Many years ago, when I was younger and even more foolish than today, I took it upon myself to perfect the shortcake. I spent a week going through a dozen or so recipes from my favorite writers, cooking them, plotting the ingredients on a spreadsheet and then testing different combinations until I came up with the shortcake of my dreams.
What's so foolish about that? Absolutely nothing (though a tad obsessive, maybe). But then I had to go and proclaim it in print as "The Ultimate Shortcake." And of course you know what happened then -- within a couple of months, I found a shortcake I liked better. "Sic transit gloria pastry" and all that.
The reason I'm bringing this up is that I was recently bitten again by the shortcake bug. I guess that's practically unavoidable at this time of year, when the markets are full of fragrant strawberries just begging for a little lightly whipped cream and a bite of something crunchy.
And though I'm no longer foolish enough to burden these new recipes with any extravagant claims -- at least not in public -- I do have to tell you that if there is any love for shortcake in your heart, you've got to try these.
First of all, let's do a little defining: Contrary to what you may have been persuaded to believe, shortcakes are not those little foam discs you find in the produce department at the grocery store. I'm not sure what those are. I would guess re-purposed GM shock-absorber parts, except for the fact that they were around even when the auto industry was thriving.
A real shortcake is a lightly sweetened cream biscuit. If all you've ever had are those foam cakes, try one of these. They're rich and buttery with a slight crunch that sets off strawberries and whipped cream like a dream.
And they couldn't be easier to make. Pulse most everything together in a food processor or on slow speed in a mixer, as if you were making a pie crust. Pour over heavy cream and pulse a couple of more times (not too many!). Turn the moist crumbs out onto a floured counter and lightly knead them just to bring the dough together. Pat it into a circle, cut it into pieces and bake. That's all there is to it.
Indeed, making shortcake is all about technique. The main trick is handling the dough as gently as possible to avoid toughening it. I don't even use a rolling pin anymore. Last week I tested side-by-side shortcakes from otherwise identical recipes that had been patted and rolled, and the puff on the patted one was significantly better.
For the same reason, be sure to use a very sharp knife to cut the dough into pieces. In a hurry, I used a dough scraper on a couple of batches and you could plainly see how the dull edge had compressed the edges, reducing the rise.
Some folks go even further and form shortcakes like drop biscuits -- essentially, just grabbing a handful of dough, gently forming it into a ball and then slightly flattening it before baking. This is how Dorie Greenspan, a pastry goddess and one of my favorite cookbook writers, makes hers.
Though there is some variation in the ingredients among the different shortcake recipes, it's so slight that it really only points up how foolproof they are. For the most part, for 2 cups of flour (enough for six shortcakes) you'll use a tablespoon of baking powder, 2 1/2 to 5 tablespoons of sugar, 6 to 8 tablespoons of butter and about three-fourths cup of cream.
Any combination within those parameters will work just fine. Which you choose is strictly a matter of how you like your shortcake.
The most unusual variation on the basic formula I've ever come across is also the one that replaced that ambitiously named shortcake in my affections.
It's an odd little trick from the great chef Larry Forgione, who was one of the pioneers of new American cooking 25 years ago at his An American Place restaurant in Manhattan. He adds a couple of yolks from hard-boiled eggs to his shortcake. It seems like a strange idea, but because the yolks are high in fat and low in moisture, they add richness without risking toughening the dough.
In fact, one thing I found odd when I was digging through shortcake recipes was that for all their popularity, they seem to have inspired remarkably little experimentation. That might be because plain and simple they are so delicious.
But being a compulsive tinkerer, I had to play around a little once I'd worked out the basic dough that I wanted. The first thing that came to mind was adding some orange zest, the better to pair with strawberries. That worked really well, the citrus perfume really lifts the flavor. This summer I'll try it with sugared peaches (why should strawberries get all the shortcake love?).
You can use this dough as a cobbler topping too, dropping it by generous spoonfuls over the top of fruit. Because the dough cooks so quickly, you'll probably first want to bake the fruit enough to soften it.
But working with that orange-scented dough gave me another idea: What's the difference between a cream scone and a shortcake? Not much, it turns out. I made the recipe again, adding a half-cup of mixed dried fruit (cranberries, raisins and sour cherries) when I pulsed in the cream, so they'd be coarsely chopped into the dough.
These scones were dangerously good -- so delicious and so easy, I found myself tossing them together repeatedly the first week, just because they're so fun to make. Until, that is, I realized my jeans suddenly seemed to be fitting just a tad snug.
I decided to try another experiment. I like a bit of cornmeal in some dessert pastries -- it adds an intriguing flavor and just a little more crunch. So I substituted one-half cup of cornmeal for part of the flour.
This, too, worked well with strawberries. But then I wondered what a savory shortcake would be like. I mean, a shortcake is also a biscuit, right? And I do love biscuits and gravy.
So I took the sugar way down -- just enough to balance the slight bitterness of the cornmeal and baking powder. It was good, but just a little too delicate. So I got rid of the egg yolks and tried again. This was much better, kind of like a crunchy corn bread.
As much as I love sausage and cream gravy, a biscuit like this deserves something more elegant, don't you think? The last couple of weeks I've played with the idea of a cream sauce spiced with smoked paprika. I tried it first as a sauce for schnitzel, a twist on the traditional Hungarian paprikash -- the flavor was good but ruined the cutlets' crisp crust, so I decided against it.
But what if I added some little cooked shrimp, sautéed mushrooms and Spanish chorizo (and not just to extend the sausage gravy pun)? Wow.
I'm not going to call these shortcake recipes the "ultimate" anything . . . I've been down that road, remember? Older and wiser, I'll just say that they are the best I've cooked so far. But tomorrow is another day -- and, the kitchen gods willing, perhaps another shortcake will come my way.