Strawberry Shortcake (The Real)

June 12, 2016
NOTE 1: I made the pictured shortcake with (freshly ground) spelt flour, so the finished product is more darkly golden than it would have been with all-purpose flour.
NOTE 2: This post has been adapted from the Strawberry Shortcake section of my spoken-word CD, I Love Pie. Find it and download it at .     
In our house we eat strawberries only when the local crop arrives, in mid- to late June. I still remember those nice long strawberry seasons in various warmer places I've lived, but I've adjusted to the shorter Ontario growing season. (I also remember, back in the old days, paying 25 cents a quart for local berries, two dollars for a whole flat!)*
Here's how to make your strawberry shortcake. Buy the berries when they're in season and get ready to pig out.**  I find it quite reasonable to eat in-season strawberry shortcake for three meals a day. Just as I am finally beginning to get bored with this diet (say, after 20 days), our strawberry season comes to a halt. Good timing.The whole point of eating with the seasons is that you have to pig out while you have the chance.
The Strawberries
Gently dump two quarts of local, in-season berries into a colander and rinse them quickly with running water. Stem them and cut each one into three or four slices if they are large. Otherwise, halve them or leave them whole. Or you can swipe through the berries a few times with a pastry blender, cutting them roughly into smaller pieces so the juices can run. Add two tablespoons of sugar and let stand, covered and refrigerated, for a few hours if you have time.
The Biscuit Dough
Shortcake is not a little round sponge cake bought at the supermarket. Nor is it a piece of pound cake. Shortcake is biscuit dough, which you probably already know how to make, It is sometimes (but not inevitably) gussied up to accompany strawberries. Gussying-up suggestions are provided in a separate section after this one.
First, here are two standard biscuit dough recipes. Like pie crust dough, biscuit dough will become tough if over-handled. So you want a light hand for biscuits just as you do for pies. Here are the proportions for two good biscuit doughs--a sweet milk biscuit and a buttermilk biscuit. First, for a regular sweet-milk biscuit:
2 c. flour
1 T baking powder
½ tsp salt
4-6 T lard or butter, or a combination of the two
¾ c. milk
For buttermilk biscuits you add a little baking soda to counteract the acidity of the buttermilk (or its equivalent). Here are the ingredients:
2 c. flour
1 T baking powder
3/4 tsp baking soda
½ t. salt
4-6 T lard, butter, or a combination of the two
¾ c. buttermilk (instead of buttermilk you can use yogurt, sour cream, or milk made sour by adding a tablespoon of vinegar to a cup of milk)
For either version, here's how to put it all together. First, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Now put all the dry ingredients into a large bowl and mix them with a fork. Cut the fat into 1/2-inch cubes, then incorporate it into the dry ingredients by smushing each cube of fat with the flour.*** Pour in the milk or buttermilk all at once, then stir with a fork just until the dough begins to follow the fork around the bowl. Turn this mess out onto a floured board, scraping it all out with a rubber spatula.
Pull it together lightly with floured hands, and use a flat pancake turner or pastry scraper to lift up whatever is sticking to the board. Sprinkle a little more flour under the dough if you want. Knead the dough lightly four or five times, folding it over toward you and pressing the folded part away and down with the heel of your hands. Remember, however, that this is NOT bread dough. Keep your touch light as you knead and do not over-knead. Finally, turn the dough over so that the smooth round part is on top.
To make a shortcake for two, as in the picture, cut your ball of dough in half and refrigerate one half, well wrapped, for another day.
Pat or roll out the remaining dough to a one-inch thickness or less. Bake on an ungreased baking sheet for 20 minutes.
Gussying-Up for Shortcake  (nice but not necessary)
You can gussy up the usual biscuit dough for a richer shortcake, if you want: add from one to four tablespoons of sugar to the dry ingredients, beat an egg into the milk before combining the dry and liquid ingredients (decrease the amount of milk so that the total liquid measurement doesn't change), and/or use a full eight tablespoons or more of butter as the fat.
