Once upon a time, before distributors figured out how to import South American fruit year-round, strawberries were a special and seasonal treat. They would start to appear in the market in the middle of May and last until the end of June. Since my frugal mother could only give us desserts on our birthdays, and since my birthday is in May, I always asked for strawberry shortcake.
Shortcakes on a Midwestern table are simply rich baking-powder biscuits, covered with fruit and whipped cream. These biscuits are from a great website called Mennonite Girls Can Cook (who would ever question that?) and they are the real deal.
2 ¾ c. flour
¾ t. salt
4 t. baking powder
¼ c. lard or butter
1 c. heavy cream
Preheat the oven to 400º. Mix the dry ingredients and cut in the lard or butter until it is the size of frozen peas. Make a well in the mixture and add the eggs that have been lightly beaten with the cream. Stir together just until the dough comes together. Quick bread dough toughens if you handle it too much, so be careful.
Pat out the dough to ¾ inch thickness and cut out with a round cookie or biscuit cutter. Place on a baking sheet, and bake for 15 minutes or until the tops are golden.
Split the biscuits open and spoon a generous amount of sliced, sweetened strawberries over them. Garnish the berries with whipped cream.
(Another delicious, but very different version of biscuits, can be found at Southern Plate).
I have met deluded people who believe that strawberry shortcake is made with angel food cake, not biscuits. They are welcome to this particular recipe, which I have not made but comes from a WWI-era cookbook called Mary At The Farm, and can be found at the Michigan State University’s online historic cookbook library.
Aunt Sarah’s Angel Cake
“When preparing a dish calling for yolks of eggs only, place the white of eggs not use in a glass jar in a cold place or on ice. When you have saved one cupful bake an angel cake over the following recipe.
One heaping cup of pulverized sugar sifted 8 times. One cup of a mixture of pastry flour and corn starch (equal parts) also sifted 8 times. The whole then sifted together 4 times. The one cupful of white of eggs beaten very stiff. When about half beaten, sprinkle over the partly beaten eggs one scant teaspoonful of cream of tartar, then finish beating the whites of eggs. Flavor with almond or vanilla. Then carefully sift into the stiffly beaten whites of eggs sugar, flour and corn starch. Fold into the whites of eggs rather than stir. Bake in a very moderate oven, one in which the hand might be held without inconvenience while counting one hundred. The oven should be just hot enough for one to know there was fire in the range. Bake slowly for about 55 minutes.”
For something richer and a bit fancier, for a special Mother’s Day meal, perhaps, there is coeur a la crème. I suppose there is no reason not to eat this in the middle of the winter with canned or frozen fruit, but it’s an excuse to buy strawberries in season (not that I have ever needed an excuse). I don’t have the proper French mold for this but I do have a smallish round plastic colander that works just as well. If you have a metal mold to spare and want to dedicate it to coeur making, you could pound drainage holes in it with a hammer and a sixteen-penny nail.
Coeur a la Crème
2 eight-oz packages cream cheese, softened
1 cup sour cream
Beat together the cream cheese and the sour cream, thinning it with a teaspoon or so of cream if it is too stiff. Line your mold with cheesecloth, rinsed out in ice water and wrung out almost dry. Press the cream cheese mixture into the mold, cover and place over a bowl to drain. Refrigerate until quite cold, several hours. When it is ready, unmold onto a chilled serving dish and serve with strawberries cleaned and tossed with a few teaspoons of sugar.
This recipe is from James Beard’s Menus for Entertaining. Note there is no sugar added to the cream cheese mixture because Beard is a purist. If this seems a little plain to you, beat ½ cup of confectioner’s sugar and a teaspoon of vanilla extract or grated lemon peel into the cream cheese/sour cream. The coeur is not supposed to be very sweet; it gets that from the berries, and Beard recommends it be served with French bread or brioche.
And of course there is my favorite way to eat strawberries, which is standing over the kitchen sink with a knife in one hand and a towel tucked into the front of my shirt.