You can always tell when it's peak strawberry season. The supermarkets have huge displays next to the strawberries with packaged round "shortcakes" that look like sofa casters.
I always pass on these casters. They taste like foam rubber. And a few nanoseconds after the strawberry juice hits them, they look like something a 2-year-old has squished between his fingers.
The shortcake itself is so easy to make that it's almost criminal not to. Shortcakes are really biscuits. Though almost any biscuit will do, such as baking powder or buttermilk, sweeter biscuits are traditionally used, ones that have been enriched with cream.
The assembly is simple. Break the biscuit in half, pour some strawberries on the lower half. Add some whipped cream and the top half. Then ladle on more berries and cream.
Here are some tips for great strawberry shortcakes.
* No matter what recipe you use, jazz up the flavor with vanilla beans, grated lemon or orange peel, nutmeg and cardamom.
* Buy a set of biscuit cutters that come in rounds from about 1 1/2 inches to 4 inches across. Dip cutters in flour between cuts of biscuits to prevent sticking.
* Biscuits can be made ahead, even frozen. Warm thawed biscuits in a microwave oven for about one minute at half power.
* Cheaters can use pre-made biscuit dough from the dairy case. I prefer bakery scones.
* Look for berries that are fully red all the way around -- no green or whitish tips.
L * Wash berries first, then hull and, if desired, slice them.
* Take the berries out of the refrigerator about 30 minutes before serving. Stone-cold strawberries don't have as much flavor as ones at room temperature.
* Marinate berries in fresh lemon juice, kirsch or maraschino liqueur, Cointreau or other orange liqueur, rum or brandy -- or, for a delicious contrast, balsamic vinegar. Sweeten with honey or brown sugar instead of granulated sugar.
* Don't forget about other berries, too, such as raspberries and blueberries. You can also mix berries with other fruits as they come into season, especially peaches and nectarines.
* Instead of whipped cream, use sour cream or yogurt, which give a contrasting tang to sweetened berries and reduce calories and fat.
* Flavor the whipped cream with a little cassis or other liqueur.
This strawberry shortcake is one big one instead of individual shortcakes. The chocolate nicely complements the strawberries without overpowering them. If you wish, sweeten the berries about an hour before serving.
Strawberry shortbread shortcake
1 cup butter or margarine, softened
1 cup powdered sugar
2 cups flour
1 ounce grated semisweet chocolate, about 1/3 cup
1 cup whipping cream
3 tablespoons powdered sugar or to taste
2 pint baskets strawberries, stemmed and sliced; leave one whole for garnish
In bowl of an electric mixer, cream butter and 1 cup sugar. Mix in flour and chocolate. Form dough into two balls, one a little larger than the other. On floured surface, roll balls to 7-inch circles, one thicker than the other. Transfer to greased baking sheets with a wide spatula or dough scraper. Prick all over with fork. Bake at 350 degrees 20 to 30 minutes or until just golden. While warm, cut thinner circle into eight equal wedges. Cool on racks.
To assemble, whip the cream, adding powdered sugar. Cream should be stiff. Put circle on serving plate and top with half the berries. Top with whipped cream, then remaining berries. Set wedges into berries and cream at angles, pointing toward the center. Put whole berry in center. Cut in wedges.
(Adapted from California Strawberry Board recipe. Nutrition data per serving: 538 calories, 52 grams carbohydrate, 5 grams protein, 36 grams fat, 248 milligrams sodium and 103 milligrams cholesterol.)
The following strawberry shortcake has less than half the fat of the preceding recipe. Cut it further with light cream cheese and low-fat sour cream.
Enlightened strawberry shortcake
Serves eight to 10.
6 cups cleaned and sliced strawberries
1/4 cup sugar (optional)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup margarine or butter
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon buttermilk
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
1 8-ounce carton sour cream
3 ounces softened cream cheese
3 tablespoons sugar
Mix strawberries with sugar in a bowl and set aside.
In mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt. Cut in margarine until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Make a well in the center and add 3/4 cup buttermilk. Stir just until dough clings together. On a lightly floured surface, knead dough gently for 12 strokes. Roll to 1/2 -inch thickness and cut with a 2 1/2 - to 3-inch-round biscuit cutter. Transfer biscuits to baking sheet, brush with remaining buttermilk and sprinkle with teaspoon of sugar, if desired. Bake at 450 degrees 10 to 12 minutes or until golden.
For cream cheese sauce, stir sour cream, cream cheese and 3 tablespoons sugar together.