Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Addy's Strawberry Shortcake

The secret origins of one of my favorite summer time desserts!

While there are a lot of different fun summer time desserts, nothing feels more summery to me as strawberry shortcake. This is probably because while I usually don't stick to seasonality with my food - I'll happily eat spice cookies any time of the year, thanks very much! - this is a treat that was exclusive to summer when I was a kid, and it's something I always looked forward to. My grandma is the strawberry shortcake master in my family, and without her, I'm honestly not sure I'd have ever gotten to try this yummy combination of biscuit, cream and berries. I don't tend to order fruity desserts at restaurants and don't remember any of my friend's families being especially fond of shortcake, so I think it's fair to say she's responsible for my enthusiasm for this treat.

Because it's been a part of my life for so long, I'd never really thought about its origins until I came up with the idea for this blog. Now I think about the history of basically any food that's put in front of me, because this is what happens when I get interested in something. It's difficult to shut my brain up! This is another dish I've wanted to explore the origins of basically since starting A Peek into the Pantry, and for whatever reason, I didn't get around to it until this month. Better late than never!

Although variations of this dish were popular before 1864, Addy gets to host this post because the shortcake really came into its own in the mid 1800's. It's absolutely a dessert she and her family would have enjoyed in their home or at church gatherings, and I'll bet it was a family favorite. How could it not be?

Shortcakes and recipes pairing biscuits, cake or sponge with fruit and cream have existed for a long time. The dish gets its name from a 15th century definition of short, meaning crumbly rather than small in stature, and a good, classic strawberry short cake - in my humble opinion - definitely needs to have a crumbly texture rather than a perfect, pillowy one. Like most baked goods, these biscuits were slightly more difficult to make and looked different from the ones Addy or I would enjoy because of a lack of chemical leavening agents like baking powder. This means while my original character Jane from 1614 was potentially familiar with shortcake, her mother's recipe for it would have produced more solid biscuits than the fluffy ones that became popular in the 1800's. Additionally, these biscuits weren't always served with fruit and cream, and cookbooks don't begin talking about strawberry shortcake by name until much later.

Thanks to the availability of baking powder and soda, shortcake enjoyed quite a rise in popularity in the mid 1800's. Shortcake recipes were still occasionally more cookie like than fluffy biscuit, and according to Tori Avey's article on strawberry shortcake (which is where I got my recipe to try), the first time we see a shortcake paired with strawberries is in 1845. This is still different from the version of shortcake that's most common today, as the recipe calls for a hard white icing rather than whipped cream.

Not long after this, shortcakes became everyone's favorite baked good, kind of like the cupcake craze we saw a few years ago. People still put their own twists on recipes, as some used butter rather than whipped cream or icing, but they did split the cakes open, stuff them with yummy stuff and serve them, much like we do today. By 1862, whipped cream had become the condiment of choice, and the dish I'll be trying my hand at today was born! Refrigeration helped make whipped cream a staple of the dish, and June 14th even became National Strawberry Shortcake Day!

There are many other kinds of shortcake - peach, raspberry, blackberry, the list goes on - but for whatever reason, strawberry has remained the most iconic and popular flavor. Some families also have a different tradition where pound, sponge or angel food cake substitutes the biscuit, and this is generally what I've seen pass for strawberry shortcake internationally. Tori Avey says this started because Northerners who didn't have a tradition of making soda biscuits decided to swap it out with some of their favorite baked goods, but I'd say it's still pretty common to order shortcake as a biscuit up here in New England. Maybe the trend came back around?

My grandma's shortcake always featured biscuits made with Bisquick, and they were very, very tasty. I decided I wanted to try my hand at a more from scratch, authentic recipe because this is an Addy themed post and I wanted it to be similar to what she would have eaten. Maybe my grandma's version will be featured as a Grace or Julie post one of these days!

I decided to try out Tori Avey's recipe for strawberry shortcake because it sounded like a very basic shortcake, and thus like something Addy would have made herself or been given as a treat. You can access the recipe on her website.

I put two cups of flour, 1/4 of a cup of sugar, one tablespoon of baking powder and 1/2 of a teaspoon of salt in a bowl and mixed it all together. Then, I cut in 1/2 of a cup of butter, and carefully added 3/4 of a cup of whole milk until I had a dough. I used to hate cutting butter into flour, but I feel like I'm starting to get the hang of it.

I dumped my dough out onto a floured surface as instructed and rolled it out to be about 3/4 inch thick. My handy little biscuit cutter gave me some nice two inch biscuits to work with, and when they were all cut, they went into a 425 degree oven for twelve minutes.

They came out looking pretty nice! I was able to get about 24 biscuits from the recipe.

Now time for the strawberries. I took 2 pints of strawberries, sliced them up, and mixed them with three tablespoons of sugar.

Now, you can be lazy and just dump whipped cream and strawberries on top of the biscuit, but to dress a shortcake properly, you split your biscuit in half, put some strawberries in the middle, dollop some cream on that, and top with the other biscuit half.

Next, top with more cream and berries, and you're ready to go!

I've made a couple recipes from Tori Avey's archive in the past, and every single one of them has been delicious. This is absolutely no exception! I really like reading her blog and trying out her recipes because the articles aren't just full of great history. Her pictures are beautiful and really clearly show you what your ingredients should look like throughout the cooking or baking process. I love when recipes do this because it helps give you a better idea if you've done everything right, and it's part of why I always include step by step pictures of what I'm cooking. I want people to feel confident recreating any of the things I've tried out here.

The biscuits were really perfect. Just the right amount of sweetness, just a tiny bit crunchy on the outside and nice and fluffy on the inside! I will say mine came out a tiny bit flat, so they were a little difficult to cut in half, but they were still super enjoyable. I'd honestly make these again just to eat the biscuits! And of course, the cream and strawberries were pretty tasty too. When I was younger, I used to want my grandma to whip up a bowl of whipped cream for me to eat plain on strawberry shortcake night. I'm not sure how I didn't make myself sick, because even thinking about eating that much whipped cream makes me feel a little nauseous these days.

The biscuits are also a great base if you want to use a different fruit. Not going to lie, I've been thinking about doing a version of this with blackberries as a Kaya post. Maybe I could add a little bit of spices to the biscuit to make it like the spice cake I got at Cafe Mitsitam the first time I visited! Let's put a pin in that. Don't let me forget.

There's no question to me about why this dish has remained so popular over the years. It's simple, relatively light, and very easy to throw together quickly. Being able to customize the amount of cream, strawberries, or even what kind of fruit you're eating makes it versatile and a certain crowd pleaser, and I think all those features will keep this as a fan favorite for a long time to come. It's also cool to know that the standard version we enjoy is something Addy would recognize and love if she was 1. a historical figure rather than fictional and 2. a time traveller! I guess this is a pretty great example of if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Or, you know. Modify, but don't forget the classic!


  1. Before you added the cream and berries to the top layer it reminded me of a miniature Victoria sponge cake... And now I'm hungry!

    1. That's another recipe I've been wanting to make for forever at this point! Maybe I'll get off my butt and do it before next summer, haha.