This is that quintessential American summertime dessert, and when strawberries are in season and my garden is overflowing with them, we have shortcake several times a week. It’s such an easy dessert to make…I can turn out a shortcake with 5 minutes of effort and 20 minutes in the oven.
Strawberries are really the feature of this dessert, which means you should take care in selecting them. The normal strawberries you find in the grocery store are, in my opinion, inedible. They are huge, glossy, and beautiful. And they are sour and have no taste. One reason is because they are often picked green so they can ship more easily, then they are gassed with ethylene at the distribution center and then trucked out to the grocery stores. Because they do not ripen on the vine, their sugars do not develop naturally, and therefore they have no taste. Try to get your strawberries from a farmer’s market, but be suspicious of ANY berries that are big and fat. The larger they are, the less taste they have. The most delicious strawberries on earth are the wild strawberries you find growing on the forest floor in mountainous regions around the country in late June and early July (or later up north), and the biggest of these are about the size of your pinky nail. Seriously. It can take HOURS to pick enough for a shortcake for 6 people, but it will be the most intense shortcake you’ve ever eaten. At the farmer’s market, look for small strawberries that are dark in color. These will have the best flavor. Also, strawberries grow readily in containers, so even if you live in an apartment, if you’ve got sun on your balcony, you can grow your own. Select an “everbearing” variety that will give you strawberries all summer into early fall, rather than “June bearing” which produce a massive harvest, but only in June.
Several hours before dinner, wash and slice your strawberries into a bowl. I like to get a pound of strawberries to serve shortcake for 6. Once they are sliced into a big bowl, add:
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup brown sugar
Gently toss the strawberries with the sugar. If you’re using storebought strawberries, you may actually need a full cup of brown sugar to get them sweet enough. They should be tart…strawberries are naturally acidic…but storebought varieties are nasty and have little sweetness to them. Let the strawberries sit there in their own juices for a few hours. This is called “maceration.” (Careful with that pronunciation!)
In a bowl, combine:
2 cups all purpose flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg (preferably freshly grated)
1/4 cup sugar
Stir to combine, then add:
6 Tablespoons cold unsalted butter
Using a pastry blender or 2 knives, cut the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs and there are no longer any large chunks of butter visible. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients. Then add:
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 scant cup buttermilk (you can substitute regular milk, but it won’t be the same)
With a fork, whisk the egg and buttermilk together, then gently drag the dry ingredients into the wet. When all the visible dry flour is gone, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Flour your hands, and VERY gently press out the dough into a flat disc, then fold the disc in half and pat out again. Repeat this procedure a total of 6 times. Then gently transfer the shortcake to a 9″ cake pan, or better yet, a cast iron skillet! Gently pat the dough down into an even layer. Optionally, sprinkle course raw sugar liberally on top.
Bake on the center rack of a preheated 400F oven for 20 minutes, until crisp on top, and a toothpick or knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out without any goo on it. Remove from the oven and let it cool for 10 minutes, then invert onto a cooling rack and let it cool thoroughly.
Do I really need to explain this one? Normally I make my own from LIGHT whipping cream (heavy cream seems too dense for strawberry shortcake), and I sweeten it only lightly. But you’re welcome to get the can of whipping cream from the grocery store, just make sure you get one whose ingredients are ONLY cream and sugar. No artificial emulsifiers. You can also flavor your cream with brandy or marsala or any liqueur.