I was feeling rather dejected. Since I've been back for summer semester in the terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad administration program (which has me sitting in an absolutely mind-numbing class from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. almost every day), I hadn't gotten around to posting about this strawberry shortcake. I actually made it on July 4th, and my thinking was that since I'd hadn't posted, too much time had gone by and there probably weren't any strawberries left in the market.
But then my brother called me this morning as he was walking through the Union Square Greenmarket on his way home from the gym, downtown dweller that he is, and I said, "What's in the market?" As he enumerated the kinds of produce he'd seen, and began to speak of berries, I thought I heard him say the word "strawberries." "Strawberries? Did you say strawberries?" said I. "There are still strawberries in the market?" "Indeed there are," he replied, "and mighty good they looked, too."
Hmmm, I thought. There had been no strawberries last week, which had shattered my desire to post about this shortcake. But perhaps some of those clever farmers of day-neutral strawberries (those tricky little gems that bear on and off all the way till September) had wares for sale. In any case, even if strawberries are gone in your region, you might find yourself in the way of making this shortcake with other fruit -- raspberries, for example. I certainly wouldn't turn up my nose at a homemade raspberry shortcake doused with thickly whipped organic farm cream, the kind that's almost yellow, almost thick enough even before you begin to whip it...but I digress.
I was originally inspired, 10 days ago or so, to make strawberry shortcake because of a charming post of the no-less charming Bakerina (whose recent blog makeover has given me a serious case of blog-envy). Claudia Fleming's tarragon-scented strawberry shortcake was mentioned, though not actually made. Alas! Even on the best of days, I am unlikely to find fresh tarragon in my neighborhood. And on July 4th, well, it was pretty much out of the question. But we did have strawberries, and what strawberries. We had just bought them from the Lebanon, New Hampshire food co-op, who had in turn acquired them from a VERY local Vermont farm (well, so, they were local when and where we bought them. But then, of course, we had to go and truck the entire shipment of one quart to NYC, thereby turning them into a non-local food -- to our everlasting shame). They were fragrant, medium-smallish, and deep red -- all of which meant that when we bit into them, they were intensely flavorful.
So what to do with these berries, to just enhance them slightly but not mess too much with their lovely strawberriness? I pondered this as I rolled and cut a very short shortcake dough into squares (much less waste than rounds) and baked them golden. I made a recipe and a half, since I wanted large shortcakes fit for greedy people rather than little elegant restaurant-style ones. And I wanted some shortcake biscuits for breakfast as well, which were extremely rich and delicious.
When it was strawberry-slicing-and-macerating time, I began to behave a bit like a mad chemist in the laboratory. I brought out big and little bottles of essences, flavorings, extracts, liquers and vinegars. Although I ended up using several different things, restraint was my watchword. I wanted to play the subtlety card. There are a few different levels of flavoring, to my way of thinking. You can make something that tastes boldly of nutmeg, for example, which I find delightful, since I love nutmeg. You can make something that has a lesser amount, just a shade over a whisper of nutmeg. People will know there's something in there, a slightly haunting flavor that reminds them of something, but they just can't put their finger on quite what that flavor is -- unless, of course, they have very highly developed palates. And you can use enhancement ingredients so sparingly that the end result tastes exactly like the main ingredient, not the flavoring -- but it tastes more so, even more of itself. More like apples, more like butter -- or more like strawberries. The flavorings on this last one are so very subtle that people simply think you've managed to get the very best strawberries (or whatever you're using) ever, just for their pleasure.
So that was what I set out to do. A teaspoon, no more, of eau-de-vie de framboise went into my sliced strawberries. Two drops of rosewater and two drops of orange flower water. A half teaspoon of blood orange vinegar, and a heaping teaspoon of sugar, just enough to get the strawberries to release their own juices. All that was left to play nicely together while shortcakes cooled, dinner was eaten and later cream was whipped (in an overly hot kitchen, but we avoided disaster).
"Mmmmm," said G through a mouthful of shortcake, whipped cream and berries. He had never had biscuit-style shortcake before, only the sponge-cake kind. Or even worse, the artificial snack-cake kind. "This is even better than Little Debbie's strawberry shortcake." "Thank you, sweetheart," I said, barely restraining myself from this blatant baiting. "There are lots of things I can do even better than Little Debbie."
Whatever berries or other fruit you may have on hand, try the shortcake. You won't be sorry, although Little Debbie may.
Scented Strawberry Shortcake
(adapted from Strawberry Shortcake with Tarragon Cream, from The Last Course by Claudia Fleming)
Serves 4, with extra biscuits leftover
2 1/2 cups flour
4 tablespoons sugar
2 1/4 tablespoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
9 tablespoons cold butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
2/3 cup heavy cream mixed with 1/3 cup milk
To make the biscuits: In an electric mixer combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add the butter and mix together until it resembles coarse meal. Add the cream and mix just until the dough comes together (it will be wet and soft). Turn the dough out onto a sheet of plastic wrap and shape into a 9 inch square, about 1 inch high. Wrap up the square and chill for about an hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the dough into 9 biscuits (you can simply cut into squares or use a round cutter - remember the biscuits will expand in the oven). Brush the tops of the biscuits lightly with cream and sprinkle the turbinado sugar over them.
Place the biscuits about 2 inches apart on a parchment lined baking sheet and bake for about 20 to 25 minutes or the biscuits are golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
1 pint strawberries, hulled and sliced
1 heaping teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon eau-de-vie de framboise
2 drops rosewater
2 drops orange flower water
1/2 teaspoon blood-orange vinegar
Combine the strawberries with the flavorings and sugar, and let them macerate until you're ready to assemble the shortcakes.
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Chill your bowl and beaters -- and if it's very warm weather, you might even put the cream in the freezer for a few minutes. Whip, and when it begins to thicken, add the sugar and vanilla. Stop whipping when soft peaks form.
Split 4 of the shortcake biscuits in half and place the bottoms on plates. Put some of the strawberries on top and then cover with the cream. Cover with the tops of the shortcakes and serve immediately. Save the rest of the shortcakes for another day's dessert, eat them for breakfast, freeze them -- or have seconds.