Not that many years ago, if you were served a strawberry or blackberry shortcake, it would have had a biscuit base. These days, however, shortcake has come to mean a dessert consisting of sweetened berries, whipped cream and just about any kind of pastry or cake, including those little spongecakes you can buy in packages. Having tried them all, I'm still a biscuit fan. The contrast of cool fresh berries, soft sweet cream and warm tender pastry is incomparable.
But some people find biscuits a little tricky, which is why I think they opt for cake instead. I have the answer: This shortcake recipe I've developed yields a simple, foolproof biscuit that's crisp yet delicate. No need to pull out the food processor or pastry cutter: just grate frozen butter on the large holes of a box grater into the dry ingredients. That's it. Stir in the milk and eggs, then press the dough into a ball.
- You won't need a rolling pin or special cutter to form the shortcakes, either. Using your fingertips, pat the dough into a rectangle on a lightly floured surface.
- Use a knife to cut the dough into six squares. Voila!--no scraps to roll and re-roll. (Experienced bakers know that biscuits cut from second and third rollings become progressively ratty and tough.) Square shortcakes are attractive, and all are first cuts.
Once the dough squares have been formed, you can either refrigerate them for several hours or bake them right away. As you serve the main course, pop them in the oven. That way, they're warm and fresh by dessert time. For a hint of sweetness and an attractive sheen, sprinkle the tops with sugar just before baking.
Serve the shortcakes with strawberries, blackberries, blueberries or raspberries--use just one kind of berry or a combination. For a fruit topping that's fresh, wonderfully juicy and economical, use a mix of fresh and frozen berries. I like 1 pound frozen berries (a standard bag) plus 12 ounces of fresh berries. Even at farm stands, fresh berries can be expensive, so supplementing with frozen keeps the cost down.
- Frozen berries defrost in less than a minute in the microwave and are naturally juicy.
- Sprinkle the thawed berries with sugar, and mash them with a whisk or potato masher. The berry juice dissolves the sugar and creates the much-needed fruit syrup to moisten the cake--instantly! By contrast, fresh-sugared berries need an hour or more to release their juices.
Although there are scores of ways to flavor the fruit--liqueurs, citrus zests, spices and fresh herbs--I prefer my berries sweet and unadorned. This very berry shortcake is simple, straightforward, exquisite. How perfect is that?
Copyright 2004 USA Weekend and columnist Pam Anderson. All rights reserved.