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What exactly is shortcake?

The smallest, most innocent comment can spark an uproar, as I learned near the end of Easter dinner. The hubbub began over the question: Exactly what is shortcake?

We all agreed we loved strawberries with shortcake, and I remarked that I preferred the little bowl-shaped cakes at the grocery store, which aren't really shortcakes but sponge cakes, no matter what the package says. Those are the “shortcakes” we all grew up with, soaked with milk, sprinkled with sugar and served with the berries. But they aren't actually “shortcakes.” Or are they?

If you look up recipes for strawberry shortcake, you will almost certainly find lots of recipes for a quick (or “short”) bread made of pretty much the same thing as other quick breads like biscuits or scones. You make this big, round shortcake and split it through the width, filling it with strawberries and cream. That's shortcake.

The little cakes sold in stores under several brand names aren't biscuit-like but more like a sponge cake. With my family I held that just because the manufacturer calls them shortcakes doesn't make them so.

I honestly thought I might get a bowl of leftover peas tossed at me.

Years ago I wanted to make homemade strawberry shortcake for some occasion or other and found a recipe. I didn't know anything about baking then, so I was surprised when I ended up with a big ol' biscuit thing.

This was not the store-bought shortcake I knew and loved. This was just some dumb, old, dry biscuit. So I looked for a different recipe. I found they are all pretty much the same: Make a quick bread dough, spread it in a round cake pan and bake. Cool, split, add berries and cream, done.

Like Kleenex, it seems that those little cup-shaped commercial cakes have come to be accepted as the generic item, and I generally see the quick-bread version referred to as the “classic,” as in this recipe. This is from Betty Crocker, which is the old cookbook in which I found my first-attempt recipe.

STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE (Which we have to call classic now, I guess)

The fruit:

1 quart fresh strawberries

1/4 cup sugar

The cake:

2 cups flour

1/3 cup sugar

1/3 cup chilled butter, in small pieces

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup milk

1 egg yolk, beaten

1 teaspoon coarse, raw sugar

The filling:

3/4 heavy cream

2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Wash and stem the berries, cut into quarters, and mix with 1/4 cup sugar. Set aside.

In a mixing bowl, combine flour, 1/3 cup sugar, salt, baking powder and butter. Cut the butter into the flour mixture with a pastry blender or two forks. Stir in the milk, then turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead the dough no more than 10 times.

Quick breads quickly toughen with over mixing. Put the dough into a round cake pan and pat out evenly. Brush with egg yolk and sprinkle with coarse sugar. Bake 15 minutes until lightly browned. Remove from the oven and let cool. Split in half horizontally using a long knife.

Whip the heavy cream together with the sugar and vanilla until soft peaks form. Spread half the whipped cream over the bottom half of the cake. Add all but a few berries over the cream. Top with the top half of the cake, add the rest of the cream and dot with the remaining berries.

Published: April 20, 2017
New Article ID: 2017704209995