You may think that this article is about strawberry shortcake, and it is, but it’s also about the way time seems to speed up as you get older. Case in point: My daughter graduated from high school Saturday. She had the sheer, unmitigated gall to have been a baby only a mere 18 years ago, when her birth condensed the passage of time like someone folding a pizza slice in half. I wanted to take a long time eating that pizza slice but three bites in and it’s already gone, and there’s no second piece.
But don’t get distracted by pizza — we were talking about strawberry shortcake. It’s peak strawberry season in the Northwest and that’s a perfect reason to whip up something that will highlight all that amazing fresh strawberry flavor. That’s not the reason I’m making it, though. I’m making strawberry shortcake because it’s my daughter’s favorite dessert. Besides, sweet, fruity, whipped-creamy carbs are the best way I can think of to eat my emotions: a confusing mix of bust-my-buttons proud, excitement for the future and sharp-edged nostalgia for wispy curls and footie pajamas and a soft little voice saying “mama.”
Let’s not argue about whether strawberry shortcake is best with a cake base or with a biscuit base. It’s a mouthful of summer both ways, although I might point out that the dessert is called “strawberry shortcake” and not “strawberry shortbiscuit.” However, I will not malign the biscuit fans, at least not in public, because I’ve made biscuits for fruit-and-cream desserts many times. Strawberries, cherries, peaches and blueberries are just as good when spooned onto a warm, buttery biscuit as a slice of shortcake, and everything is divine underneath a fluffy halo of whipped cream. Therefore, I’ll give you two recipes: one for cake and one for biscuits, but you should know I’m only making the cake.
Mix ½ cup sugar with 3 pints fresh sliced strawberries, 2 dashes of nutmeg and a dash of salt. You can adjust this part of the recipe any way you like — use more or less sugar, use half brown sugar, use honey instead of sugar, omit the nutmeg or use cinnamon instead, add a teaspoon of orange zest, add vanilla or a tiny drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar. I like strawberries with white sugar, nutmeg and just the teensiest bit of salt to enhance the flavor. Once you’ve got the strawberries done, set them aside. They taste best after sitting at room temperature for about an hour.
In a bowl, cream 2/3 cup sugar and ¼ cup shortening. If you’re my mom or my grandma, you’ll use Crisco. If you’re me, you don’t have anything except butter, so you’ll use that. Add 1 egg and 1 teaspoon vanilla — no, wait, add another teaspoon because you like vanilla. In a separate small bowl, sift together 1½ cups flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder and ¼ teaspoon salt. Add the flour to the sugar-butter-egg mixture a little at a time, alternating with ½ cup whole milk and blending well after each addition. Spoon into a 9-by-9-inch pan and bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes. Cool in the pan on a wire rack.
While the cake is baking, whip a cup or more of heavy cream, adding sugar and vanilla to taste. (I found that a cup of cream wasn’t enough, and we ran out of cream after four or five pieces of shortcake.) I also tried an interesting trick to give the cream a little tang, and that’s to add ¼ cup sour cream to the cream when almost done whipping, then give it another few go-rounds with the hand mixer. I quite liked the subtle zing.
Cut the cake into nine squares and cut each square in half horizontally. Put a generous spoonful of sweetened strawberries onto the cake, followed by a generous dollop of whipped cream. Squish the top half of the cake onto that, then ladle with another spoonful of strawberries and another big dollop of whipped cream. It’s fine if it doesn’t stack up neatly and kind of oozes off to the side — that’s part of the fun! This is a dessert that is beautiful in its imperfection. The important part is the strawberries and cream anyway.
You can also slice the entire cake in half, layer strawberries and cream on the bottom half, top with the other layer of cake, and slather more strawberries and cream on the top, though it’s harder to cut into individual portions this way. If you want, just put it in the center of the table and let everyone grab it like a pack of wild lemurs.
Next, the buttermilk biscuit version. I should note that there isn’t anything special about this recipe. You can use any biscuit or scone recipe that you like, or, if you’re in a rush, rely on your old pals, Messrs. Bisquick and Pillsbury.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Sift together 2 cups flour, 3 tablespoons cornstarch, 1 tablespoon baking powder, ¼ teaspoon baking soda, 2 tablespoons sugar and 1 teaspoon salt. Using your fingers, rub 1 stick of butter plus 2 tablespoons — that’s 10 tablespoons total — of butter into the flour mixture. Keep working the dough until you get pea-sized bits. Add ¾ cup buttermilk and just sort of work it together until just moistened. The dough should be shaggy and sort of clumpy.
Now you can do one of three things. You can form the dough into 8 rough portions and drop them on a greased baking sheet. Or you can turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead it once or twice to encourage it to hold together. Then pat it into rough circle that’s more or less 1-inch thick and cut it with a biscuit cutter or glass jar. (Don’t twist while you cut as that can affect the rise.) Roll out the remaining dough into another inch-thick slab and keep cutting until no dough is left, forming the final, smallest scraps into a biscuit-y shape.
Whether you make drop biscuits or cut biscuits, bake for 13 to 15 minutes. You can also leave the dough in the round and use a pizza cutter to cut it into six wedges, scone-style, then increase cooking time to 18 to 20 minutes.
No matter which method you choose, you can make the biscuits a little more special by brushing with an egg wash (an egg beaten with 1 tablespoon of whole milk), then sprinkling with a mixture of sugar and cinnamon. Cut each biscuit in half while still warm then put a heap of strawberries and cream on the bottom half before putting the top half on and absolutely covering the whole thing in another deep layer of strawberries and cream. Serve immediately and savor each bite while pondering the perceived malleability of time versus the inverse possibility of paying for college.