Fruit came in bushels and berries in flats at my parents' house. Because my father was a produce shipper, my mom always had an abundance of summer fruit and berries to pile on her shortcakes.
In fact, the traditional shortcake that I grew up with was actually two huge spongecake layers filled and covered with strawberries and whipped cream. The top of the cake was crammed with "toppers," the giant strawberries used to top off each pint. My mom never fooled around with individual shortcakes when she had so much fruit.
It wasn't until I married and began moving around the country that I discovered that although all shortcakes have many things in common, they come in many guises. All shortcakes are alike in that they are made with fresh, uncooked fruit or berries that are usually sweetened and crushed or sliced. Also, the fruit sits on top of some sort of cake or biscuit that can soak up the juices, and the entire creation is covered with a creamy topping.
Generosity is a common denominator -- no skimping on the fruit or cream toppings. On the other hand, the shortcakes themselves can vary from slices of poundcake to spicy scones to the customary enriched biscuit.
When biscuits become shortcakes, they should be rich and tender. Adding an egg and additional sugar and using rich milk or cream for the liquid turns biscuits into shortcakes. Replacing some of the all-purpose flour with cake flour tenderizes the shortcakes. Similarly, scones made from a soft, tender dough make a good base for the fruit and cream. Another option is to use slices of poundcake, which can be made in varied flavors. Vanilla, lemon or orange poundcake complements most berries, while chocolate poundcake goes well with raspberries.
Shortcakes are for summer when there is an abundance of seasonal fruit. Fresh and ripe are the only requirements. Beginning with strawberries, as the summer weeks roll by, we add berry after berry to the list of possibilities. Peaches are around most of the summer as the different varieties come into season. Plums are a less common choice, but when ripe, they add a sweet but slightly tart quality to the mix.
Toppings do not have to be limited to whipped cream. Ricotta cheese mixed smooth in a food processor or mascarpone stirred with some rum or liqueur makes a creamy alternative.
Before the weather turns sultry, I bake and freeze individual shortcakes, poundcakes and spongecakes so they're ready for the summer-fruit procession. Poundcake or spongecake only needs to be thawed, while biscuits and scones benefit from being warmed in a low oven. Ten to 15 minutes in a 250-degree oven warms and refreshes them.
For a make-your-own summer party dessert, try serving a platter of assorted shortcakes with big bowls of berries, fruit and creamy toppings, then let everyone create his own shortcake extravaganza.
Golden Cornmeal Shortcakes With Blueberries and Cream
3/4 cup cold buttermilk (nonfat is fine)
1 large cold egg
1 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
5 cups fresh blueberries
2 cups cold whipping cream, whipped to soft peaks with 2 teaspoons vanilla and 3 tablespoons powdered sugar
Mix buttermilk and egg in small bowl. Set aside.
Sift flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt into large bowl of electric mixer. Stir in cornmeal and granulated sugar. Mix in butter on low speed until size of peas, about 1 1/2 minutes. Slowly add buttermilk mixture, mixing until soft dough forms.
Gather dough into soft ball. Lightly flour work surface and pat dough into 3/4 -inch-thick circle. Cut out 2 1/2 -inch circles with biscuit cutter. Gather dough scraps together and pat out to 3/4 -inch thickness. Cut out remaining shortcakes.
Place shortcakes 2 inches apart on ungreased baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees about 15 minutes until tops are golden and bottoms are light brown. Cool shortcakes on baking sheet.
Use sharp knife to split shortcakes horizontally. Arrange 2 halves, cut side up, on individual serving plates. Spoon about 1/2 cup blueberries over each shortcake, then top generously with whipped cream. Or fill bottom half with cream and blueberries and cover with top half.
Chocolate-Chip Shortbread Shortcakes With Raspberries and Ice Cream
1 1/2 cups flour
3/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) cold, unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup (6 ounces) miniature semisweet chocolate chips
2 pints raspberry or vanilla ice cream
2 pints fresh raspberries