With the right recipe and a light touch, an unadorned shortcake can achieve greatness. But it’s when you ladle on juicy, slightly sugared strawberries and add a cloud of freshly whipped cream that shortcake is thrust into classic status among desserts.
By all accounts, it’s an American concoction. Biscuits of European descent commingled with Uncle Sam’s strawberries sometime in the 1840s. Over the next decade, people held strawberry shortcake parties as a celebration of summer’s arrival, according to Evan Jones in “American Food: The Gastronomic Story.”
Today’s shortcake recipes have changed little: basically, a baking powder biscuit dough enriched with an egg and a little sugar. The buttermilk gets nudged aside, often replaced by whole milk, half-and-half or even heavy cream, which threatens to take it out of shortcake territory and into the scone zone.
Needless to say, those little spongey-cakey cups have no standing here.
This shortcake recipe uses half-and-half and swaps in brown sugar for half of the white sugar, which gives the shortcake a slightly caramel note. After that, we stay out of the way of greatness, taking care only to work the combined dry and wet ingredients as quickly and delicately as possible, kneading the dough for no more than 30 seconds.
Gently pat the dough to a rectangle about 1/2-inch-thick, then cut rounds with a biscuit cutter, pressing straight down – twisting can seal the layers, leading to a dense shortcake – then place it upside-down on a baking sheet (again, to help ensure the highest rise).
OK, we do embellish greatness a bit, topping each cake with a gloss of half-and-half and a sprinkling of sparkling sugar.
Shakespeare may have counseled against painting the lily, calling it “ridiculous excess.”
When it comes to strawberry shortcake, though, that sounds just right.