June 21, 2015
Notice the date above. It's JUNE. It's strawberry shortcake time. Now, I am all about improv and jazz in cooking, about making do, making up, making it any way you want. But NOT when strawberry shortcake is concerned. For me, there is only one kind of strawberry shortcake. And can you guess? It doesn't involve those little store-bought sponge cakes.
Like many other dishes, this is one that should be made only with fresh, local berries. You've got a month or so, depending on where you live. What I do, because we have a three-week season, is eat strawberry shortcake until it is coming out my ears. And then the season is over and I stop eating it.
The "cake" part of this is not a cake at all. It is biscuit dough. And it is "short" because you make the biscuit with more fat than usual. I am averse to giving recipes, but in this case I'll make an exception, because you want the best possible version of a strawberry shortcake.
Strawberries are among the most heavily sprayed crops (to deter mold in humid summer weather), so it's worth it to pay the extra and buy organically grown berries. And local, of course, as I said. For two people, you'll want at least a quart (four cups) of berries. In my house, six cups is more like it. Wash the berries briefly (put them in a colander and spray water over them, letting them drain immediately), then stem them and cut them into halves or quarters. Sprinkle with a tablespoon or two of sugar. Let them stand while you make the biscuit.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
In a large-ish bowl put:
2 c. flour (half whole-wheat is good)*
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
Mix these together with a fork.
Cut a stick of cold butter (that's 8 tablespoons) into pieces. (You'll need additional butter for dotting the top of the biscuit.) With a pastry blender or with your fingers, work the flour and the butter together until the fat is pea-sized or smaller. Then add:
1 cup yogurt (OR yogurt mixed half-and-half with milk OR milk soured with a tablespoon of cider vinegar)
Stir with a fork until the mixture follows the fork around the bowl. Turn it out onto a lightly floured counter or board and knead lightly (LIGHTLY) three to five times to pull it all together. For tender biscuits, you need a light hand. Re-flour your board if it needs it, then pat the dough out it to make it about an inch thick. (If you are new to this, it is easier to cut the dough in half at this point and roll/pat just half the dough at a time.)
Use a round cutter (could be a thin-rimmed glass) to make three-inch biscuits, and lift these with a thin spatula onto a cookie sheet. Gently pull the leftover dough into a mound and press it out so you can cut more biscuits.
Put the cookie sheet into the oven and set the timer for 12 to 15 minutes. When the biscuits are golden brown, remove the pan from the oven. While the biscuits are still hot, assemble your strawberry shortcake: carefully cut a biscuit in half and set it in your serving dish. Ladle about half the berries over that bottom half, then set the other half atop the berries and spoon the rest of the berries over it. This will be your quintessential strawberry shortcake.
This amount of dough makes 14 to 18 biscuits, depending on the size of your cutter. A normal serving is two biscuits. Don't ask how many I eat at one sitting, because I won't tell you.
If you need fewer biscuits (say, if there are only two of you), then you can refrigerate part of the unrolled biscuit dough for a day or two.
*You can make a gluten-free version by substituting any all-purpose GF flour for the wheat flour. The biscuit will be pretty good and will look about the same.
PERMISSIBLE VARIATIONS that will still result in a Classic Strawberry Shortcake:
Before you bake the biscuits you can rub each with a bit of milk and sprinkle with sugar. OR you can dot the top with butter.
You can make one giant shortcake, either round or rectangular. Putting the big biscuit on a large, pretty platter, cut the baked biscuit open carefully and cover the bottom with half the berries. Replace the top and pour the rest of the berries over it. This makes a crowd-pleasing spectacle, if you're serving six to eight people.
You can butter the hot biscuits as soon as you cut them open, then close them up for a few minutes so the butter melts.
You can top any of these versions with whipped cream, but why would you? It will only cut down on the amount of berries-and-biscuit that you can eat. And June comes only once a year.
You can add a little sugar (up to 1/4 cup) to the biscuit dough before mixing in the liquids. But again, why would you? Part of the lusciousness of this dish is the contrast between the natural wheaty sweetness and the tart but lightly sugared berries. Sugar the dough if you want, but on your head be it.
If you don't mind fussing around in the service of delicious, then you can try this: make either a large version or individual biscuits. But divide the dough in half before patting it out. Pat (or use a rolling pin) one part half an inch thick, then cut out with the cookie cutter or leave it whole. Transfer to a cookie sheet with a spatula, then dot liberally with butter. Pat or roll out the second half the same way and make lids (or a lid, singular, if you're going large). Bake as usual, with or without a milk-and-sugar topping. In this version, the biscuits will separate easily in order to give you a top-and-bottom, and there's no need to butter the bottoms, since they are pre-buttered.
You can, of course, use this biscuit dough to make just plain delicious biscuits. As my Southern friends used to say: take two and butter 'em while they're hot. Vary the thickness of your biscuits until you find what suits you. (I like thin-ish, crispy biscuits about an inch and a half in diameter; others like honkin' thick four-inch ones sometimes called "cat's-head biscuits.")