I'm visiting with my mother, and she is trying to describe the dimensions of the strawberry patch they had back on the farm in Nebraska. Big enough that you could pick enough berries to make strawberry shortcake for 25. One of the hired hands just loved strawberry shortcake, she remembers. He'd ask my grandmother, "Mrs. Jones, could we have strawberry shortcake for dinner?"
"If you pick 'em," she'd answer. It must have been a sweet relief from harder work, picking strawberries in that patch under that unwavering blue sky, filling a deep basket with those crimson berries. Sometimes, my mother says, there would be as many as 20 hired men at table. And my grandmother cooked for them three times a day.
With the strawberries, she would be busy making her shortcake with butter and cream from the farm and a little precious (because it was store-bought) baking powder. My mother usually got KP duty, hulling and washing those berries, slicing them into a giant bowl. But she really wanted to be outside, doing the more interesting men's work, which probably is why, despite all the time working in that farm kitchen, she picked up only rudimentary baking skills.
My grandmother was renowned for her baking. It was she who taught me to whip cream by hand to a soft cloud and to add only a pinch of sugar, not too much. Her shortcake was rich and crumbly, served warm from the oven, split open, lavished with those juicy, home-grown berries and crowned with a generous dollop of softly whipped cream.
I don't know how it happened, but I never got my grandmother's recipe before she died. She cooked by instinct and probably didn't have one anyway. My mother made wonderful strawberry shortcake, but hers came from a Bisquick box. She doctored the recipe, though, by substituting a little cream for the milk.
Summer Sundays, when we drove by a strawberry stand, we'd buy a flat, and my mother would make strawberry shortcake for supper. Not for dessert, but for supper — one basket of strawberries a person on a shortcake that filled the entire plate.
It felt like such an indulgence. No frozen lima beans to get down. No pork chops or teriyaki chicken. Just that warm, crumbly shortcake and a heap of strawberries and cream on top.
It's probably exactly what she had wanted to do as a kid: Skip the other boring stuff and cut straight to the strawberry shortcake. And, hey, as a grown-up, she could do whatever she liked. And my sister and I were the happy beneficiaries.
She still recounts in horror the time she was invited for strawberry shortcake by her new relatives in Connecticut. But instead of the treat she was envisioning, their version consisted of two sad little dry store-bought "cakes" topped with green-tinged berries. "No juice!" she complains. "Just these hard little berries." Not that she would have said a word to her mother-in-law. "And the whipped cream was really sweet and stiff."
In strawberry shortcake matters, I follow my mother's lead. Except I don't use Bisquick. I use Lindsey Shere's recipe from her "Chez Panisse Desserts," which is basically a cream biscuit. One recipe makes six 4-inch shortcakes, and I count about half a basket of strawberries per person. The trick is to hand-shape the dough into rough patties about a half-inch thick. (That's my trick: Shere rolls hers out and cuts rounds with a cookie cutter.) No rolling, which makes them very quick to make. And I don't reheat them. Since they take just 10 to 15 minutes to bake. I'll have the dry ingredients already measured out. And as guests are finishing their main course, I'll cut the butter into the dough with a pastry blender, stir in the cream, form the patties and slip them into the oven.
A chilled whisk makes quick work of whipping the cream by hand. It's important to prepare the strawberry mixture before dinner. You want the berries juicy — and very cold, the better to contrast with the warm shortcake.
Unlike my mother, I've never been able to get anyone in my household or any of my friends to agree to a shortcake supper, so I usually serve strawberry shortcake after dinner. Even better, though, is to have it all by itself in the afternoon.
That's my tradition.