I have a love/hate relationship with Strawberry Shortcake. I generally have a “no fruit” dessert policy, save apple and pumpkin pie. Why waste my few precious carb calories on a dessert with no chocolate? Seems like madness, truly.
The other thing is, well, I thought shortcake sort of sucked. It’s either made with that yellow spongy crap that I now realize is the yellow spongy cake that makes up a Twinkie. Well played, Hostess. Tell people that all they have to do is spray whipped cream into these yellow dimpled cake shells and top with strawberries. Voilà! Strawberry “shortcake”! Or, it’s made with cut up store bought Angel Food Cake. Ugh.
A few years ago I had a berry shortcake at a small restaurant in Annapolis called “O’Leary’s”. Honestly, the other desserts looked terrible. “Terrible” being defined as a dessert “containing chocolate that was contaminated with fruit”. Is there a rule that raspberries must be in a chocolate dessert? Anyway, it was an order of last resort. My low expectations were exceeded when a lovely confection was placed in front of me. A tender, yet crispy biscuit split and oozing thick whipped cream topped with berries of all colors. What was this? Where was the Angel Food or bland yellow cake? Instead, I got an actual “shortcake” and it was amazing. Despite it being really good, I had no desire at the time to make it because of the whole lack of chocolate thing.
So, I’m reading the Wall Street Journal the other day and come across an article about how the French are up in arms about whether an establishment can be called a “restaurant” when it doesn’t actually cook all of the food served. Some of the food, gasp, is frozen and prepared off site.
This article brought me back to my shortcake experience, and other brushes with mass produced food being used in a “restaurant”. The “semi-homemade” take on strawberry shortcake is far removed from the real dessert. The same could be said for dry chocolate cake or waxy “New York Style” cheesecake. Most desserts at restaurants are so lackluster. They pretty much taste like they came from Costco, Restaurant Depot, or some other mass production facility. I was very sad to learn that Molten Chocolate Cake dessert can be microwaved in a minute and served. Sigh.
One time, at Outback Steakhouse, my plate came out with a plastic bag on it. Inside the bag were my veggies, freshly microwaved, I presume. Honestly, it’s why I cook. I know where my stuff comes from and who made it.
So, inspired by some of the most esteemed names in French Cooking saying they had to preserve the French Cuisine, I wanted to make a real, authentic shortcake. My small attempt to rescue the true shortcake from the “dessert shell” purgatory it’s currently in. On the plus side, there are plenty of old recipes. On the minus side, they are all different. Of course they are!!!
First of all, shortcake is not so named because the cake is short. It’s because a fat inhibits the flour from forming long structures. Adding a fat (in this case two, butter and shortening) creates the “short” part of the shortcake. Shortcake also got a boost of lightness from the advent of chemical leaveners like baking soda and baking powder. Traditional English shortcakes made without chemical leavening are extremely dense.
I think it’s amazing that a classic dessert is built around the humble strawberry. A fruit that, realistically, was only available for a very few weeks every year. Strawberries are fragile and they have a short harvest season. Despite the restricted availability of strawberries during her time, Fannie Farmer has no fewer than 3 dessert recipes for just Strawberry Short Cake in just one of her cookbooks. She also has one for “Fruit Short Cake”, which, according to Mrs. Farmer may also include strawberries. The dessert called for the strawberry to be paired with a quick cooking “shortcake”. Originally, whipped cream was not part of the dessert. Just a sweetened shortcake, strawberries, sugar and butter. By the mid-1800s, whipped cream became integrated into the recipe.
While any berry could be used, the dessert is synonymous with strawberries. You can certainly make a “raspberry shortcake”, but let’s just say they didn’t name a doll “Raspberry Shortcake”. This is certainly a classic summer recipe. And, really, making the shortcake is very easy. Make the whole dessert and really, you won’t be disappointed.
I love cooking from extremely old, some would say “historic” cookbook. I feel a bit like an archeologist trying to recreate the exact dish the author did over a hundred years ago! I picked a very traditional recipe from Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cook Book called: Rich Strawberry Short Cake, she credits a “Hotel Pastry Cook” with the recipe.
Rich Strawberry Short Cake
2 cups of flour
1/4 cup of sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/3 cup butter (about 5 1/3 tablespoons butter, diced)
1 1/4 tablespoons lard or vegetable shortening
1 egg, well beaten
2/3 cup of milk
1 pint strawberries, washed and quartered with tops removed
1 quart heavy whipping cream
Heat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly grease 12 inch cast iron skillet with lard.
Mix dry ingredients and sift twice. Work in butter and lard to the flour mixture, until mixture appears crumbly. Add egg and milk. Stir until the dry ingredients are moistened. You may need to add a bit more milk if there is still a lot of dry flour. Place mixture in the cast iron skillet, and use your hands to spread mixture into the pan. (Tip, oil hands first!) Bake until the bottom is lightly browned and a slight crust is apparent when the shortcake is touched, about 12 minutes.
While the shortcake is baking, sprinkle enough sugar on the strawberries to sweeten the fruit and slightly macerate, about 1-2 tablespoons, depending on the strawberries.
Whip the cream until stiff peaks are formed. If sweet whipped cream is preferred, add a tablespoon of sugar to the cream while it is being whipped. A bit of vanilla extract (a teaspoon) can be added too.
Split shortcake, add whipped cream and strawberries layered with the shortcake, and serve.