Strawberry shortcake is one of the most beloved desserts in the American culinary repertoire. Neither brief nor small, the cakes are named short because of the generous quantity of shortening in the dough. Coating flour with fat inhibits the formation of gluten, resulting in the signature, crumbly texture of true shortcake, which most Americans today would recognize as a biscuit. The first recorded recipes for shortcake appeared in England in the 14th century and more closely resembled the dense, unleavened cookies we call shortbread. Centuries later the development of baking powder in the 1850s would revolutionize baking and enable bakers to easily create light, fluffy biscuits.
Just a few decades later, shipments of strawberries on ice from California would began making their way across the country on the newly developed transcontinental railroad, at the same time that whipped cream began popping up in recipes all over the country, thanks to advances in household refrigeration. Before long, strawberry shortcakes were a coveted treat on American dinner tables from coast to coast. In many northern regions of the country, folks unfamiliar with Southern-style baking powder biscuits took to substituting sponge or pound cake for the traditional shortcake.
I grew up eating strawberries with the classic biscuit-type shortcake. My great-grandmother would make a small batch of dough with a combination of yellow farm butter and soft white lard. Then she would pat it into two circles, one about seven inches round and the other about four inches round. The larger circle would be placed into a buttered aluminum pie pan then brushed with melted butter and sugar before the second circle was placed on top. Then it, too, was generously buttered and sprinkled with sugar. While the biscuit baked, she mashed half the strawberries with a potato masher along with a generous dollop of honey until they were fairly pulverized. Then she sliced the rest of the berries before adding them to the bowl of syrupy crushed fruit. When the biscuit came out of the oven she let it cool slightly before peeling the two circles apart and spooning half the berries on the larger circle. This would sit and macerate while we had supper. After dinner she would replace the top and spoon the rest of the berries over the whole tower. Cut in wedges and topped with thick spoonfuls of rich country cream, the result was a perfect exercise in contrasting flavors and textures.
Even though my inner food nerd groans slightly every time I see sponge cake and berries described as "strawberry shortcake," I will admit it is indeed a delicious combination. But is it too much to ask that we not call it "shortcake"? Angel and sponge-type cakes are not shortcakes because they contain no shortening. These cakes contain only a small amount of flour and little or no fat at all. They get their airy texture and loft thanks to whipped egg whites. Because the batter contains very little gluten, these cakes are usually baked in a tube pan so that the foamed egg can more easily climb up the sides. Delicate and light, these cakes freeze exceptionally well. Chiffon cake, which is similar to angel food cake but richer, thanks to the addition of egg yolks and oil, is a good choice for any filled cake that will be served chilled. This is due to the use of oil, which lets the cake maintain its soft texture in the fridge.
Classic Strawberry Shortcake
This biscuit recipe is adapted from one in Alice Waters' children's cookbook Fanny at Chez Panisse. It streamlines the usual preparation by using heavy cream as a deconstructed form of the more traditional butter and milk. Incredibly simple to pull together, it was one of the first recipes I learned to make as a child.
For the whipping cream biscuits:
1¾ cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup powdered sugar, for rolling
2 pounds ripe strawberries
¼ cup honey
1 cup heavy cream
¼ cup Greek yogurt (optional)
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Grease a baking sheet or line with parchment paper.
Combine the flour, salt, sugar and baking powder in a mixing bowl. Add the heavy cream and mix gently with a spoon until just combined. (The key to light tender biscuits is to work them as little as possible.) The dough will be slightly shaggy. Put about a half cup of powdered sugar on a plate and scoop 1/3 cup-sized mounds of dough out onto the plate. Roll them in the powdered sugar to coat, then place them several inches apart on the baking tray.
Bake in a preheated oven for 15-18 minutes until golden brown. (You can also bake one large shortcake like my grandmother did, as described above. Simply increase the baking time to 25 minutes.)
While the biscuits are baking, prepare the strawberries and whipped cream. Mash half the strawberries with the honey using a potato masher until well crushed. Slice the remaining strawberries into the bowl of crushed berries and allow them to macerate in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
Whip the cream and Greek yogurt (if you like a little tang) by hand or with a mixer until soft peaks form. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Once the biscuits have cooled, slice them in half lengthwise. Place the bottom halves on individual plates and spoon the crushed berry mixture over them. Add a dollop of whipped cream, then replace the biscuit top. Spoon the remaining berries over the top, and finish with another dollop of whipped cream.