Cooking At Home: Strawberry Shortcake

From the North, South, East, or West, there has to be one sweet that means the beginning of summer for every child who’s in school and whose family eats at least somewhat seasonally. That’s strawberry shortcake. School’s either just let out or soon will be for the summer; it’s time for picnics, potlucks, trips to the beach, and summer vacations.

Besides the undeniable fact that strawberries are all kinds of delicious, I think this simple, no-fuss dessert maintains such a strong emotional fix on many folks because it really is just that – the first luscious, scrumptious bit of summer, and almost everywhere in the U.S., that first bite comes right around the time school lets out for summer. Ah, freedom. Strawberry shortcake.

This is such an easy one to make at home. This is a slightly fussier version than you might like to attempt yourself, but I’ll guide you through the options and make clear the basics. Well, actually the basics are this: strawberries and shortcake. The strawberries you must procure unless you grow them yourself, and the shortcake you absolutely should make yourself, it’s as quick and easy as biscuits.

Please please please, whatever you do, don’t try this with supermarket strawberries. At the restaurant we use mostly Seedling Orchard or Paul Friday’s Berries, or else it’s Mick Klug’s or Ellis Orchard. Go to your favorite U-pick or farmer’s market and get nice red juicy strawberries. Smaller is usually better. A good market vendor will let you sample. For shortcake, I’m not necessarily looking for the sweetest berries. Tart is O.K. I want aroma and a decent amount of acid, but I also want red juice when I pinch the berry. A more acidic berry can take more sugar without becoming saccharin and make a nice full-bodied syrup after maceration.

For the shortcake, I absolutely recommend pastry flour, which may be a little hard to come by at your local grocery store. I’m a big fan of Anson Mill’s Fine Cloth Bolted Pastry Flour, which doesn’t come cheap but is supreme and absolutely worth the money if you want top-notch short cake. There’s a couple of other tricks that work in a pinch: 1) mix equal parts all-purpose flour and cake flour. This yields little flavor if you’re using supermarket brands but it works. 2) use one tablespoon of cornstarch as part of each cup of all purpose flour. This is least preferable. It really is worth a trip to Whole Foods, where you can buy either Arrowhead Mills or Bob’s Red Mill pastry flour, both of which are excellent.

I recommend whipped creme fraiche in place of standard whipped cream, but go with your own preference. Creme fraiche is easy to make, and the pointers are listed after the main recipes. Creme fraiche will whip just like whipping cream.

On to the recipe. Simple stuff here!

For about twelve portions

Macerate the strawberries:

  • 3 quarts of strawberries, tops removed and cut into bite-size pieces
  • 3 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper
  • 3 Tablespoons Mathilde X/O or substitute Grand Marnier (optional)

Wash the strawberries under cold running water, being gentle but also careful to remove all dirt, sand, and grit. Place on a clean towel on a sheet tray and return to the refrigerator for an hour or two until thoroughly dried. Slice and place in a glass or stainless mixing bowl. Add remaining ingredients and toss gently. Don’t worry yet about the sugar dissolving. Cover the bowl tightly and return to the refrigerator. This is best done 2-3 hours before you want to serve. That’s another great thing about strawberry shortcake – it’s a great prepare-ahead dessert. The strawberries will keep for about a week but are best the same day.

For the Shortcake:

  • 4 cups pastry flour
  • 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, very thinly sliced, well chilled
  • 2 cups light cream or half and half, plus a little more if needed
  • one egg and turbinado sugar for dusting, optional

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Chill all ingredients thoroughly. Sift together the flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, salt, and sugar. Working quickly, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles a lumpy meal. Add most, but not all, of the cream. Working quickly so as not to warm up the mixture with your hands, gently work in the liquid while working to press the mixture into one mass. Add remaining cream a bit at a time, working each bit in, until the dough comes together as a single stiff mass. Quickly turn onto a well floured board and fold it in on itself three times. Don’t overwork the dough or you’ll have bread instead of cake! Roll the dough out to about 1″ thick and cut with a biscuit cutter of your choice. Place on a buttered cookie sheet. Beat the egg with a few teaspoons of water, then brush the shortbreads with the egg mixture. Dust liberally with turbinado sugar. Bake at 325 until set in the center and golden brown, about twenty minutes. Best served hot with cold strawberries and whipped cream.

The Creme Fraiche

  • 1 quart very fresh, pasteurized heavy whipping cream
  • 1/4 cup cultured buttermilk

In a clean sterilized jar, mix the buttermilk and cream, cover with cheesecloth, and set in a warm location for twelve hours. It should sour and thicken in that amount of time. you may leave another few hours if not fully thickened. I have never had a batch fail, but if it’s not thickened and soured after sixteen hours, I’d advise you to start over with fresh buttermilk. Chill at once. This will whip just like whipped cream, you can churn it into slamming butter, or use anywhere you’d otherwise use sour cream.

And just for fun, if you’d like to make the violet pearls shown in the picture, here’s that formula. Of course, this is completely optional.

First things first, you’ll need to make a sodium alginate base:

  • 300 grams water
  • 6 grams sodium alginate

Place the water in a blender on low speed. Add the alginate slowly through the feeding hole on the lid. Increase speed to medium and continue to blend on medium speed for three minutes. Scrape from the blender bowl and place in a container, cover and set aside several hours to allow all the air bubbles to escape.

Next, you’ll need to make a violet syrup:

  • 1oo violet flowers
  • 300 grams simple syrup (150 grams each sugar and boiling water, stir to dissolve)

Place the violets in a blender and pulse to pulverize, lubricating by adding a little simple syrup at a time. Once violets are liquified, add remaining syrup and blend on high for two minutes. Strain through a double layer of dampened cheesecloth. Store in the refrigerator until needed.

Finally, you’re ready to make the pearls.

  • 1000 grams filtered water
  • 7 grams calcium lactate
  • 100 grams alginate base
  • 150 grams violet syrup

Dissolve the calcium lactate in the water. This will take a few minutes of stirring occasionally. Stir the violet syrup into the alginate base and place the mixture into a squeeze bottle with a fairly small dropper tip. Drop droplets of the mixture into the calcium lactate solution and wait 45 seconds for the spheres to set. Use a slotted spoon or small strainer to harvest the pearls, rinse gently under cold running water, and serve at once.