As anyone who goes to Sqirl in East Hollywood often can attest, an Instagram post of the crispy rice bowl or one of the thick slabs of toast topped with that characteristic pool of jam can rack up the likes. The most under-grammed and eye-catching things there, though, are the cakes and pastries decorated by Elise Fields. She, along with Cat Flores, are the two lead bakers who produce pastry chef Sasha Piligian’s creations. But instead of being told how to decorate the cakes and pastries, Piligian allows the bakers to follow their inspiration.
“Each day is new,” Fields told me. “We go in and use whatever’s at our disposal, whether that’s fresh fruit, dried fruit or a hodgepodge of different jams.”
Fanciful produce like finger limes and loquats get halved and propped next to dried persimmon rounds. Fresh flowers sometimes make an appearance — vibrant blue cornflowers, or purple and orange nasturtium blossoms — as do showers of crumbled dried herbs. Each cake top is decorated in a way that it looks like a bouquet of edible flowers, but it’s all edible.
“It’s pretty fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants-style decorating,” Fields said. “I like to gild the lily sometimes because I’m just over the top, but also, like, why not?”
To capitalize on the beauty Fields brings to the pastries at Sqirl, I tasked her with zhuzhing up a perennial, albeit somewhat dowdy, springtime dessert: strawberry shortcake. Fields re-imagined it from the ground up. In place of shortcakes, plain whipped cream and raw berries, there is a buttery rye flour biscuit, fragrant with citrus zest and a hint of cardamom, a thwack of fresh labneh and a macerated salad of young strawberries and mandarinquats, dressed with a splash of wine and sweetened with raw honey, still grainy with bee pollen.
“When it comes to the fruit I use, I like to mix together what grows together,” Fields said. “What’s great about this time of year is this clash between the very end of winter with the spring, so we’re getting the first of spring’s strawberries here in Southern California along with lots of great citrus. And when it comes to the strawberries, I’m big on ‘no waste,’ so I like to leave the green tops on. They’re so beautiful and add more flavor and texture.”
This new strawberry shortcake is instantly ’grammable, with bold, contrasting colors — one that’s as playful and whimsical as the *heart eyes emoji* dishes you see on your feed.
Strawberry Shortcakes with Citrus Labneh
1 hour, 10 minutes. Serves 6.
When strawberries are small and young, their leaves are still tiny and tender. Keep them on the berries for both aesthetics and the earthy taste they impart that balances the sweet fruit and rich biscuit. If you’re using kumquats, thinly slice them just like the mandarinquats because their skin is edible too. But if you’re using another citrus with a bitter, thick rind, peel the rind from the citrus and slice the fruit into thin wheels or segments.
For the fruit compote:
1 pound strawberries
8 ounces mandarinquats (6 to 8), kumquats or other citrus
1/4 cup light-bodied red wine or a sparkling pet-nat wine
3 1/2 tablespoons honey, preferably raw and/or unfiltered, plus more
Finely grated zest of 1 orange, lemon, mandarinquat or other citrus
Cocktail bitters, such as Angostura, Peychaud’s or an orange bitters
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
2 cups labneh or thick Greek yogurt
Chopped pistachios or almonds and edible flowers, for topping (optional)
For the shortcakes:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more
1/2 cup rye flour
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, plus more for sprinkling
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
Finely grated zest from 1 small lemon or orange
9 tablespoons chilled high-fat European-style unsalted butter, such as Plugra or Kerrygold, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 cup chilled buttermilk, plus more for brushing
1 Make the compote: Wash and dry the strawberries, then pick off any large, tough or woody green leaves; leave the rest intact. Halve the berries or quarter larger ones, then transfer to a bowl. Thinly slice the mandarinquats, discarding the seeds and ends.
2 Combine the strawberries and mandarinquats in a bowl, then add the wine and 2 tablespoons honey, adding more if you want the fruit sweeter. Add half the citrus zest and dashes of bitters to taste, then season with a pinch each of salt and pepper. Toss the fruit together and let stand at room temperature while you make the shortcakes. In a bowl, stir together the labneh with the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons honey and remaining citrus zest and refrigerate until ready to serve.
3 Make the shortcakes: In a large bowl, combine both flours, the sugar, baking powder, salt, vanilla, cardamon and citrus zest, and whisk to combine. Add the butter, toss it with the dry ingredients, then pinch it with the tips of your fingers until the butter breaks down to the size of peas. Using a fork, slowly stir the dry ingredients while you pour in the buttermilk, mixing until the dough just comes together.
4 Turn the dough out onto a generously floured work surface and dust with more flour. Pat the dough into a 6-by-10 ½-inch rectangle that’s 3/4-inch thick. Halve the rectangle lengthwise, then cut crosswise to make six equal rectangles. Transfer the dough rectangles to a foil-lined baking sheet and freeze for 15 minutes.
5 Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Brush the tops of the shortcakes with buttermilk and sprinkle with sugar. Bake until risen and golden brown all over, about 15 minutes. Transfer the baking sheet to a rack and let cool for 5 minutes.
6 To serve, divide the shortcakes among 6 serving plates and top each with the labneh, followed by the fruit. Crumble half a handful of freeze-dried strawberries over the top of each and garnish with more freshly grated citrus zest, chopped nuts or edible flowers, if you like.
Make Ahead: The compote can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 day. The shortcake dough squares can be frozen for up 3 days before baking.
Adapted from Elise Fields
How to Beautify Your Baked Goods
“Cake is like a painter’s palate for me,” Fields says. “I love to see where it takes me. That sounds froufrou, but it works.” When it comes to decorating cakes and pastries, there are three rules baker Elise Fields goes by to make the biggest impression for both visuals and taste.
ONE: Build layers of flavor. Instead of water, use more flavorful liquids that complement the fruit to macerate it, like cocktail bitters or wine. If you want to use spices, mix them in with the liquids too.
TWO: Incorporate texture. Shower freeze-dried versions of whatever fruit you’re using, be it strawberries, blueberries or mango, over the top of the fruit for crunch. Other options: chopped nuts, seeds, cocoa nibs or your favorite breakfast granola.
THREE: Don’t be shy with color. It’s springtime and this is a fun, frilly dessert, so use edible flowers! They aren’t just for looking pretty, they also add an earthy mouthfeel, just like the green tops of the strawberries. Make sure the blooms you buy are edible, and if you’re not sure, just tell your guests to take them off after snapping their pic of this beautiful dessert.