Sweet picks: strawberry classics Fruit: Here's a juicy collection of berry best recipes.

May 27, 1998|By Kathleen Purvis | Kathleen Purvis,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

What makes a classic a classic?

Eternal themes, an English professor might say. "Moby Dick" isn't just a whale tale, it's a classic story of man's struggle against fate.

Achieving perfection, a musician might say. Mozart's music has outlasted the compositions of his rival, Salieri, because young Wolfgang leaped beyond mere technical prowess to achieve a sound that bumped the rafters of heaven.

All right, all right. Enough of this stuffy philosophizing. What's this got to do with strawberry shortcake?

Just this: Some dishes are so perfect, so eternal, that they achieve the level of classics. Turkey dressing with sage. Apple pie. Collards and corn bread, for heaven's sake.

And the thing with strawberries is that so many dishes have become classics. Strawberries and cream. The glistening red perfection of a glazed fresh strawberry pie. The quintessential spring salad of strawberries and spinach.

A little controversy doesn't hurt, of course. "War and Peace" wouldn't be the same if it were just "And Peace."

For that, let's consider shortcake once again. Not that we'd take sides in such a personal issue, but truly, can soft, caky shortcakes really hold a candle to the traditional Southern biscuit version? (We won't sully your imagination with a mention of spongecake versions.)

With strawberries abundant in stores, this is the time to give a thought to the classic strawberry dishes. To have your shortcake and your pie, too. After all, it's so much easier than reading "Anna Karenina."

Truly fresh strawberries are a fleeting sensation. The season for local berries is short and evaporates in the full heat of summer. Maybe one reason there are so many classic strawberry dishes is that we have to use them so quickly to get them at their best.

To help your strawberries stay their best, handle them with respect:

If you're picking local berries, get them home as quickly as possible. Spread the berries out if you can so the bottom ones don't get crushed. Cover them with plastic wrap, refrigerate, and use within a few days.

Strawberries are moist little berries. To keep them from getting mushy, don't wash them until you're ready to use them. And wash them before you cut the stems out (called hulling), so they don't absorb excess water.

To keep the flavor around a little longer, you can freeze strawberries. To freeze without sugar, place whole, hulled berries on a baking sheet in the freezer. When they're hard, transfer to a plastic bag. Or freeze them in syrup by mixing equal parts sugar and water and heating until the sugar dissolves. Use about 1/2 cup of the syrup to cover 1 cup of sliced or whole berries and freeze.

Here are some delicious strawberry dishes to try.

Southern Biscuit Shortcake

Makes 8 to 10 shortcakes

2 cups self-rising, Southern-style flour, such as Martha White, Red Band or White Lily

2 tablespoons sugar

1/3 cup butter or margarine, softened

3/4 cup half-and-half

flour for rolling out pastry

6 cups sliced strawberries

sugar to taste

1 cup whipping cream, whipped with 1 tablespoon sugar

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Lightly grease a large baking sheet.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine flour and sugar. With pastry blender or two knives, cut butter into flour until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add half-and-half; stir lightly with a fork just until flour is moistened. (Dough will be moist.)

Sprinkle a work surface with flour. Turn out dough and pat out just until smooth. (If necessary, sprinkle dough with a little flour to keep your hands from sticking.) Roll gently to about 1/2-inch thick. Using a floured biscuit cutter or knife, cut into desired shapes. Place about 1 inch apart on baking sheet. Bake for 9 to 12 minutes, until golden brown.

While biscuits are baking, wash, hull and slice strawberries. Toss with sugar to taste and let stand at room temperature until strawberries are juicy. Beat whipping cream until it starts to hold its shape; add 1 tablespoon sugar and continue beating until soft peaks form (when beaters are lifted, peaks will fold over but hold their shape).

Serve biscuits warm or at room temperature. Split or cut biscuits open. Top bottom layer with strawberries and a little juice. Replace top and spoon on more berries, topping with a dollop of whipped cream.

- Adapted from Martha White

Buttery Layered Shortcake

Makes 6 to 8 shortcakes

2 cups self-rising Southern-style flour, such as Martha White, Red Band or White Lily

2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 cup shortening

3/4 cup milk

about 1/4 cup all-purpose flour for preparing pastry

1/4 cup butter or margarine, softened

6 cups strawberries

sugar to taste

1 cup whipping cream, whipped with 1 tablespoon sugar

Lightly grease a baking sheet. In a medium mixing bowl, combine flour and sugar. With pastry blender or two knives, cut shortening into flour until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add milk to dry ingredients; stir lightly with a fork just until blended.

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