On a Sunday night in June, you are required, by cosmic law, to make strawberry shortcake. I don’t know if you knew that. I just found out. There’s apparently a similar law for July, only it governs tomato-and-mayonnaise sandwiches. You’ve been warned.
Last week, we had two friends visiting from Scotland. Whenever we have visitors, I tend to want to take them to lots of restaurants, because that seems like the best way to show them our city, but when jet lag is involved, it feels mean to force anyone to sit upright or speak in complete sentences after approximately mid-afternoon. So on Sunday night, after a morning visit to the farmer’s market and a long walk down to Golden Gardens, past a cluster of plastic flamingos and a creepy guy digging for sand worms and back up the hill again, we decided to stay home. Our friends shelled peas and opened a bottle of wine, and I washed arugula, put on a pot of water for pasta, and got some sauce going.
While the pots were warming, I started thinking about the strawberries we had bought that morning, the first ones to show up this summer. Seattle is always slow to get its local summer fruits and vegetables, but this year has felt especially late – like, trains-in-Italy late. Now that we’ve actually got strawberries, I wanted to do right by them. I wanted to do something special, something celebratory, but I didn’t want it to be too special, to get in the way of tasting the fruit. And that, I think, is a pretty good way to describe shortcake.
When I was a kid, in Oklahoma, most people bought their shortcakes: the packaged kind from the grocery store, sealed in noisy plastic wrappers, yellow and spongy, shaped like large, concave hockey pucks – or maybe they were more like saucers? Deep saucers? Shallow ashtrays? Anyway, my mother refused to buy them. Instead, she baked her shortcakes from scratch, shoulder to shoulder in a 9”-x-13” pan, cooled and cut apart and sandwiched with whipped cream and strawberries macerated with sugar. But that was years ago, and when I asked her what recipe she used, she said she doesn’t remember. She said it was probably something from Martha Stewart, but she didn’t sound confident about it. We’ll never know. I was on my own.
The version I was after would not be spongy, but more like my mother’s, more like a biscuit. I like my shortcakes very tender, crumbly, and flaky – but more crumbly than flaky, ideally. I like the crumb very short and slightly sweet, and the top should be riddled with crags and lumps. The thin, outermost crust should be a little crisp at the edges, and when you stick a fork in, the crumb should yield with a quiet whoosh. That’s important.
So, Sunday night, I scoured my shelves, and I wound up settling on a recipe from Dorie Greenspan, my longtime hero when it comes to sweets, and her book Baking. She calls the recipe “Tender Shortcakes,” and that about nails it. I knew right away that I wanted to tell you about them.
There’s nothing inventive or even terribly blog-worthy about a classic strawberry shortcake, but we don’t need to reinvent the wheel every day. This blog is the place where I record my best stuff, and Dorie’s is the best shortcake I’ve ever had. Not only would I happily eat it on its own – on its own and, hell, maybe even a week stale! That’s true love – but it uses very basic ingredients, the kind I always have around: flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, butter, and cream. It also comes together like lightning, with no need for floured countertops, rolling pins, or cookie cutters. As nice desserts go, it’s pretty close to instant. This one’s coming with me into July.
You could serve these shortcakes with any kind of berry, and I’ll bet sliced nectarines or peaches would also be outstanding. You’ll want about ½ cup fruit per serving. I like to keep it simple and toss the fruit only with sugar – a small amount, to taste – and whatever you do, be sure to let the sugared fruit sit for about 15 minutes before serving, so that it gets nice and juicy and some syrup pools at the bottom of the bowl. That’s the stuff. Serve with unsweetened, softly whipped cream.
Center a rack in the oven, and preheat the oven to 425°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Add the butter and, using your fingers, toss to coat with flour. Quickly, working with your fingertips, pinch and rub the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture is pebbly. Some pieces of butter will be about the size of peas, while other will be more like flakes of oatmeal.
Pour the cream over the dry ingredients, and toss and gently turn the ingredients with a fork until you’ve got a very soft dough. You’ll probably still have some flour at the bottom of the bowl, so reach in and use your hand to mix and gently knead the dough until it’s evenly blended. But don’t get overzealous: it’s better to have a few dry spots than an overworked dough. The dough should be soft and sticky.
Cut the dough into 10 roughly equal portions (each will be about 1/3 cup), and put 5 or 6 of them on the baking sheet, leaving about 3 inches of space between them. Pat each portion down until it’s about 1 inch high. [The shortcakes can be made to this point, wrapped in plastic wrap, and stashed in the freezer. Bake without defrosting – just add 5+ minutes to the baking time.]
Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, rotating the sheet from front to back midway through, until the shortcakes are puffed and give just a little when poked with a fingertip. Pull the pan from the oven, and carefully transfer the shortcakes to a cooling rack. Repeat with the remaining dough, cooling the baking sheet first.
Serve the shortcakes slightly warm or at room temperature. To serve, use a serrated knife to gently cut each cake in half horizontally. (They’re fragile, so go easy.) Put the bottom halves on plates, top with berries and whipped cream, and then cap with the top halves.
Yield: 10 servings