Make the ultimate strawberry shortcake with this recipe from Anne Byrn
Before strawberries were available year-round, you had to be patient. When I was a girl, the Tennessee berry season ran until early June, but you had to wait until mid-April to eat them. And then it was over. Gone. So we begged our mother to make strawberry shortcake.
Not her way, with sweet pound cake; we asked to have it the way my father liked it. He said this was the only way to eat strawberry shortcake. Hot biscuits were split, buttered and piled with sweetened fresh strawberries, and loads of real whipped cream. The saltiness of the biscuits and butter balanced the sweet flavor of those berries.
It was so good that my sister named it her official birthday cake. With a late April birthday, she still longs for it. We all do.
Strawberry Shortcake Has a Rich History
When I researched the history of strawberry shortcake for my book, American Cake, I learned it was an old dessert, created to use up the wild “Virginia” variety of strawberries that grew generations ago across much of the eastern United States. These berries were known for their bright and pungent flavor, and people worked diligently to put them up into jams, wine and anything else, to savor that distinct strawberry flavor later in the year. And for special occasions, early settlers made strawberry shortcake.
The word “shortcake” implies a baked good that has some solid fat incorporated to make it “short” or flaky. The softer the flour, and less gluten and protein (like Southern flour originally was), the better the shortcake. It makes sense that shortcakes based on this soft, starchy flour of the South were hard to beat. That’s not to say shortcakes can’t be made in other parts of the country — they were and still are. But in the South they were superior.
Today the best way to experience the flavor of old-fashioned strawberry shortcake is to buy local strawberries from farmers in your area and make real shortcake.
Let’s Make Shortcake
How to begin?
We start with soft flour, like White Lily, or the all-purpose flour you normally buy. Then grab sugar, baking powder, fat (butter or shortening) and liquid, such as buttermilk or cream. You’ll need a bowl and two sharp paring knives to cut the fat into the dry ingredients until it looks like peas. This is an important step to assure the shortcakes are short, or flaky.
Then stir in the wet ingredients with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula. The recipe I love is made with two sticks of butter and a cup of cream, into which you beat one egg. (I never said strawberry shortcake was low in calories!)
Next, turn the dough out onto a floured countertop or board, and gently pat it out to about 1-inch thickness. The less you work the dough, the more delicate and fragile your shortcakes will be. No heavy hands.
Cut into rounds or squares, dust with sugar and bake in a hot oven at 425 degrees until it’s golden brown around the edges. We begin cutting into rounds, and then cut out squares from the trimmings. It really is that easy, and nothing — absolutely nothing — goes to waste.
Split the hot biscuits with a fork if you like, and tuck a little butter inside to melt. Spoon the sweetened, fragile berries onto the shortcakes, and on top, dab real cream, lightly whipped and barely seasoned with sugar.
In the short window of deliciousness that is the annual local strawberry season, strawberry shortcake is our reward for being patient.
This recipe is from my cookbook, American Cake.
6 cups ripe fresh local strawberries
2/3 cup granulated sugar, or more to taste
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly softened, plus 2 tablespoons for buttering the shortcakes
1 large egg
1 cup heavy cream, plus 1 1/2 cups freshly whipped cream, sweetened with 1 to 2 tablespoons powdered sugar
An hour before serving, hull the strawberries and slice all but eight (save those for garnish, if desired). Toss the halved berries with 1/3 cup of the sugar, plus more to taste, if desired. Let sit at room temperature while preparing the cakes.
Place a rack in the center of the oven, and heat the oven to 425 degrees.
In a large bowl, combine the flour, remaining 1/3 cup sugar, and the baking powder and salt. Stir to thoroughly combine. Cut the butter into tablespoons and distribute over the top of the dry ingredients. With two sharp paring knives or a pastry blender, cut the butter into the dry ingredients until it looks like peas and is uniform in size.
Crack the egg into a measuring cup full of the heavy cream and stir with a fork to break up the yolk. Pour this into the dough mixture and stir together with a wooden spoon or spatula until the liquid is just combined.
On a floured work surface, turn out the dough and pat it to a round measuring a generous 1-inch thick. Flour a round 2- to 3-inch biscuit cutter and cut the dough into 8 to 12 rounds. Place these on a baking sheet, and bake until golden brown around the edges, 12 to 15 minutes. Let the biscuits cool slightly, split int half and butter lightly.
To serve, place the bottom half of the shortcake into a serving bowl. Spoon the sweetened berries, along with some of their juices, on top, then place the top half of the biscuit over the berries. Spoon more berries, juice and whipped cream on top. Garnish with one fresh strawberry, if desired. Repeat with the remaining shortcakes. Drizzle any remaining juice in the bowl over the shortcakes before serving.