Monday, June 26, 2006

Strawberry shortcake

There are dessert that every American palate is familiar with. Desserts like apple and pumpkin pie, s'mores, chocolate chip cookies, and my favorite, strawberry shortcake. Through holiday tradition, public schools, shared cultural history, community potlucks, backyard picnic's, boy/girl scouts, etc... a familiarity with these treats has been ingrained in every Americans memories. Have you never tasted these desserts, invariably you will still recognize them, understand them, and be able to describe them. This gives them an incredible power over the American diner. The power of Nostalgia.

I have, along with others, written enough on the emotional trigger nostalgia has on a diner, and the joy and depth it brings to a dish, that I will spare you the philosophical rant. Rather, this post was meant to describe the joys of my favorite dish of nostalgia, Strawberry Shortcake.

At it's worst, this dish is a store-bought cake of some sort, a indented disk of sticky sponge, a rough scone bordering on hard tack, or perhaps a biscuit that originated in a cardboard tube in the cold isle, smothered with whipping cream squirted from a can, or scooped from a tub of cool-whip, and topped with frozen berries in syrup. No doubt we have all tasted version, and still found it palatable. Which means that when this dessert is made at it's best, it can be immensely delightful.

At it's best, this dessert is made from berries just hours out of the field. The cake or biscuits, the shortcake so to speak, should be tender and soft, and flavorfull enough to be eaten unadorned. The cream should be fresh, real cream, sweetened as you like it, perhaps with a hint of vanilla. When I make variations on the shortcake, sometimes I use different fruit, as I did recently with a warm rhubarb compote, and I often replace the cream with ice cream, or as I am currently doing, a seductive lemon cream.

The shortcake on my menu currently reads, "Local Strawberries with warm buttermilk biscuits and lemon cream".

Armed with a buttermilk biscuit recipe from Thomas Keller, I begin the shortcake. The biscuits are served just warm, and are very tender and flaky. They are broken in half, and filled with Pierre Herme's lemon cream, rather than whipping cream. Here my labor ends. I choose fragrant ripe strawberries who's flavor is unparalleled by anything I could humanly produce. They are sliced in half and dusted with granulated sugar for a glossy coat. Scattered across the top of the biscuits, the bright red berries sit in beautiful contrast to the buttery yellow of the lemon cream and the pale biscuit.

While this dish has enough flavor to be memorable on it's own, it's the nostalgic power that makes me smile when I eat this. I am transported back to summer days picking berries with my grandma Eva. A child with a stained face, my grandma teased that they should weigh me before and after I entered the U-Pick field and charge us for the pounds I consumed on the job. Once home, we processed massive amounts of berries into a years supply of jam, and rewarded our hard work with bowls of strawberry shortcake.

Buttermilk Biscuits
Adapted from Thomas Keller

Preheat the oven to 500

3 cups flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 stick cold butter, cut in 1/2 inch cubes
1 1/4 cup buttermilk

1. Combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. Use a whisk to mix or "sift" the ingredients evenly.

2. Toss the cubes of cold butter into the flour, and begin breaking them up by pinching the butter between your thumb and fingers. I use a motion that creates petals of butter. With my palms up, the butter is pressed into the tips of my fingers with my thumb, pressing in a forward motion from my ring finger towards my index finger. Continue to do this until the butter is broken up well, and the mixture becomes coarse. Much like cutting butter into flour for a pie crust.

3. Create a well in the center of the flour mixture, and add the buttermilk. With one hand, working swiftly, stir the flour and buttermilk together. The mixture should become a moist shaggy mess, not a solid clump of sticky dough. If the dough is too wet, toss in a bit of flour. Like wise, if the dough is dry, add a tsp of buttermilk.

4. Turn the shaggy mess out onto a lightly floured surface. Gather up the mass, and press it together. Kneed this mass 5 times, folding the dough over itself like a book each time.

5. Let the dough rest for 15 minutes. I use the same bowl I mixed it in, flouring the bottom, and flattening the dough about 3 inches thick. The surface is lightly floured and covered with plastic wrap to discourage the dough from drying.

