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A short path to shortcake nirvana

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.

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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.

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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?).

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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, sauteed mushrooms and Spanish chorizo (and not just to extend the sausage gravy pun)? Wow.

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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.

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russ.parsons@latimes.com

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Orange-flavored shortcakes with strawberries and cream

Total time: 40 minutes

Servings: 6

Note: Coarse sugar can be found at baking and cooking supply stores as well as well-stocked markets.

Orange-flavored shortcakes

2 cups flour

3 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon grated orange zest (about 1 large orange)

6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into cubes

2 hard-boiled egg yolks

3/4 cup heavy cream, plus extra for brushing

Coarse sugar for dusting (granulated sugar can be substituted)

1. Heat oven to 375 degrees.

2. In a food processor bowl, pulse together the flour, granulated sugar, baking powder, salt and orange zest. Add the cold cubed butter and the egg yolks and pulse together just until the mixture has the texture of lightly moistened cornmeal. There may be a few pea-sized chunks of butter remaining; that’s fine.

3. Pour over 3/4 cup heavy cream and then pulse 4 to 6 times just to moisten the dough. Do not overmix or the dough will be tough.

4. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and gather into a shaggy mass. Knead 3 to 4 times to make it cohesive and then pat into a rough circle 6 to 7 inches in diameter and a fairly consistent 3/4 to 1 inch in thickness.

5. Using a sharp knife, cut the circle into 6 wedges. Brush the tops very lightly with heavy cream (there should be enough left in the measuring cup) and sprinkle lightly with the coarse sugar.

6. Transfer to a cookie sheet and bake until risen and golden brown, 18 to 20 minutes. Turn the pan around halfway through to ensure even cooking. Remove to a cooling rack.

Strawberries and assembly

3 pints strawberries, washed, hulled and quartered

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon orange juice

1 cup whipping cream, beaten to soft peaks

1. While the shortcakes are baking, toss the strawberries, sugar and orange juice together in a bowl. Let stand several minutes. (If the strawberries are extremely firm, do this 30 minutes in advance.)

2. Split the shortcakes in half horizontally and set the tops aside. Place the bottoms on dessert plates and heap strawberries over them. Spoon whipped cream generously over the strawberries and replace the shortcake tops. Serve immediately with any remaining whipped cream on the side.

Each serving: 599 calories; 8 grams protein; 57 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 39 grams fat; 24 grams saturated fat; 193 mg. cholesterol; 567 mg. sodium.

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Cornmeal shortcakes with shrimp and chorizo cream sauce

Total time: 40 to 50 minutes

Servings: 6

Note: Spanish chorizo can be found at Spanish markets, most cooking supply stores and well-stocked markets.

Cornmeal shortcakes

1 1/2 cups flour

1/2 cup cornmeal

1 teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup butter

3/4 cup heavy cream, plus extra for brushing

1. Heat oven to 375 degrees.

2. In a food processor bowl, pulse together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add the cold cubed butter and pulse just until the mixture has the texture of lightly moistened cornmeal. There may be a few pea-sized chunks of butter remaining.

3. Pour in 3/4 cup whipping cream all at once and then pulse 4 to 6 times just to moisten the dough. Do not overmix or the dough will be tough.

4. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and gather into a crumbly mass. Knead 3 to 4 times to make it cohesive and then pat into a rough circle 6 to 7 inches in diameter and a consistent 3/4 to 1 inch in height.

5. Using a sharp knife, cut the circle into 6 wedges. Transfer to a cookie sheet, brush with a little cream, and bake until risen and golden brown, 18 to 20 minutes. Turn the pan around halfway through to ensure even cooking. Remove to a cooling rack.

Shrimp and chorizo in cream

1 tablespoon butter

1/4 cup diced Spanish chorizo

1/2 pound mushrooms, quartered

2 tablespoons minced shallot

1/2 cup dry white wine

1/2 pound small cooked shrimp

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cornmeal shortcakes

2 tablespoons minced green onions

1. While the shortcakes are baking, melt the butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the diced chorizo and cook until it begins to brown and crisp, about 3 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook until they soften, about 5 minutes. Add the shallot and cook until it softens, about 3 minutes. Add the white wine and cook until it reduces to a syrupy glaze, about 5 minutes. Add the shrimp and toss them in the glaze. Add the cream and smoked paprika and simmer until the cream has reduced enough to lightly coat the back of a spoon, about 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

2. Split each shortcake in half horizontally. Place the bottom half on a plate and spoon the shrimp mixture over. Sprinkle lightly with minced green onion, place the shortcake tops on top and serve immediately.

Each serving: 578 calories; 15 grams protein; 38 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 40 grams fat; 24 grams saturated fat; 177 mg. cholesterol; 837 mg. sodium.


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