ANY WAY YOU STACK IT, strawberry shortcake is as American as apple pie. And for good reason.
Busy pioneers made Saturday's bread dough in large quantities and used it for an assortment of baked goods as well. By adding more fat and sugar, and shaping it differently, the batter could be turned into light-as-air biscuits. When our ancestors paired these cloudlike puffs with sweet, juicy berries, they created a match made in heaven.
Why they are called shortcakes is anybody's guess. Some say they are a shortcut for making cake, or the biscuits are made from a short dough, or they take a short time to make. Whatever the reason for the name, when you bury biscuits in a bevy of fresh fruit and lavish them with mountains of whipped cream you have a crowning celebration of summer's bounty.
Like apple pie, each region of the country has its own variation. Down in Dixie, where lilies are always sweetly gilded, rich biscuits are laden with sugar-scented fruit and gobs of whipped cream; New Englanders, known for their less frivolous nature, prefer a sugarless biscuit scantily strewn with sun-ripened fruit; Califor- nians, blessed with an abundance of crops and an undaunted spirit of adventure, add spices, nuts and other ingredients to disguise and lift the dessert to what they consider loftier heights.
Having lived on both coasts, I offer you a selection of the best of both, a gentle blending of the traditional, along with some exotic touches of the unexpected.
Shortcakes consist of three components: a cakelike biscuit, fruit and cream. The batter may be prepared by hand or in a food processor fitted with the metal knife. The key to making the little cakes light and tender lies in not over-working the dough and not adding too much flour. The stickier the batter, the lighter the biscuits. Do not attempt to use a rolling pin; just pat the dough out with your hands. Or, as in my almond rendition, drop the batter from a spoon. The type of fat you select also makes a difference. Shortening results in softer, more tender cakes; butter adds flavor. You can make any size or shape you wish -- try various shaped cookie cutters or pat into one large round.
The flavor can be varied by using different extracts, liqueurs, spices and nuts. For the chocolate biscuits, I replaced some of the flour with cocoa and stirred in chocolate chips. The wonderful melange of spices that permeate gingerbread is equally tasty incorporated into biscuit batter.
The selection of fruit also allows for creativity. Feel free to mix and match -- caramelized peaches are as delectable blanketing gingerbread biscuits as they are on the almond variety. If you have a bumper crop of apricots or cherries, experiment with your own creations. For moister shortcakes, toss the sliced fruit with sugar and let stand for 30 minutes to extract the juices.
To cap off these morsels, you needn't limit yourself to whipping cream. My favorite topping is sweet and sour whipped cream, a delectable combination of equal parts whipping and sour cream, lightly beaten and scented with a whisper of liqueur. But sometimes I fancy sour cream sweetened with a little brown sugar; or whipped cream with a touch of honey; or thick, rich, gooey fudge sauce -- let your mood be your guide.
These scrumptious shortcakes are good served at any time with any meal -- brunch, lunch, dinner or tea. Wrap up the biscuits, seal the fruit in a container and tuck them into your picnic basket. Or throw a shortcake party. Put out a variety of biscuits, bowls of sliced fruit and a selection of toppings and let your guests create their own. Wherever, whenever, however you stack them, shortcakes are a longtime winner.
Almond shortcakes with warm caramel peaches
Adapted from Bon Appetit, Aug. 1990, by Edna Sheldon.
1 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon grated lemon peel
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup shortening, butter or margarine, cut into pieces
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
3 teaspoons sugar
3 pounds ripe peaches
6 tablespoons butter or margarine
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons dark rum
1 recipe sweet and sour whipped cream (recipe below)
To make the biscuits, heat oven to 400. Grease baking sheet. Process almonds in food processor until finely chopped. Add sugar and process until ground. Add flour, baking powder, lemon peel, baking soda and salt. Pulse to mix. Pulse in shortening or butter until mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir extract into buttermilk. Pour over mixture and process until blended. It will be very sticky.
Using a large spoon, drop batter onto baking sheet in 8 tall mounds about 2 inches apart. Sprinkle tops with sugar. Bake until golden brown, about 12 to 15 minutes. Cook on rack. (Biscuits may be made one day ahead. Reheat slightly before serving.)