All-American Strawberry Shortcake

When I was a kid, I thought I hated strawberry shortcake because a) I had only tried it made in those tiny angel food cake cups you buy at the grocery store, and b) because I hated how the angel food cake got spongy and dissolved into a sad pink puddle as soon as the strawberry juice touched it.

But then this happened:

Strawberry shortcake is an easy dessert to avoid, if you think you don't like it. It seems fussy, since you can't assemble it until right before it's served, and most restaurants don't bother putting it on menus because, I think, no one would choose a dessert that's really just biscuit+fruit if there's crème brulée and flourless chocolate cake on the menu.

Also, it's pretty much quintessential Southern American food... which is why I find it odd that Eleanor, a dyed-in-the-wool yankee who preferred her desserts in chocolate or cookie form, had no less than three recipes for it in the box. Maybe she was trying to fit in with her adopted home, or maybe she just needed something to do with all the strawberries that grow in Florida. After all, St. Pete is less than an hour from Plant City, the self-proclaimed strawberry capital of the world, and I can only imagine how many more strawberry farms were within driving distance in the 1960s and 70s, before the area was as gentrified as it is today.

When looking for a perfect spring dessert to serve to a mèlange of Scottish and American friends over the weekend, I gravitated immediately toward this. It's the perfect dessert for this time of year, when the trees are blooming but the weather can still turn on a dime. We're past the point of heavy brownies and cheesecakes, but not yet to summer's lemon squares and icebox pies, and this shortcake bridges the gap perfectly. A warm, cozy (American-style) biscuit, ladled with ice-cold strawberries and their sweet juices, topped with a giant cloud of whipped cream is the perfect way to celebrate springtime finally arriving. Best of all, this recipe makes single-serve versions, so the only portioning you have to do when it's time for dessert is to heap whipped cream liberally onto your own, individual biscuits.

The best part? The way the orange juice and zest in the biscuit play off the sweetness of the berries and cream. Plus, serving this at a dinner party is just about the most foolproof way to guarantee yourself a beautiful dessert ever: not everyone can frost a beautiful cake, and not every cheesecake comes out perfectly smooth, but no matter how craggy your shortcakes are, the strawberries cover them up and distract from any imperfections, and the whipped cream tops it all off perfectly.

Make these this spring. You won't regret it. (Plus, the leftover shortcakes we had make perfect breakfast biscuits with a hot cup of tea!)

The verdict:

4 spoons out of five. This dessert covers everything I love in a single dish: a mix of flavours, temperatures, and a rustic-but-elegant appearance you'll love serving to your friends. I did, however, knock off a spoon because they didn't rise like I wanted them to. No doubt this is user error, but I tried really hard this time, and this is my website, so I'm taking off a spoon.

 Hopefully your shortcakes rise more than these did, but rest assured: even if they don't, they'll still taste amazing.

Hopefully your shortcakes rise more than these did, but rest assured: even if they don't, they'll still taste amazing.

The recipe:

Strawberry Shortcake

the ingredients:

3 pints (1 ½ kilos) fresh strawberries, destemmed and sliced
¼ c honey
2 tsp orange juice
2 c flour
4 tbsp sugar
4 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
Zest or grated rind from 1 orange
¼ c butter
¼ c shortening
½ c sour cream (or Greek yogurt)
2 c whipping cream
2 tbsp powdered sugar
1 tbsp vanilla

 

THE DIRECTIONS:

Combine sliced berries, honey, and orange juice in a bowl.
Let sit at room temperature at least one hour, or more if your berries aren't especially ripe.
Preheat oven to 204C/400F.
Sift flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt together into a medium bowl.
Add orange rind, followed by butter and shortening, working them into mixture until it forms a coarse meal with pea-sized bits of butter.
Lightly mix in sour cream with a fork to form a soft dough. DO NOT OVERMIX.
Form dough into a ball and dump onto floured surface.
Cut into quarters, then form each quarter into a round-ish disk.
Place disks onto cookie sheet and bake until golden, approximately 12-15 minutes.
While shortcakes cook, whip the cream with powdered sugar and vanilla.

If your shortcakes rise successfully, split them in half while still warm and fill with strawberries and whipped cream, then top with other half of shortcake.
If yours, like ours, don't rise enough to split them in half, then heap strawberries on top, followed by whipped cream and serve will warm.

Yields 4 good-sized servings.