I’m visiting with my mother, and she is trying to describe the dimensions of the strawberry patch that they had back on the farm in Nebraska. Big enough that you could pick plenty of berries to make strawberry shortcake for 25.
One of the hired hands would ask my grandmother, “Mrs. Jones, could we have strawberry shortcake for dinner?”
“If you pick ’em,” she’d answer. It must have been a sweet relief from harder work, picking strawberries in that patch under that unwavering blue sky, filling a deep basket with those crimson berries.
My mother says sometimes there would be as many as 20 hired men at the table. And my grandmother cooked for them three times a day. With the strawberries, she would make her shortcake with butter and cream from the farm and a little precious (because it was store-bought) baking powder. My mother usually got kitchen duty, hulling and washing those berries, slicing them into a giant bowl.
My grandmother was renowned for her baking. She taught me to whip cream by hand to a soft cloud and to add only a pinch of sugar, not too much. Her shortcake was rich and crumbly, served warm from the oven, split open, lavished with juicy berries and crowned with a generous dollop of softly whipped cream.
I never got my grandmother’s recipe before she died. My mother made wonderful shortcake, but hers came from a Bisquick box. She did doctor the recipe by substituting a little cream for the milk.
Summer Sundays, when we drove by a strawberry stand, we’d buy a flat, and my mother would make strawberry shortcake for supper. Not for dessert, but for supper — one basket of strawberries per person on a shortcake that filled the plate. It felt like such an indulgence.
In strawberry shortcake matters, I follow my mother’s lead. Except I don’t use Bisquick. I use Lindsey Shere’s recipe from her “Chez Panisse Desserts,” which is basically a cream biscuit.
Unlike my mother, I’ve never been able to get anyone in my household or any of my friends to agree to a shortcake supper, so I usually serve it for dessert. Even better is to have it by itself in the afternoon.
That’s my tradition.
Strawberry Shortcake Macerated strawberries:
3 (16-ounce) pints strawberries
About 3 tablespoons superfine sugar
2 cups (8.5 ounces) flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons whipping cream, divided
1 cup (more if desired) heavy whipping cream
Pinch superfine sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
Two to four hours before serving, wash and hull the berries. Roughly slice or quarter two-thirds of the berries into a large bowl. Sprinkle the sugar over the berries and, using a wire pastry blender, smash the berries so they begin to juice. Halve or slice the remaining berries into the bowl. Cover and refrigerate.
Heat the oven to 450 degrees.
In a large bowl, mix together the flour, salt, baking powder and sugar. Cut in the butter until the mixture looks like cornmeal with a few larger pieces of butter in it. Use a pastry blender or two knives, if you like, I just rub the mixture quickly between my fingers. Mix in three-fourths cup of cream, just until most of the dry mixture has been moistened. Turn out on a board and knead a few times until the dough just comes together. Divide into six portions and lightly pat into flat rounds about 1/2-inch thick.
Place on an unbuttered baking sheet. Brush the tops with the remaining 2 tablespoons cream, and bake until the tops are lightly browned and the dough is set, 10-12 minutes. Cool slightly on a rack.
While the shortcakes are cooling, whip the cream. Using a balloon whisk, whip the cream in a large bowl until it is thick, but not stiff. Whisk in the sugar and vanilla extract.
To serve, split the shortcakes in half. Ladle lots of strawberries on the bottom half, cover with the top half and spoon the whipped cream over.
Each serving: 629 calories, 7 grams protein, 55 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams fiber, 44 grams fat, 27 grams saturated fat, 143 mg cholesterol, 18 grams sugar, 471 mg sodium. Tips
One recipe makes six 4-inch shortcakes. Count half of a basket of strawberries per person.
Because the cakes take just 10-15 minutes to bake, have dry ingredients already measured out. And as guests are finishing dinner, cut the butter into the dough with a pastry blender, stir in the cream, form the patties and slip them into the oven.
A chilled whisk makes quick work of whipping the cream by hand.
It’s important to prepare the strawberry mixture before dinner. You want the berries juicy — and very cold, the better to contrast with the warm shortcake.Total time: 40 minutes, plus macerating and cooling times Servings: 6 Note: Adapted from Lindsey Shere’s “Chez Panisse Desserts.”