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Friday, May 16, 2008

Easy strawberry shortcakes, this weekend's dessert


Here in California strawberries are everywhere at the moment, so it's the perfect time for one of my favorite desserts, strawberry shortcake.  I made these for a garden lunch party with out of town friends last week.  My friend Yin snapped this lovely photo, and I just had to share it with you.

Because strawberry shortcakes are so simple, they rely on the good graces of perfect ingredients.  You'll need sublime berries and delicious cream--don't even think about that stuff you spray out of a can.  Well, actually you can get away with less-than-perfect berries, macerating them in flavored syrup can help lift the pedestrian ones to the realm of the wonderful.  (Try the "strawberry in hibiscus syrup" recipe I posted a while back.)  Nothing this side of the Milky Way can rescue the nasty white substance sprayed from the can though--so if that's all you have, do yourself (and me) a favor and go buy some good cream.

This shortcake recipe is so simple.  You can roll it out and cut neat little rounds to make perfectly formed shortcakes if you feel a bit orderly that day.  Or if you're in a rebellious mood you can just stir the ingredients together and spoon-drop it in big lumps to make more rustic looking biscuits.  Either way you'll end up with delicious shortcakes ready to take on your delectable berries and heavenly mound of whipped cream cloud.

Pim's Strawberry Shortcakes
(makes about 12 shortcakes*)

5 cups self-rising flour** (550g)
    (or 5 cups of all-purpose flour with 1tbsp+1tsp baking powder)
1/2 cup sugar (about 110g)
2 tsp. salt
7 tbsp butter, cold (100g)
1 orange
2 cups heavy cream (500 ml.)
4-5 baskets of strawberries, or more if you want

For the shortcakes

Preheat the oven to 400F or 200C.

In a large mixing bowl, stir all the dry ingredients together until well-mixed.  Cut cold butter into small cubes and toss them into the dry ingredients.  Use a pastry knife, a fork, or your hand, cut the butter into the flour.  Continue until you have tiny butter morsels spread around the dry ingredients.  The whole thing should resemble lumpy wet sand. 

Zest one orange directly into the heavy cream and stir to mix.  Pour the cream into the bowl with the dry ingredients mixed with the butter.  Gently stir in the cream to mix, continue until all the liquid is incorporated into the dry ingredients.

At this point you can spoon the mixture and drop it directly onto a baking sheet.  You should get about 12 lumpy mound of dough.

If you want to make neat-looking round shortcakes, dump the mixture on a clean surface or a pastry board.  Knead it a few times until it comes together into a smooth dough.  Roll it out to a rectangle.  I measure it with my round biscuit cutter (2.5inch or 6cm) so that I can cut three rows of four rounds, yielding 12 round shortcakes ready for the oven. 

Brush the top of the shortcakes with a bit of extra cream or egg wash.  Bake in the preheated oven (middle rack) for 15- 20 minutes, until the top is golden brown.  Remove from the baking sheet immediately and let cool on a rack before serving.

For the strawberries

If you have sublime berries, just wash, dry, cut off the crown and cut into 3-4 slices depending on the size of each berry.  If you think your berries need a little booster, you can toss them with a bit of sugar, Grand Marnier, or other booze of your choice, and let macerate in the fridge while you deal with everything else.  By the time you're done the berries will be ready. 

For fancier shortcakes, try a trick I stole from Alain Ducasse--mix the strawberries with a bit of sugar and chopped up tarragon--or the recipe I got from Alain Passard--strawberries with hibiscus syrup.

For the cream

Similarly, if you have sublime cream, you don't need to add anything, just whip until it forms a soft peak and serve.  I disliked strongly whipped cream with my shortcakes.  I whip the cream just until it hits a soft peak so when I spoon it on top of the shortcake and strawberries it's like a softly whipped cloud blanket.  If your cream doesn't taste like much, add a bit of vanilla extract or sugar to help it out a little.

To serve

For the rustic shortcakes, put one on a dessert plate, nestle a bunch of berries right next to it, and spoon a generous amount of cream over everything.  For the neat little rounds, you can slice each one in half, place the bottom half on a plate, top with strawberries (and a bit of the macerating syrup if you've got it) then a big spoonful of cream, and top it all with the top half of the shortcake. 

*You can easily halved this recipe if you don't want to make so many shortcakes.  I, however, always make this amount, my friends somehow manage to eat them all almost every time.  In the rare occasions that I have leftovers, these shortcakes--well, scones really--freeze very well.  I wrap each one in plastic and just put them in the freezer.  When I want to use them, I let them thaw for a few hours (still wrapped) then pop them (unwrapped now, ok) into my toaster oven for just a few minutes to warm.  They're practically freshly made at that point.

**I have a lot of cream and buttermilk around these days, so I bake a lot of scones.  I find it easier to just keep some self-rising flour around so I don't have to bother with measuring tiny spoons of baking powder and baking soda.  You don't need self-rising flour for this recipe to work, obviously.  Just add baking powder to your regular all-purpose flour as specified in the recipe.


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