Strawberry Shortcakes: Behind the recipe

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Making strawberry shortcakes is a good marker of the start of summer. Shortly after we revamped our garden, about 5 years ago now, I planted five strawberry plants, which due to my inattention, have multiplied and spread many times over. We now have a huge patch of gangly strawberry plants, which bring a lovely glut of fruit at this time of year. We have to share with the pigeons, but now there are so many, I don’t really mind that.

Preserving the flavour and taste of strawberries beyond their short season is always a challenge. Jams and preserves work really well, concentrating the flavour as they cook. You can also make simple preserves by roasting or cooking gently in syrup to create something that will last for several weeks in the fridge.

As for making the most of the fresh ones, strawberries and scones always seem the perfect match to me. A slightly crisp-edged scone acts as the perfect support to thick, whipped (or clotted) cream, which is the ideal partner for strawberries.
Slice and macerate the strawberries in a bare sprinkle of sugar and a drop or two of balsamic, and they will be glossy and sweet and with just enough acid to counter the rich cream.

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The American approach is to make shortcakes – close relatives of the scone, but with a good deal more butter in them, and slightly more sweetened. Like scones, they get their rise from baking powder, and the liquid and dry ingredients are combined at the last stage, and the dough mixed just enough to come together. With the extra fat, they get extra tenderness and richness, so they are bit more protected from overhanding than a regular scone (good news when it comes to toddler-assisted baking!).

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Behind the recipe

There are two levels of why this works. First, the shortcake itself should be barely sweet, a little crumbly, crisp on top and light inside. These contrasts are part of what makes it work. Butter, or in some recipes, cream, coats the flour and gives that crumbly texture, that’s also rich. The baking powder lifts the whole thing up and creates that fluffy, open texture. A high oven temperature gives a nice rise and gets the tops a little brown and crisped. Using an egg helps keep the whole thing together and stops it getting too crumbly, so it will still hold up to being spread with cream, jam and fruit.

The other reason it works is because, in the final assembly, you are putting together lots of exciting contrasts. What makes a dish satisfying is often lots of changes of flavour and texture. They give you the feeling that each mouthful is different, and fool your brain into trying a bit more. Here, the bland, rich shortcake is set against the cool, thick cream and the sweet-sharp acid of the strawberries. Adding a drop or two of vinegar to the strawberries enhances that sharpness, which makes the contrast with the cream more interesting. The crisp and crumbly textures of the shortcake contrast with the smooth, rich feel of the cream, and the soft resistance of the berries.

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RECIPE: Strawberry Shortcakes

adapted from Nigella Lawson in How to be a Domestic Goddess

I adapted this recipe to use the Thermomix or a food processor, rather than the Nigella method, which involved grating the frozen butter. For the original, handmade approach, use Nigella’s link above.
I also converted it to use double cream in place of single, as you are likely to buy some anyway to serve with the strawberries. But single cream or a mixture of cream and milk, would also work fine.

Strawberry Shortcake

Ingredients

  • 325g plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 3 tablespoons caster sugar
  • 125g unsalted butter, cold from the fridge
  • 1 large egg
  • 125ml double or whipping cream

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 220C/200C fan/400F.
  2. Add the flour, salt, baking powder and sugar to the bowl of the processor. Add the butter in chunks.
  3. Pulse the processor /Thermomix until the butter is cut into chunks no larger than peas (I took mine further, until more like breadcrumbs, and they turned out fine).
  4. Beat the cream with the egg, and add almost all of it to the flour - leave a couple of tablespoons of mixture in the cup. Mix gently together with a spatula until all patches of loose flour have disappeared. It’s easier to do this in a separate bowl, but I usually can’t be bothered, and just do it in the Thermomix bowl, working around the blade. If it seems too dry, add a little more liquid. If you can, keep some back to glaze the shortcakes with.
  5. Turn the shaggy, crumbly dough out onto a floured work surface. Fold it over on itself a few times, scraping up the loose and crumbly bits,  until it starts to form a single piece of dough. Using a rolling pin or your hands, flatten it out to about 2 cm thick, and cut into shapes, either using cutters or just dividing it into squares. I think those using cutters tend to rise better. Re-roll the scraps to use up the dough.
  6. Place the shortcakes on a lined baking tray. Brush with any remaining egg and cream mixture (add a splash more cream if there’s not enough). Sprinkle the tops with sugar and bake for 10-15 minutes, until risen and golden on top.
  7. Allow to cool, but they are good served warm.
  8. To serve:
  9. Wash, hull and slice strawberries. Sprinkle with a teaspoon or so of sugar, and add a couple of drops of balsamic vinegar. Leave to macerate for 30 minutes or so.
  10. Whisk double cream until it holds a trail from the whisk (or use whole fat creme fraiche or clotted cream, which didn’t need whisking).
  11. Slice open the shortcakes, and pile on the strawberries and cream just before serving.
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Further reading

Claire Ptak’s recipe for shortcakes with apricots – another sweet-tart fruit that works well with cream and crumbly shortcakes.
The secret to James Beard’s mother’s shortcakes is supposedly a grated hard-cooked egg yolk!
Ruth Reichl’s strawberry shortcake recipe is very simple – just flour, baking powder and cream.

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louise-marston

I’m Louise, and I’m a compulsive baker, cookbook hoarder and a bit of a food geek. I learnt to cook at home, and later at Tante Marie’s cooking school in San Francisco. With a science degree and a background in IT analysis, I like to understand why a recipe works, not just how to do it. Why the rules are there and when they can be broken.

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