Monday, July 14, 2008
Mid June in New England and the strawberries are ripening all over the Upper Valley. The air is warm, the sun shining, and the strawberries are plumping up and turning red, ready to burst into your mouth with that pure sweetness of nature. Farm stands up and down the valley are promoting their berries, and customers are picking up a quart or two to take home, or planning on picking their own and making preserves or freezing some for next winter. Strawberry festivals will happen around early July, and shortly thereafter this local delicacy will disappear until next summer, although some producers are now growing an ever-bearing variety that continues beyond the traditional June-early July season we’ve always known.
The Bradford area used to be a big strawberry-producing center, and berries were shipped out by rail to metropolitan cities like Boston or Hartford. Strawberry fields covered the Lower Plain and beyond, and every kid that wanted a summer job got an opportunity to pick strawberries for about 6 weeks each summer. I think we got about a nickel a quart (or was it 2 cents?) when I was young. No charge for what you ate.
Of course, strawberries can be eaten sliced up with a little sugar or maple syrup, perhaps, or on ice cream, but the classic presentation, which always produced whoops of joy and anticipation was Mom’s Strawberry Shortcake, slathered with butter and ladled with freshly whipped cream and fresh-from –the-garden sweet strawberries with a hint of tartness. It was always a treat at our house, and rarely did a slice remain after our family of five kids got through with dessert.
Now I have to admit, Mom used Bisquick to make her shortcake and we liked it just fine. Bisquick is a Betty Crocker product which is merely a pre-mixture of flour, salt, baking powder, cream of tarter, instant dry milk, and shortening. It’s a convenience food, which can be used to make pancakes, biscuits and scones. I don’t use it in my kitchen, so let’s explore the world of homemade biscuits which we use in our shortcake.
First, some people, or perhaps more accurately supermarkets, used sponge cake or angle food cake to make strawberry shortcake. This is a bogus product in my mind as strawberry shortcake is historically made with a biscuit dough. Mind you that “biscuits” as we know then in America are quite different from biscuits found across the pond in Europe. There biscuits are what we call “cookies,” but here biscuits are a form of quick bread made with a chemical leaven like baking powder.
There are lots of different biscuit recipes, some using a combination of butter and shortening, some all butter, cheeses, milk or cream, pepper, spices and or herbs, you name it. It all depends on what purpose the biscuits will be use for, whether to accompany breakfast or as part of a luncheon menu, or even to top a stew or a braise.
In our case, we’re interested in a slightly sweetened, flaky biscuit dough that will absorb some of the strawberry juices and complement the fruit and freshly whipped cream. Some of the keys to making a good biscuit dough is to have the butter and/or shortening chilled before mixing, refrigerating the dough after its made and before it is cut (if you are cutting it), and using a sharp biscuit cutter or knife so that you cuts don’t mash the sides of the biscuit together, which will prevent it from rising to its full potential. Flakey biscuits contain all butter, but to make the biscuits flakey and tender, use a combination of butter and shortening in a ratio of approximately 2:1.
For nine 2” square biscuits or one large biscuit shortcake:
2 cups Unbleached all purpose flour
1 tsp. Salt
1 tbl. Sugar
2 ½ tsp Baking powder
4 tbl. Butter, cold
¼ cup Shortening, cold
½ cup Milk
1 ea. Egg, large
In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, salt, sugar and baking powder. Cut in the chilled butter and shortening, using a pastry blender or your fingers until the mixture is like coarse crumbs. Don’t over do this step.
Measure the milk into a measuring cup and add the egg, whisk together. Add this mixture to the dry ingredients and stir to just combine. Dump the mixture onto a lightly floured work surface and knead quickly to bring it all together. Don’t knead too much as we don’t want to have much gluten development. Pat the dough into a 6” x 6” square, or a large circle, about ¾” thick, wrap in plastic wrap and place in the freezer for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Remove the biscuit dough from the freezer. It will be stiff, but still soft enough to work. Using a sharp knife, sharp dough scraper or pizza wheel, cut the dough into 2” squares, or leave the circle of dough whole. Alternatively, cut into rounds with a sharp biscuit cutter. Place the biscuits on a parchment paper lined sheet pan, or on a lightly greased sheet pan. Bake 16 minutes or so until lightly brown. Serve warm or at room temperature.
If you bake the whole circle of biscuit dough extend the cooking time to 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the strawberries by stemming and cutting in half. Sprinkle with some sugar and let them macerate while the biscuit dough is baking. Whip some cream with a little sugar and a splash of vanilla extract until soft and fluffy, what is known as soft peak.
When the biscuit dough comes out of the oven (we use the big circle for strawberry shortcake, but you can make individual ones with the 2” square biscuits) let it cool a moment, then slice in half. Butter the bottom piece generously, cover with half the sliced berries with their juices and whipped cream. Top with the other half of the biscuit, butter the top, add more berries and juice and more whipped cream. Bring to the table and stand back!