IN THE KITCHEN : The Search for the Perfect Strawberry Shortcake

Joy of cooking shortcake recipe

Most fruits and vegetables enter season quietly, on cat’s feet. One day you look and there is asparagus. Or you’re shopping and realize that artichokes are finally dropping in price. You think, “Oh, how nice,” and you grab a pair.

The exception to this is strawberries. The strawberries enter the season accompanied by waving flags and loud brass bands.

Perhaps that’s because strawberries are the best fruit Southern California has to offer, with the possible exception of citrus, which we take for granted could be culinary wallpaper.

However, nowadays, when you can find something called strawberry on the market all year round, trucked in from Mexico, brought in from Chile… At this time of year, it’s worth stopping at a farmer’s market or even one of the strawberry stalls that still dot the area and picking up the real stuff.

Bite into one of these strawberries and you’ll be surprised. These berries are soft, sweet and spicy, a far cry from the tasteless Styrofoam that passes through strawberries most of the year. (There are two things you need to check for the best berries: you should be able to smell them when you approach the booth, and they should be of the Chandler variety, California’s king of early-season berries.)

When you have really perfect berries of the kind we’re getting now, you want to treat them as simply as possible. The first boxes I picked up I simply cut into slices and sweetened and ate with vanilla ice cream. (Again, a short checklist: always rinse and dry berries before covering them and, unless absolutely impossible, do not put them in the refrigerator. Kill perfume).

Then, as the novelty wears off, you can move on to more complicated recipes. Right now, I’m deep into strawberry pie, traditionally the best American strawberry dessert. In fact, I’m so into strawberry pie that I spent a couple of days trying recipe after recipe, looking for the final version. Let me tell you, there are a lot of short cakes out there.

First, let’s define what we are talking about. Shortcakes are not the things found for sale in most product departments. You can call them shortcakes, but they are biscuits, with an emphasis on the sponge. They look more like a piece of a car shock absorber than a short cake. Actually, I think what some people do is find a closed auto parts plant somewhere in Michigan and turn it by the summer into the manufacture of these little foam discs.

Real cakes are short. In terms of baking, that means they crumble when you cut them with a fork, rather than being soft and quilted. They are actually sweetened cookies, and most of the recipes for them are very similar: flour, butter, sugar, baking powder and whipped cream.

But when you start trying them, you find that within those five ingredients there is a lot of room for variation.

For example, the short cake in “Food From an American Farm” by Janeen Sarlin (Simon & Schuster: 1991) has only 1/4 teaspoon of sugar per cup of flour and no butter. It is a kind of monochromatic Grant Wood cookie and severe as a Midwestern still life.

Nancy Silverton, in “Desserts” (Harper & Row: 1986), is sweeter (2 1/2 teaspoons of sugar per cup of flour) and is made with butter, but also uses slightly more baking powder than most. Also bake cakes at a lower temperature for longer than others. It makes a brown, crumbly cookie with a pronounced wheat from longer cooking and a little bitterness from baking powder.

The short cake in the 1975 edition of my “Joy of Cooking” (Bobbs-Merrill) was somewhere between those two-1 1/2 teaspoons of sugar per cup of flour, but finished with milk instead of cream. It was good, but, dare I say it, it’s not great.

Maida Heather’s cake (“Great American Desserts”, Knopf: 1985) was something completely different: two tablespoons of sugar per cup of flour and finished with milk mixed with an egg instead of cream. It was baked in two nine-inch cake pans and served all at once. It doesn’t matter, it was too sweet and too pasteloso.

The cake that came closest to the one I had in mind was that of Lindsey Shere in her “Chez Panisse Desserts” (Random House: 1985). (Why is it that everything I bake in this book turns out to taste almost exactly like what I have in mind?) Anyway, the Shere cake has the same amount of baking powder as the Silverton cake, but a little more sugar: one tablespoon per cup of flour. It’s a very small difference, but it moved the bittersweet-sweet balance in the right direction.

I actually added a little more sugar, and that turned out to be exactly right for my taste.

Finally, we have to talk about whipped cream, the supreme glory of any great short cake. Needless to say, only the cream you’ve whipped will do, but these days you can’t be too careful. It’s not difficult, really. In fact, when I brought a mess of cakes and strawberries to a friend’s house for dessert, they didn’t have a whisk to beat the cream, so I used a fork. It was a little more strenuous, but it eventually worked well. Remember, do not beat the cream too rigid, it should only contain soft mounds.

And don’t sweeten it too much. These are not ordinary everyday cookies or strawberries, but you are covering, and you want to be able to taste the cream, save the sugar for the Styrofoam and shock absorber.


4 pints of strawberries, rinsed and shelled

1/4 cup


10 shortcakes 2 cups


cream, whipped

Cut the strawberries in half and mix with sugar. Reserve 1/2 hour.

Divide each Shortcake while it is still hot. Pour many strawberries over the bottom of each short cake, top with a generous tablespoon of whipped cream and place the top half of Shortcake on top. Makes 10 servings.

Each serving contains approximately:

380 calories; 263 mg sodium; 82 mg cholesterol; 25 grams fat; 36 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.70 grams fiber.


It is important that your baking powder is active for the recipe to work, as there is no other leavener. The first couple of times we tried it at The Times Test Kitchen, the cookies looked more like cookies than cakes. A change of baking powder did the trick.




flour 1 tablespoon


powder 3



Salt 1

/2 cup

cold butter, cut into 8 pieces

3/4 cup whipped cream

Sift the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in a medium bowl. Rub between your fingers, or cut with crossed knives or pastry cutter, work the butter in dry ingredients until the mixture forms cornmeal consistency, with a few larger pieces of butter intact. Add half of the cream and stir the dry ingredients with the fork. Add the rest of the cream, little by little, until a mass is formed that moves cleanly away from the bottom and sides of the bowl. You can not use the whole cream.

In a lightly floured workspace, quickly and lightly knead the dough until smooth and cohesive. Gently spread 1/2 inch thick. Cut the cookies with a 3-inch cookie cutter or a lightly floured glass of juice. Gather the leftover dough, briefly knead again, and spread again. Cut the remaining cookies.

Place cookies on a baking sheet without butter and bake at 400 degrees until light brown and slightly crispy, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from oven and cool slightly before splitting and serving. Make 10 cookies. Culinary specialist with more than 10 years of experience in the restaurant industry.

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