Make the dough as described above, through the kneading process. But don't roll it out. The best way (though admittedly not the only way) to form your shortcake is to divide the lightly kneaded dough not quite in half—say, a 60-40 split. Put the larger section on a buttered cookie sheet and pat it into a flat round, flouring your fingers to control the sticking. You want it to be less than half an inch thick. Now dot butter all over the top.
On a piece of floured waxed paper or parchment paper, pat or roll the remaining biscuit dough into a similar, though slightly smaller, circle. Carefully transfer it and position it on top of the larger round. This is easier to do if you have three hands, but essentially you want to up-end it and peel off the paper. Brush the top of this double-layered shortcake with milk and sprinkle it with sugar. Bake at 425 degrees for 25 minutes.****
This is a gussied-up shortcake. You can omit any of these gussyings (the sugar, the egg, the extra butter) until you've scaled all the way back to just plain biscuit dough, baked in one unlayered piece, and it will still be good. Gussying it up makes a fancier and richer dessert.
Serving the Shortcake
Timing is everything with strawberry shortcake. You want to serve it as soon as the biscuit comes from the oven. Better that you wait for your shortcake than that your shortcake waits for you.*****
With a long, thin knive, carefully split the hot shortcake, fresh from the oven, horizontally, a task made easier if you formed the two layers and put butter between them. Put the bottom half on a large platter, setting aside the top part. Spoon about half your berries over the shortcake on the platter, and watch as those accumulated juices soak into the hot biscuit. Quickly cover the berries with the reserved round of biscuit, golden-brown side up. Spoon more berries on top. Carry the shortcake to the table, to elicit the oohs and aahs (the cook's reward). Cut into wedges and serve in shallow bowls. This full recipe (two quarts of berries, shortcake made from two cupes of flour) will serve three gluttonous adults as a main course on a summer evening, or six ordinary people as dessert.
Some families demand whipped cream on their shortcake, but I have to ask, "Why?" The juxtaposition of tastes and textures (crisp, soft, juicy, tender, hot, and cold—not to mention wheat and fruit, my favourite combination)—well, this is heaven. Who needs dairy on top of heaven? But do what you want.
* In a good year our local Ontario berries are magnificently full of flavor. They have the soft texture of berry varieties that don't have to be shipped from California to the East Coast. Here's the shmoosh test you can use to distinguish between the local berry and the imported: instead of chomping a berry with your teeth, put one berry in your mouth and press upward with your tongue. The local strawberry will shmoosh delightfully against your palate and flavor will spread to all your taste buds. That's how you know you have a local berry, grown to be eaten now, not to be shipped thousands of miles, stored for a week in a supermarket cooler, and THEN eaten. So buy plenty and eat your fill every year during the season.
** When you bring them home from the market, cover a large baking sheet with two layers of paper towel, then dump a quart or two of berries onto the paper towels, without washing or stemming them. Go through the berries quickly and remove (for immediate eating) any that are getting soft. Rinse a tea towel with cold water and wring it out, then spread it over the berries. Refrigerate for up to two days (and, of course, wash and stem them before using).
***Ways to incorporate the fat into the flour: 1) "cut" it in by using two knives, one in each hand; 2) use a pastry blender (four or five curved parallel blades with a wooden or plastic handle across the top); 3) do it in the food processor, which I don't recommend because it risks over-working the dough (AND you have to clean the processor bowl); and 4) use your (clean) hands. This last one is the best way.
**** For individual servings of strawberry shortcake, roll the dough to less than half an inch and cut out the usual biscuit-sized circles. Put half the circles on a cookie sheet, dot with butter, and top with the remaining circles, just as you did for the larger version. Again brush the top with milk and sprinkle with a little sugar. Individual-sized shortcakes bake more quickly than the large one: 15 minutes at 425 degrees. To serve, cut and sandwich with the berries as you did for the larger one.These cute little individual servings are more elegant than the large shortcake, but not as dramatic. Your choice depends on your sun sign, I guess. Myself, I go for the dramatic.
*****I grudgingly admit that you can make the shortcake ahead of time and reheat it for ten minutes in a 300 degree oven. But It's MUCH better when it's freshly made.



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