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Shortcut to greatness: Fruit and this recipe for delectable creation

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By Kim Ode
Saturday, June 22, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.”

— William Shakespeare, writing about shortcake

Skeptical? Do you doubt that Shakespeare would have expended his considerable talents writing about something as ordinary as shortcake?

You may be right.

But he should have, given how his words sum up this summery dessert. After all, an unadorned shortcake right out of the oven is good — very good — but not “great.” With the right recipe and a light touch, a shortcake can achieve greatness.

But it's when you ladle on juicy, slightly sugared strawberries and add a cloud of freshly whipped cream that shortcake is thrust into iconic status among desserts.

By all accounts, it's an American concoction. Biscuits of European descent commingled with Uncle Sam's strawberries sometime in the 1840s. Over the next decade, people held actual strawberry shortcake parties as a celebration of summer's arrival, according to Evan Jones in “American Food: The Gastronomic Story.”

Today's shortcake recipes have changed little: basically, a baking powder biscuit dough enriched with an egg and a little sugar. The buttermilk gets nudged aside as well, often replaced by whole milk, half-and-half or even heavy cream, which threatens to take it out of shortcake territory and into the scone zone.

Needless to say, those little spongey-cakey cups have no standing here.

Our shortcake recipe uses half-and-half and swaps in brown sugar for half of the white sugar, which gives the shortcake a slightly caramel note. After that, we stay out of greatness' way, taking care only to work the combined dry and wet ingredients as quickly and delicately as possible, kneading the dough for no more than 30 seconds.

Gently pat the dough to a rectangle about 12-inch thick, then cut rounds with a biscuit cutter, pressing straight down — twisting can seal the layers, leading to a dense shortcake — then place it upside-down on a baking sheet (again, to help ensure the highest rise).

OK, we do embellish greatness a bit, topping each cake with a gloss of half-and-half and a sprinkling of sparkling sugar.

Shakespeare might have counseled against painting the lily, calling it “ridiculous excess.”

When it comes to strawberry shortcake, though, that sounds just right.

Kim Ode is a staff writer for Star Tribune (Minneapolis).

Strawberry Shortcake

This recipe is adapted slightly from “The America's Test Kitchen Family Baking Book.” Extra shortcakes may be frozen; to use, place frozen on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes.

For the berries:

8 cups strawberries, hulled

6 tablespoons granulated sugar

For the shortcakes:

2 cups flour

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

2 tablespoons tightly packed brown sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

12 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoon unsalted cold butter, cut in 12-inch pieces

23 cup half-and-half, plus extra for brushing

1 egg

Sparkling sugar

For the topping:

2 cups heavy whipping cream

2 to 3 tablespoons powdered sugar, to taste

To prepare the berries: Slice the berries and sprinkle with 6 tablespoons granulated sugar. Let berries sit at room temperature, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved and berries are juicy, about 30 minutes.

To make shortcake: Preheat oven to 425 degrees and place rack in middle position. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, brown sugar, baking powder and salt.

Add cold butter pieces, working them into the flour with a pastry cutter, or your fingers, until the mixture resembles cornmeal and no large lumps of butter remain.

In a small bowl, whisk together half-and-half and egg. Stir into flour mixture until dough comes together in a sticky mass.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured counter and knead lightly until it comes together, about 30 seconds. Dust the counter with a bit more flour, then pat dough into a rectangle about 12-inch thick. Cut 6 rounds with a floured 3-inch biscuit cutter, pressing straight down — twisting can seal the layers, leading to a dense shortcake — then place them upside-down on a baking sheet (helps ensure the highest rise).

No biscuit cutter? You also can cut squares with a knife.

Gather the scraps, knead briefly, and cut out 2 more shortcakes.

Brush each round with some half-and-half, then sprinkle with sparkling sugar.

Bake for 12 to 14 minutes, until just golden. Let cool on wire rack.

To assemble: Combine cream with powdered sugar and whip until stiff. With a serrated knife, slice each shortcake in half and lay the bottom on individual serving plates. Spoon a portion of fruit over each bottom, top with a dollop of whipped cream, then cap with the shortcake tops. Serve immediately.

Makes 8 servings.

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