe for my version of strawberry shortcake, which is guaranteed to knock the socks off of anyone who eats it.

Oh, and by the way, it -does- too go with Thai food, just like I said. There was not one complaint last night during dessert about it being too weird of a combination. So, not only will this recipe taste great–it goes with anything.

Every cook needs a dessert recipe that is that versatile.

Strawberry Shortcake

Ingredients:

1 quart fresh, local strawberries, hulled and sliced
raw sugar to taste
rosewater to taste
1/2 pint sour cream
1 1/2 tablespoons evaporated cane juice (Sucanat) or white sugar

2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup raw sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup chilled butter, cut into small cubes
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 large egg
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract (I use Penzey’s double strength vanilla extract for a heavy punch of flavor)
1 egg mixed with 1 teaspoon water for glaze

Method:

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Set a silpat on a baking sheet and spray it lightly with baking spray or butter it lightly. (If you don’t have a silpat, just lightly butter the baking sheet.)

Put berries in a bowl in a warm place and sprinkle with sugar and rosewater. Toss lightly and allow to sit undisturbed until they come to room temperature and the berries release their juices.

In another bowl, whisk together the sour cream and evaporated cane juice or sugar. Whisk until the sugar dissolves. Cover and refridgerate until it is time to assemble the shortcakes.

In a medium sized bowl, mix together all dry ingredients. Whisk together the cream, egg, and vanilla extract until well combined.

Sprinkle cubes of butter over the flour mixture and cut in with a pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, mixing together until just combined.

With lightly floured hands, knead the mixture gently until it comes together into a single ball of dough. Lay it on the prepared baking sheet and pat it into a flat disk about 1″ thick.

With a bench knife or sharp chef’s knife, cut in half and each half into thirds until you have six roughly equal sized wedges. Pull the wedges slightly apart so that air can circulate between them.

Mix together second egg and water until well combined. Brush over the tops of the scones with this glaze and bake in preheated oven for 13-18 minutes, or until lightly browned.

When they are golden, take them out of the oven and cool slightly on a wire rack. When cool enough to handle, split scones in half. Place bottom half on a plate, top with a tablespoon or two of berries, and then a tablespoon and a half of cream. Place top of scone on top of cream, top with more berries and a dollup more of the cream.

If you wish, garnish with mint leaves or a strawberry fan.

Serves six.

Notes:

To cut a strawberry fan, choose a small, perfect berry. Leave the leafy top on. Starting at the tip and cutting toward the leaves, cut thin slices about 3/4 of the way through the berry, stopping all at the same point. When these slices are cut, lay the berry on a cutting board and lightly flatten it, fanning out the slices.

About the rosewater: I usually use about 2 teaspoons of it, but how much you use depends on what brand you use and how strong it is. I suggest Cortas brand.

About the sour cream: you can use lowfat, but full fat is better tasting–but which ever one you use, make sure to use a really good naturally produced brand without a lot of guar gum and other weirdo ingredients.

About the evaporated cane juice and raw sugar: I use the cane juice because it has a slightly more complex flavor and because it dissolves better in the sour cream. I use the raw sugar because I like the flavor of it better. If you want, you can substitute plain white sugar in the same amounts in this recipe.

Variation: For really sweet berries, you can be Italian and add a dash of really good balsamic vinegar to the maceration mixture. It really works, and tastes absolutely divine.

You can also use this recipe with blackberries to wonderful effect, including the use of rosewater. However, with blackberries, I use whipped cream to which I have added a bit of Irish Cream liquor.

10 Comments

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  1. That does sound divine Barbara! I never heard of the rose water with strawberries before, then the other day I read some magazine saying it – and here you go too! I’ll have to try it!

    Comment by Zarah Maria — June 6, 2005 #

  2. I have to agree with you on one thing… people use angel food cake to go with too much. I like it, but I prefer it by itself. Even worse when somebody thinks they need to put crappy icing on it (icing does NOT go on angel food cake). I’ve eaten it with ice cream on occasion but that’s about as far as I’ll go. Shame my mom won’t make it any more… for some reason angel food cakes seem to explode in our oven (and no, my mother is not a bad cook lol).

