‘Tis the Season (for strawberry shortcake)
Ah, June. Roses are in bloom, weddings and graduation exercises occupy the weekends, and it’s time to head to the beach. Summer in full swing! Summer at last!
So why am I making Thanksgiving dinner on what is, to date, the hottest day of the year?
Welcome, dear reader, to the topsy-turvy world of the food writer. Like fashion models who don heavy mink coats in July and itsy-bitsy bikinis in December in order to accommodate magazine production schedules, foodwriters are always working many months into the future. This leads to a rarefied category of Seasonal Affective Disorder: Seasonal Displacement Disorder — a syndrome in which the patient is unreasonably preoccupied with the events and sentiments normally reserved for a season approximately six months into the future.
My own current out-of-season task is, in a particularly cruel and ironic twist, to test Thanksgiving recipes that rely on local foods in season. However, I can’t get some of the ingredients because, that’s right, they’re not in season.
I called my produce connection at the local market and left a panicky message: “Hey, man, do you think you can score me some chestnuts and pomegranates? There’s a mince pie in it for you if you do. Call me on my cell.”
Needless to say, this socially debilitating form of chrono-isolation often results in food writers seeking out their own kind. It’s entirely normal for two food writers to sit on a porch swing on a perfect summer evening, the air heavy with honeysuckle and heliotrope, and when the first food writer asks the second “What are you thinking about?” the second will reply “Oh, you know, root vegetables” and the first one will respond “Yeah. Me too. It’s that kind of night, isn’t it?”
So, for all of you “real timers” who “live in the now” and are able to move blithely through Spring and Summer without the scent of roses triggering obsessive thoughts of pumpkin pie and cornucopias, here is a recipe for strawberry shortcake.
I tested it on New Year’s Eve.
For this recipe I tried to create a shortcake that has the flaky, buttery texture of a biscuit crossed with the crumbly faint sweetness of a scone. The trace amounts of vanilla and sugar should produce a bit of a shortbread-like flavor that will serve as a nice backdrop to the berries’ intensity.
I prefer to use real vanilla extract rather than imitation and I always use organic berries. When my father first learned that I was scorning regular strawberries he raised his eyebrows and sniffed and said “Somebody’s lived in Cambridge for too long,” but after I showed him the list of foods on which it’s most important to spend one’s organic dollar he was duly chastened. (See the convenient wallet guide for more information.)
Always use fresh baking powder. Try to keep an extra recently purchased sealed can on hand in case your current can turns out to be kaput. Often cans that say they’re still good (check the expiration date on the bottom) have actually already gone off. I speak from bitter, non-risen-dough experience.
The trick to producing really luscious strawberries for the shortcake is to let the berries rest in sugar for just the right amount of time. If they spend too little time in the sugar they won’t have a chance to express their juices and the sugar and the berries will taste like two separate ingredients. If you leave the berries in the sugar for too long, they lose their texture, become gloppy, and taste more like lollipops than fruit. Of course it all depends on how ripe and how sweet the berries are to begin with, but I find that somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes is just the right amount of time for the sugar and the berries to make one another’s acquaintance. The berries will be sweet but they will still taste like they came off of a stem and not out of a jar.
Strawberries for Shortcake
3 to 4 cups (2 pints) strawberries, rinsed, hulled, and sliced
3 to 4 Tablespoons granulated sugar
Rinse the strawberries, hull them (i.e. take out their stems and, if they are large, their fibrous cores) and slice them into bite size pieces. Sprinkle them with sugar (use 1 tablespoon sugar per 1 cup of strawberries as a formula) and let them sit for 20 – 30 minutes.
1 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into dice-sized pieces
3/4 cup cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the eggwash:
1 egg white
1 tablespoon water
sugar for dusting
1 – 2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Sift flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar together in a mixing bowl.
- Cut 4 Tablespoons butter into pieces and then cut them into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse meal. You can use a food processor if you just do a few quick pulses, watch it closely, and don’t let it turn to goo.
- Combine the vanilla extract with the cream and then mix this liquid into the dough.
- Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead slightly. You want to knead it only long enough for the dough to be uniform in texture and for it to come together into one piece.
- Roll the dough out to about 1/2 inch thick. Working with the dough is sometimes easier if you divide it into two lumps before rolling it out and then roll the pieces out one after the other. (You need less counter space this way.)
- Cut the dough into circles using a biscuit cutter (dip the cutter into flour before and between each use), or cut the dough into squares or triangles using a floured knife. If making circles, reshape the “remnant” dough into a new ball, and roll out and cut more circles. You should have 8 – 10 biscuits, depending on how you cut them out. Place on an ungreased baking sheet.
- Make an eggwash by mixing an egg white and water in a small cup, then use a pastry brush to apply a very light coating across the tops of the biscuits. Lightly sprinkle the tops of the biscuits with sugar.
- Bake until the tops of the biscuits are golden brown, usually about twelve minutes but start checking the stove after ten. Split open a “test” biscuit. If the middle looks moist and dense, the biscuits are not ready. Return the biscuits to the oven until they are done.
1/2 pint heavy cream
1 Tablespoon powdered or granulated sugar
Chill the bowl and beaters you will be using to whip the cream. Leave the cream in the refrigerator until the last possible minute. When you are ready, pour the cream into a bowl, add the sugar and whip until it holds soft, foamy peaks.
Use two biscuits per serving. Split them in half horizontally, spoon the strawberry mixture onto the biscuits, and cover with whipped cream. Repeat for each serving. Serve immediately.
Note: If you try to use a star shape cookie cutter, inspired, say, to make a 4th of July dessert, be forewarned that the points of the stars will get very brown before the biscuit is baked through. Better to stick with time-tested circles and just be grateful for any remaining separation of church and state and freedom of the press. Huzzah!