Bread of the Month; Shifting on shortcake

ledepic01The strawberry shortcake I grew up with and loved was always more cake than short. That is, a golden vanilla layer cake like those found frosted for birthdays, but without the icing, soft and fluffy, easily absorbent of all the succulent red strawberry juices circulating over and under it.

I think this is the shortcake most people see as shortcake — right down to those little sponge cake “cups” prominently displayed next to the strawberries in the grocery store every spring.

But I’m aware of whisperings of the past, of shortcakes that were more short than cake. “Short,” meaning a dough that has half the fat (as in shortening) to the amount of flour and produces a texture of a tender, crumbly sort, as in shortbread, shortcrust (for pastry) and shortcake. This traditional shortcake was more of a biscuit. Actually, it is a biscuit, split in half and loaded with berries and whipped cream. It really is and always has been the true shortcake, despite all the faux shortcakes that are really pound, sponge, chiffon or even angel food.

howEat01L’est I needed any convincing to try to journey back to the old ways by making a shortcake of the first tradition, I was again drawn into the writings of fellow Kansan and famed food writer Clementine Paddleford, who, in her 1960 cookbook “How America Eats,” drew a picture of a “strawberry social”:

“For this occasion pick a warm, sweet night in June with moonlight and dew perfuming the honeysuckles. Take a two bushels of fat strawberries, a score of baking pans filled with rich biscuit shortcake squares fresh from the oven. Borrow paper lanterns to flutter like jeweled moths against the dark green of tree and shrub. Sparkling white the tables, the planks covered with white paper for tablecloths. Fill low bowls with honeysuckle or wild roses.
“Women counting spoons, women cutting shortcake, women counting roses, women talking of slips and blooms, of hats and setting hens. Voices run high. Men wait in little clusters, quietly, voices low.
“ ‘Shortcake’s ready!’ A scramble for chairs. Shortcakes, on meat platters, are brought whole to the tables to cut before your eyes. The top berries cold and sweet like wine; the crushed berries in between warm and tasting of sugar and sun, the shortcake crunchy and rich with butter.”

wetdry01Heady with the romance of that passage and longing for my own strawberry social, I came up short (the closest I’d come was a build-your-own shortcake tent at an annual strawberry festival, which was more melee than merry). That time was gone. But I could still make the shortcake from it, and perhaps that little old-fashioned bit, carried forth, could keep something from that time alive.

squarescut01A modernized version of Clementine Paddleford’s mother’s recipe for strawberry shortcake was presented in the biography, “Hometownn Appetites: The Story of Clementine Paddleford, the Forgotten Food Writer Who Chronicled How America Eats” (2008) This recipe has you using a food processor to cut the butter into the dry ingredients, but often, when I’m met with these instructions, I reach for my handheld pastry cutter. It’s simpler than dragging out the food processor, it gives me a little bit of a workout, and, let’s face it, rings faithful to what the ladies from strawberry social times would have done.

baked02The recipe has the old-time method of forming a “well” of the butter-blended dry ingredients, into which to pour the egg and milk, thus allowing for a mix of the dough more quickly and evenly, so it doesn’t become tough.

I decided to go with the dough squares described from the strawberry social, rather than the recipe’s directions to make large single slabs to make one big shortcake. This recipe made about nine 3-inch squares.

Golden-brown and as sunny-beautiful as any biscuit I’ve made, I could hardly wait for them to cool enough to split in half and marry with strawberries.

It was a happy pairing — light, buttery, crumbly…TRUE shortcake stood up well to all the juicy berries and cream. The biscuit’s less-sweet flavor and flaky texture makes the dessert something different, something decidedly old-fashioned. Enough so, that I nearly see the paper lanterns and the white tables and on them, the fragrant honeysuckle trailing out of low bowls.

Jennie Paddleford’s Strawberry Shortcake
From “Hometown Appetites: The Story of Clementine Paddleford, the Forgotten Food Writer Who Chronicled How America Eats” by Kelly Alexander and Cynthia Harris (2008)

3 cups all-purpose flour

5 tsp. baking powder

1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg

1 tsp. salt

1 cup sugar, plus more to taste

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small pieces

1 egg, beaten
½ cup whole milk
3 quarts strawberries

1 pint thick cream for passing (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees

Sift together flour, baking powder, nutmeg, salt, and ½ cup of the sugar into a large bowl. Combine with the ½ cup butter in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal with lumps the size of small peas. Transfer dough to a bowl. Make a well and add to it the egg and milk. Work dough very gently with fingertips or pastry spatula; knead until it just holds together, about 10 seconds. Dots of butter should be visible; do not overwork dough. Generously flour work surface, then roll dough out to form two circles that are ½ inch thick and 8 to 10 inches in diameter. Wrap the disks tightly and chill. Set aside 16 of the best looking berries. Hull the rest, then halve and place in a bowl with the remaining ½ cup sugar or more, depending on the ripeness of the fruit. Let strawberries macerate for at least 15 but no more than 45 minutes.

Remove dough disks from refrigerator. On 2 ungreased sheet pans, bake dough rounds 12 to 15 minutes, until golden on the outside and just cooked through in the center. Remove from oven and cool 10 to 15 minutes.

Slather the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter evenly on each disk. Transfer larger disk to a plate that will accommodate it and the juicy berries running off it. Pile macerated berries on top and then cover with the other biscuit. Garnish with reserved whole berries and serve with a pitcher of cold cream, if you like.

Yield: 8 servings
Blogger’s Note: This makes 8 to 10 3-inch shortcake squares or rounds.
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