6. Roll or press the dough to a thickness of 1 and a half inches, and cut with a 2 inch round biscuit cutter. Arrange them on a parchment lined sheet pan and bake for 8 minutes. They should be barely colored on the top, and just baked in the middle. If you are unsure, break one open. Bake for another 2 minutes if they seem undercooked, but not much longer.

If you cut the biscuits any larger than the suggested 2 inches, try lowering the heat to 450. They will need a longer baking time to cook the centers, and I have found the bottoms will burn from prolonged exposure to the 500 degree sheetpan. You can also bake them on two sheetpans stacked on top of eachother (double-panning) if you have an extra one lying around.

Lemon Cream
Pierre Herme

1 cup sugar
Zest of 3 lemons
4 eggs
¾ cup lemon juice (about 6 large lemons)
10 oz butter

1. Prepare a large stainless steel bowl to fit over a pot of simmering water as a doubleboiler. Cutt the butter up into cubes, and set aside to soften to room temperature.

2. Break up the lemon zest by mixing it with the sugar until even.

3. In the large bowl, whisk the lemon sugar into eggs and add lemon juice. Whisk this mixture aggressively over the simmering double boiler until frothy, thick, and the temperature reaches 180, as you would a sabayon. The mixture will begin to leave tracks, and the texture will become tighter. This takes up to 5 minutes. If this stage isn'’t cooked long enough, your end product will be runny. (yet delicious). You will know it'’s cooked if a ribbon of the mixture dripped back into the bowl holds a tiny mound for a second rather than dissapearing.

4. Strain the lemon sabayon into a blender cup and let cool to about 140, stirring occasionally. This takes about 5 minutes if the room is cold, 10 of the room is hot.

5. Turn on the blender and begin adding the butter 1 piece at a time, allowing 3 seconds between additions.Blend for 5 minutes, and transfer to a storage container. Cover the surface with plastic wrap and chill for 4 hours, until cold and set.


Blogger Chef said...

I can't think of a better (or more therapeutic) weekend. I'm getting in my car, driving to the Methow Valley, blasting Belle and Sebastian and stopping only to buy some strawberries so that I can make this recipe for my friends at my destination. Thank you. Great opening photo, btw.

June 30, 2006 10:54 AM  
Anonymous fiona bizwaps said...

Mooooannnn!! This sounds delightful. My mouth is watering at your beautifully evocative description. I love the image of the strawberries warm from the field. Maybe, one day, I'll have the opportunity to try one of your desserts...and not just biscuits either.....

Never. Listen. To. Traca.


June 30, 2006 2:39 PM  
Blogger Natalia said...

Mmmmmm... Strawberry shortcakes are on of my all time favorite desserts. Especially in the summer, with fresh strawberries and cream. I love the way your shortcakes look. And lemon in the cream sounds wonderful. I think I'll try your version next time.

June 30, 2006 10:48 PM  
Anonymous Culinae said...

Another brilliant post! I enjoy your posts so much because your descriptions are as tasty as the food surely is. Unfortunately the strawberries at the farm I work at have just finished, but I'm excited enough about the recipe that I might actually go out and buy some. Thanks again.

July 03, 2006 9:34 AM  
Blogger Dana said...

Becky- I hope you had better luck finding strawberries for your weekend than I did. Apparently they are out of season in the Willamette valley.

Miz Biz- I hope one day to have the pleasure of making desserts for you, even if that means crossing the Atlantic and visiting you in London.

F.O.K- Thanks and good luck with this version!

Culinae- Thanks, and perhaps you can try this version with another fruit coming into season. Although strawberries do rein king as far as the shortcake is concerned.

July 05, 2006 9:47 AM  
Blogger Nerissa said...

I nearly cried seeing the beauty of that dessert! The strawberries are SO beautiful! The biscuits look so light and fluffy. The cream looks downright decadent! Who could ask for a more perfect dessert. Simplicity is sometimes best! :)

July 05, 2006 10:41 PM  

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