    I’ll admit I have bought the sponge cake things… but usually just to eat them straight when that’s the cheapest cakelike thing I can find (I can’t help it, for most of the year I have a major sweet tooth in addition to my carnivorous habits).

    But now you’ve gone and made me hungry again. :P Strawberries have to be the best fruit in existence. Followed by pomegranites and black raspberries straight off the bush… Though I have to admit, I don’t like the monstrous huge strawberries they have stocked in a lot of places now. Give me a lot of little ones – they’re sweeter, juicier, and have more flavor to them.

    Comment by Karyl — June 6, 2005 #

  3. Rosewater is one of my “secret” ingredients in a lot of dishes, Zarah. It is particularly good with strawberries, blackberries and raspberries–they are all related to roses botanically, and so the scents and flavors go perfectly together. But I also use rosewater to flavor milky puddings and icings as well. It is quite often an unexpected surprise, and is nearly always a welcome one.

    Angelfood cake is indeed supposed to be pretty much left alone, Karyl. But, because it is low in fat, folks will use it for the base of a shortcake. And if that is the reason, I don’t quibble much, but I just don’t like it.

    Those spongecakie puck things–I used to like them well enough as a kid, but they tend to make me shudder now. I think it is the fake vanilla taste that gets me now, or maybe the overpowering sweetness of them.

    That is the thing about the scones as a base for shortcake–they aren’t very sweet at all. That gives a good contrast with the berries.

    As for berries; I am with you. Size, however, matters less than where and how they were grown. Locally grown, freshly picked berries will be riper and sweeter by far than any you get in the grocery store that have been shipped from California. The texture is also better.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — June 6, 2005 #

  4. I have also noticed that, for some reason, strawberries shipped in from Florida seem to be better than the ones from California. Dunno what the difference is in how they’re grown, but it’s driving me nuts that they’ve stopped stocking the Florida ones as much.

    For a black thummb and lack of a garden, alas, I must stick to grocery store berries. Unless somebody can get me out to the farmer’s market once in a while. I need to do that at least once… I have been told many enticing things about it…

    Comment by Karyl — June 7, 2005 #

  5. Well, shoot, where do you live, Karyl? Maybe we could pick you up and you could come with some Saturday morning?

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — June 8, 2005 #

  6. Any time you want to make your strawberry shortcake and/or Thai food, we would be happy as proverbial clams to come and help you eat it!

    I love the idea of sour cream instead of whipped cream for strawberry shortcake – we often find ourselves using creme fraiche instead of whipped cream. I really like the slight sharpness that contrasts with the sweetness of the strawberries. And most recently, we made a fantastic topping for strawberries with cream cheese and cream: http://etherwork.net/blog/?p=125

    I completely agree with you about the sponge cake. What is sponge cake for anyway. It seems entirely useless. Surely meringue would be a much better thing to use up extraneous egg whites.

    -Elizabeth

    Comment by ejm — July 19, 2005 #

  7. That is a heck of a drive for Thai food and shortcake!

    I will try the cream cheese and cream idea. Sounds good to me!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — July 19, 2005 #

  8. It sounds like it will be worth it though! And it will put a whole new twist on this “Eat Local Challenge”. (If the food you want isn’t made locally, go to where it is….)

    I hope you like the creamy cream cheese as much as we do. It really is brilliant.

    Elizabeth

    Comment by ejm — July 20, 2005 #

  9. Creamy cream cheese cannot help but be brilliant, really.

    That is one of the things I like to do when I travel–eat whatever is the local seasonal speciality. I have very seldom been disappointed that way.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — July 20, 2005 #

  10. Yes, us too. It seems silly to travel somewhere and then expect to eat exactly the same food that would be served at home. I find it remarkable that so many people not like us seem to want to do just that. How else would McDonalds, et al have managed to infiltrate so many cities?

    -Elizabeth

    Comment by ejm — July 23, 2005 #

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