Classic Strawberry Shortcake

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By Emily Paster

This past weekend was Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer. It was a busier-than-usual weekend at my house. Saturday, my husband took our daughter to a NHL playoff game, which the Blackhawks won thankfully. My husband and I celebrated our eleventh wedding anniversary on Sunday with a dinner out — a review of that meal coming later this week. So by Monday, we were ready to grill and have dinner at home on our deck. Alas, the cool and rainy weather made it feel much more like spring than summer, and there was no eating outdoors to be had. But, at least my Memorial Day menu felt like summer.

Monday's dinner was grilled chicken sausage, grilled farmers' market asparagus, orzo with roasted vegetables and, for dessert, a classic strawberry shortcake. Strawberry shortcake has to be the perfect Memorial Day dessert: seasonal and classically American. I wish I could say that the strawberries were local, but the strawberries haven't arrived at our farmers' market yet. So I made do with supermarket berries, which were fine, especially once I macerated them with some sugar and Grand Marnier.

I am on a never-ending quest for the perfect strawberry shortcake recipe. Should the shortcake be fluffy like a biscuit or flaky like a scone? Should it have just a hint of sweetness or be as rich as cake? Drop biscuits or cut? Round, square or triangles? I mostly think of strawberry shortcake being made with biscuits — an individual serving for each guest –  but some people think of it as a cake-like dessert that is cut into individual pieces.

The term "short cake" refers to the fact that the fat — that is to say, the shortening — is cut into the dry ingredients. Crumbly shortcake dough has been around for centuries, but combining shortcake biscuits with whipped cream and berries is an American invention dating back to the middle of the 19th century. In its original form, American strawberry shortcake used a heavy pastry that was more like pie dough than the biscuits we use today. Interestingly, the popularity of strawberry shortcake coincided with the advent of the transcontinental railroad which allowed for berries to be shipped from coast to coast packed in ice. What a concept!

I posted a recipe for strawberry shortcake a few years ago that was adapted from a recipe in Rustic Fruit Desserts. While that is my all-time favorite American dessert cookbook, I don't think the shortcake recipe is a keeper. For one thing, it calls for cornmeal, which I'm sure is supposed to be rustic, but to me, just makes the biscuits grainy. And the only fat in the recipe is cream — no cold chunks of butter to give the shortcakes a flaky, biscuit-like texture. So, I have abandoned that recipe in favor of a simpler one that I have adapted from Joy of Cooking. This recipe makes a shortcake that is somewhere between a cream scone and a slightly sweetened biscuit. I think the orange zest is crucial: it really brightens the flavor of the biscuit and orange combines so well with strawberries.

Macerating the berries in a combination of sugar and Grand Marnier echos the orange flavor in the biscuits.  I recommend macerating the berries well ahead of time — especially if they are less than perfectly ripe. You can even do it in the morning if you are planning to serve the shortcake as dessert that evening. The longer the berries macerate, the more juice they will release and the result with be a syrupy liquid that the shortcake biscuits will absorb.  As summer moves along, feel free to use this shortcake recipe with other berries and even stone fruits, such as peaches.

Classic Strawberry Shortcake

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 1/2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. salt

1 TB sugar

Zest of one orange

6 TB cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1/2 cup cream

1/4 cup milk

2 TB Melted butter

Turbinado sugar

For the filling:

2 qts strawberries, hulled and sliced

2 TB sugar

1 TB Grand Marnier (optional)

1 cup cold heavy cream

1 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 425. Line a baking sheet with Silpat or parchment paper. In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the flour, the sugar, the baking powder, the salt and the orange zest. Cut in the pieces of butter using two knives or a pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the milk and cream and stir with a fork until the dough begins to come together. Gather the dough in your hand and knead it against the side of the bowl until all the pieces are incorporated. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and pat it into a circle about 3/4 of an inch thick. Cut the dough into six equal wedges and place the wedges on the lined baking sheet. Brush the tops of the biscuits with melted butter and sprinkle with Turbinado sugar. Bake for 10-12 minutes until golden brown. Remove from baking sheet and cool on a wire rack.

Meanwhile, combine the sliced strawberries with 1 TB of sugar and the Grand Marnier, if using, in a bowl. Toss to combine. Cover and refrigerate until serving. (You can do this step several hours in advance and the strawberries will break down and release their juices even more.) To make the whipped cream, pour the cup of heavy cream into the bowl of a standing mixer and whip it at the highest speed. (Chill the bowl ahead of time if possible.) Gradually add the remaining TB of sugar and the vanilla extract.

To assemble, split the biscuits in half. Spoon 1/6 of the berries over the bottom of the biscuit and top with whipped cream. Add the top half of the biscuit at a angle.Repeat with the remaining biscuits.

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