Monday, March 28, 2016

Strawberry Shortcake

When I was growing up, "strawberry shortcake" had a very particular meaning. It was little shallow cups of somewhat dry sponge cake bought six to a pack at the supermarket. Into these ads specimens, we'd scoop a pile of mashed strawberries copiously mixed with sugar until they could have been jam. Once the requisite fruit was added, more sugar was spooned on top followed by enough milk to decimate the molecular cohesion of the shelf-stable baked good.

It wasn't until many years later that I realized that "shortcake" didn't refer to the height of the cake, but rather to butter mixed with flour and very little liquid. I had no idea that one could make ones own cake to accompany the berries, nor that other people didn't douse their cakes with milk and create a pile of milky, sugary, strawberry-laced mush as a way of enjoying that dessert.

Perhaps because of my experience growing up, I rarely eat strawberry shortcake as a dessert and I've only attempted to make the cake itself once before. That attempt was so-so, most likely because my baking skills at the time didn't include a thorough knowledge of the evils of overworking your flour or using cold butter. A trip to a local discount store and two large containers of relatively sour berries had me looking once more toward trying my hand at a proper shortcake.

I did a search on the New York Times and found a recipe for which I had everything on hand. Many of them included sour cream, whole cream, or whipping cream and I did not have these items around. Fortunately, Mark Bittman's recipe for shortcake had an ingredients list that I could fulfill and a stunningly easy method of preparation.

I was actually a bit dubious of the recipe because he tells you to blitz the butter into the flour completely with a food processor. I'm not averse to my life being made easy in this way, but a relatively small amount of fat thoroughly mixed into flour made me wonder what it might do to the texture. When I make scones, I always make sure not to mix the butter in completely to keep things tender. Nonetheless, I followed the recipe as stated except for a few things.

The primary change I made was to cut the recipe in half and make only 6 cakes (1 cup flour, 2 tbsp. butter, 1/4 cup sugar, 2 tsp. baking powder, pinch salt, and 7 tbsp. milk). This was in part because my husband and I are the only consumers and I didn't need a ton of them and in part because I don't have a food processor and have to rely on a tiny bowl "processor" that came as an accessory to my immersion blender. I blitzed the sugar, flour, baking powder, and salt with the miniscule amount of butter until it looked like boxed pancake mix.

I then dumped that dry ingredients and fat mixture  into a bowl and made little wells and slowly added the milk, pushing the flour mixture into the milk to gently mix. I wanted to be absolutely certain not to overwork it given how little fat there was. I did not knead it or stir it. I just moistened it and even allowed some of it to stay dry. I put a lid on the bowl and tossed it in the refrigerator for an hour or so to let the flour absorb the milk. This was the other major departure from the instructions, but given how little I'd mixed it, I thought it needed the time.

When I took it out, it was fairly cohesive on its own, with a bit of dry bits at the bottom. I did find that it was sticky, but too thick to use a tablespoon to drop it on the cookie sheet. I cut it into six roughly equal pieces with a butter knife, gently shaped the dough, and put it on parchment paper and baked at 450 degrees for about 8 minutes. It did start to brown and I was worried that it might not cook inside while browning outside, but it turned out okay. I do think my oven may run a bit hot and I might want to reduce the temperature by 25 degrees down to 425 next time. I also didn't add as much sugar to the strawberries when I macerated them (only two tablespoons).

I really had low expectations of this, but it was fantastic. The interior was tender, the exterior was crispy with a good amount of give. It was lightly sweet - much sweeter than I expected given that each cake had only two teaspoons of sugar in it and provided a great base for the lightly sweetened berries.

These are definitely reminiscent of scones. In fact, out of the oven, they look like scones, but they do have a textural difference and a firmer structure in general. They're less delicate than American scones and less layered than English ones. I do believe that they could be eaten for breakfast with other types of fruit or even just like a scone with jam and butter. The odd thing is that they are probably less unhealthy than the average scone given how relatively low they are in fat and sugar (only about 160 calories per cake). I think blueberries would be great on these, add would really ripe peaches. I will definitely be making these again. 

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