Sunday, June 10, 2007

The First Strawberries

By the sheerest luck, I drove down a road that I don’t frequent much and saw the sign, tacked to a tree: “Our own strawberries.” Already? With all that rain? I hadn’t even been thinking about strawberries yet as a present versus anticipated pleasure. So, so much for writing about mayonnaise this week. Strawberries call.
At this early stage of the year, when a few pints are available rather than entire flats, the temptation is to just eat them out of hand. Early as it is, the berries are still red right through, with true strawberry flavor and, if not fully sweet as they will soon be, sweet enough. Strawberry shortcake seemed the just-so thing to do: classic, quick, requiring only a pint of good berries, a symbol of early summer, and preserve-making yet-to-come.
In New England, we make shortcake with biscuit, not sponge cake: that, after all, is why it’s called short-cake. It is old-fashioned and satisfying, for breakfast or dessert, a favorite end to church suppers and a centerpiece of June strawberry festivals. It is easy to make and easy to eat.
You can use any biscuit you like--buttermilk, sour milk, sweet milk, sour cream—and each brings a slightly different match to the berries. Sometimes, like here, I make a richer, and somewhat sturdier and less crumbly shortcake, particularly useful when you make it a large round instead of a lot of little small cakes—which, of course, is faster and leaves no messy counter to scrape clean. And eliminates the fussy assembly of individual servings.
Instead of whipped cream, I actually prefer the more traditional New England approach of pouring fresh, thick, unwhipped heavy cream over strawberry shortcake. Most people expect whipped, though, so I try not to be too purist when potentially inflexible diners are around—I can save that for private consumption. And if you cannot obtain real, high-butterfat, unhomogenized cream, you are better off with whipped anyway. For these reasons, the recipe below specifies whipped.

Strawberry Shortcake (This will serve 4-6.)
2 cups all-purpose flour (see Note)
1/3 cup sugar
½ tea salt
3 tea baking powder
1/3 cup butter (a generous 5 T) or a mixture of butter and lard
¾ cup whole fresh milk
1 egg
softened butter
1-2pints ripe, juicy strawberries (you could use the quart; I like a greater proportion of
of shortcake)
2 T sugar, more if needed
¾ c heavy cream, whipped
Triple-sift dry ingredients. Cut in butter; if using some lard, cut butter in first, then lard. Beat egg and milk together, and pour over, blending with a fork just until flour disappears. With your hands, gently turn the dough over a few times to bring it loosely together, then turn it into a buttered 9” cake pan, patting it lightly out to about ½ from the edge. Bake 15 minutes in a 425 F oven. Let cool in pan 5 minutes, then turn it out onto a rack and cool an additional 5 minutes.
While shortcake is baking, hull and slice strawberries, in half or quarters depending on size. Lightly crush about half of them with the back of a wooden spoon, then toss them all together lightly with the sugar and set aside; you can usually get away with less sugar on local berries, and they will still yield plenty of juice. When the shortcake has cooled down but is still warm, split it horizontally with a serrated bread knife, turning the cake to cut through evenly. Place the bottom, cut-side up, on a decorative pie plate (to catch juices), and spread with soft butter and about half the whipped cream. Distribute half the sweetened berries over the cream. Place the top of the shortcake, top-side up, on the berries. Spoon the remaining whipped cream into the center, cover with the remaining berries and their juices, and serve, cut in wedges or simply spooned, as soon as possible. Like summer, fresh strawberry shortcake is an ephemeral thing.
Note: You could use White Lily self-rising flour, a soft-wheat flour that already includes baking powder and salt, instead of all-purpose; increase the flour amount by ¼ cup, and cut the baking powder to 1 teaspoon. This flour is a bit more forgiving than a-p flour for making biscuits, but it is a light touch that goes a long way toward biscuit success.
P.S. OK, it’s a day later and suddenly there are the signs—everywhere. “Strawberries--Pick your own,” etc. Time to pull out the canning jars. As you can see, the lettuce is out too!


anne said...

Jane, I must admit that your comments about strawberries inspired me to immediately bake a shortcake. I don't think that there could be a bad shortcake recipe. Once you add extra fat (cream) and the freshly picked strawberries how can you go wrong? I wanted to share with you a recipe that I picked up in "Cooking from Quilt Country" by Marcia Adams. It is my favorite shortcake recipe by far. The secret is that she substitues 1/4 cup cornstarch for some of the flour and adds only 2TB of sugar. This produces a shortcake with a very smooth texture. When the shortcake comes out of the oven she recommends spreading it "lavishly with softned butter." Heavenly!

Jane said...

Anne, thank you for this; your comments always add something useful. In all the years I've had the Marcia Adams book, and all the recipes I've made from it, somehow I've never tried the shortcake. So, coming right up. . . The cornstarch is intriguing.