Fine strawberries deserve shortcake, not short shrift

June 15, 1994|By Russ Parsons | Russ Parsons,Los Angeles Times

Most fruits and vegetables come into season quietly, on cat's feet. One day you look and there is asparagus. Or you're out shopping and realize artichokes are finally coming down in price.

The exception to this is strawberries. Strawberries come into season accompanied by waving flags and blaring brass bands.

Although you can find something called a strawberry in the market year-round these days, trucked in from Mexico or flown in from Chile, at this time of year, it pays to stop at a farmers market and pick up the real thing.

Bite into one of these strawberries, and you'll be amazed. These berries are soft, sweet and spicy -- a far cry from the tasteless Styrofoam that passes for strawberries most of the year. (There are two things to check to get the best berries: You should be able to smell them as you approach the stand, and they should be of the Chandler variety. When you've got really perfect berries of the kind we're getting now, you want to treat them as simply as possible. The first few boxes I picked up I simply sliced and sugared and ate with vanilla ice cream. (Again, a short checklist: Always rinse and dry the berries before topping them, and -- unless it's absolutely impossible -- don't stick them in the refrigerator. It kills the perfume.)

Then, as the newness wears off, you can move into more involved recipes. Right about now, I'm deeply into strawberry shortcake, traditionally the favorite American strawberry dessert. I'm so far into strawberry shortcake that I spent a couple of days trying recipe after recipe, searching for the ultimate version.

First of all, let's define what we're talking about. Shortcakes are not the things you find for sale in most produce departments. They may call them shortcakes, but they're sponge cakes, with an emphasis on sponge. They look more like a piece from an automobile shock absorber than a shortcake. (Actually, I think some people find a shuttered auto parts plant someplace in Michigan and convert it for the summer to making these little foam disks.)

Real shortcakes are short. In baking terms, that means they crumble when you cut them with a fork, rather than being soft and pillowy. They're actually sweetened biscuits, and most recipes for them are very similar -- flour, butter, sugar, baking powder and whipping cream.

But when you get down to testing them, you find that within those five ingredients, there's a lot of room for variation.

For example, the shortcake in Janeen Sarlin's "Food From an American Farm" (Simon & Schuster, 1991) has only 1/4 teaspoon sugar per cup of flour and no butter whatsoever. It's a Grant Wood kind of biscuit -- monochromatic and severe as a Midwestern still-life.

Nancy Silverton's, in "Desserts" (Harper & Row, 1986), is sweeter (2 1/2 teaspoons sugar per cup of flour) and is made with butter, but she also uses a little more baking powder than most. She also bakes the cakes at a lower temperature for a longer time than the others. It makes a brown, crumbly biscuit with a pronounced wheat flavor from the longer baking and a bit of bitterness from the baking powder.

The shortcake in the 1975 edition of my "Joy of Cooking" (Bobbs-Merrill) was somewhere between those two -- 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar per cup of flour, but finished with milk rather than cream. It was good but not great.

Maida Heatter's shortcake ("Great American Desserts," Knopf: 1985) was something else entirely -- two tablespoons of sugar per cup of flour and finished with milk mixed with an egg rather than cream. It was baked in two nine-inch cake pans and served all at once. Never mind, it was too sweet and too cakey.

The shortcake that came closest to the one I had in mind was Lindsey Shere's in her "Chez Panisse Desserts" (Random House, 1985). It has the same amount of baking powder as Ms. Silverton's, but a little more sugar -- one tablespoon per cup of flour. It's a very small difference, but it moved the bitter-sweet balance in the right direction. I added a bit more sugar, and that proved to be exactly to my taste.

Finally, we have to talk about whipped cream -- the crowning glory for any great shortcake. It should go without saying that only cream you've whipped yourself will do, but these days you can't be too careful.

It's not hard. In fact, when I took a mess of shortcakes and strawberries to a friend's house for dessert, they didn't have a whisk to whip the cream, so I used a fork. It was a bit more strenuous, but ultimately it worked fine. Don't whip the cream until it's stiff -- it should just hold soft mounds. And don't over-sweeten it. These aren't ordinary everyday biscuits or strawberries, and you want to be able to taste the cream -- save the sugar for the Styrofoam.

Ultimate Strawberry Shortcake

Makes 10 servings

4 pints strawberries, rinsed and hulled

1/4 cup sugar

10 shortcakes

2 cups whipping cream, whipped

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