I would hazard a guess that for many people, the image that comes to mind with the words strawberry shortcake are those electric yellow sponge cake cups with the little crater on the top that are sold as “shortcakes,” usually next to the berries in the produce section. Maybe served with fresh berries, maybe with frozen berries in syrup or maybe even gel-glazed pie filling. Whipped cream on top, or frozen topping or the kind from a can. These became so ubiquitous, that I remember a high-end cookware shop sold a cake pan that made little baskets with the indention on top to mimic that grocery version.
But that version has never meant strawberry shortcake to me. I am glad to say, in fact, that I have never consumed one of those little pucks. For me, strawberry shortcake is a sweet version of a classic biscuit, split open, with macerated strawberry slices soaking the bottom half with their sweet juices, piled with sweet whipped cream. That is how I picture strawberry shortcake. And I generally thought those were the only two versions that existed. But I have a very close friend who rather eschews my version, protesting that it is not strawberry shortcake at all. I never knew what nonsense she was talking, until her mother prepared her family version for us. Sweet sliced strawberries and whipped cream in a bowl with lovely squares of flaky, crispy, homemade pie crust, sprinkled with sugar before baking. Now, I hesitate here, in case refuses to ever make it for me again, but as delicious as it is, it is still not how I think of strawberry shortcake. But it’s a fascinating revelation on how many forms a “classic” dish can take on.
Year-round strawberries are a fact of life now, but I don’t buy them year round. Hothouse, hydroponic, million-mile imports just don’t taste like strawberries to me. Not the strawberries of my childhood, bought on the side of the road or at little local produce markets. In the days when the “big” grocery store was locally owned. Strawberries grow beautifully here, in fact just to the northeast of Memphis there is a town that holds a strawberry festival, complete with a Strawberry Queen. That’s where I like my berries to come from. I love good, fresh, local strawberries undoctored and not messed about with, but when I see them arrive at the produce stand and the farmer’s market, my mind immediately turns to shortcake. My kind – a sweet biscuit, here infused with vanilla, and lots of juicy strawberries.
You can skip the step of infusing the milk and just use plain milk and 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract, but I promise you will be glad you added this extra, easy step.
For the Strawberries:
1 pint strawberries
2 Tablespoons sugar
For the Shortcake:
1 cup milk
1 vanilla bean
2 ½ cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup (1 stick) butter, cold and cut into cubes
1 Tablespoons milk for brushing
1 Tablespoon sugar for sprinkling
For the Whipped Cream:
1 pint heavy whipping cream
3 Tablespoons confectioner’s sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
For the Strawberries: Wash and dry the berries, the remove the green stems and leaves. Slice thinly and place in a bowl with the sugar. Toss to coat and leave to sweeten and release the juices, at least an hour.
For the Shortcakes: Pour the milk into a small, heavy bottomed saucepan. Cut the vanilla bean open and scrape out the seeds. Add the seeds and the bean pod to the milk. Heat the milk over medium heat just until small bubbles begin to form on the surface. Take the pan of the heat, stir the milk, and leave to cool to room temperature. Stir it a couple of times to prevent a skin from forming.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. When the milk in cooled, place the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt into the bowl of a food processor and pulse a few quick times. Add the butter cubes. Pulse in short bursts until the mixture looks like coarse breadcrumbs. Remove the vanilla bean pod from the milk and add the milk to the food processor with the seeds, scraping the pan to get as much of the seeds as possible into the shortcakes. Pulse until just combined.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. With floured hands, gently pat the dough into a rectangle about 4 by 8 inches. Flour a knife or bench scraper and cut the dough into eight squares. Carefully transfer the shortcakes to a greased baking sheet. Brush the tops lightly with milk and sprinkle with sugar. Bake the shortcakes until golden, 15 – 20 minutes. Cool on the baking sheet.
When ready to serve, whip the cream with the confectioner’s sugar and vanilla until stiff. Split the shortcakes in half, spoon over the strawberries and juice and top with the whipped cream.
Makes 8 shortcakes