Monday, May 16, 2016

Strawberry Shortcakes

Hello, hello!

I hope everyone is doing well, reading lots of books and baking lots of goodies!

And if you aren't, well... I can't make you read more books, but I can definitely help you out of a funk if you don't know what to make. Especially since it's getting to be summertime, I've been breaking out my best seasonal recipes to share with you. And have I got the perfect recipe for you--strawberry shortcakes!
I love strawberries. Peaches are my favorite fruit, but strawberries come pretty close to being first.

When I was a kid, there was a strawberry stand which we drove past all season long, waiting for it to open. My mom used to whip up cream cheese and sugar as a dip for the sweet, juicy berries. When I moved to Napa, there was a similar little stand off of the Silverado Trail at which my best friend and I would stop after school for a treat. These berries, you guys. They are SO GOOD. They are a smaller variety, but bursting with flavor and juice. It was only after being more incorporated into the Napa Valley community that I learned these berries are also used at Thomas Keller's famous restaurant, the French Laundry. And they're totally affordable without spending hundreds of dollars on a thirteen course meal (SCORE!).

Even at the place I'm working now, the grounds grow strawberries and small white Alpine strawberries (itty bitty baby strawberries that look unripe but are extremely sweet and flavorful.) I'm still waiting for permission to raid the gardens.

So, of course, when I teamed up with a classmate at culinary school to complete a farmer's market-themed dessert menu, I simply had to include these strawberries somehow. Strawberry shortcakes seemed the way to go, and with a lot of testing, several batches of dough pitched in the bin, (and admittedly a couple of hissy fits), a recipe emerged. And boy, does it deliver.

The strawberries are left sitting in a small amount of sugar to macerate for at least an hour. Even though the strawberries really don't need it, there is so little sugar in the overall dish that it works well. Also, sugary strawberry juice is the best byproduct ever.

Shortcakes are made of "short dough". This means it doesn't get mixed enough to form gluten, and it also has a lot of butter. Because butter makes everything better, am I right?  Another thing about shortcakes is that they must be baked cold. As cold as possible, people. Colder than Montana in January. Colder than liquid nitrogen. Or as close as you can get it. That's why I freeze the dry ingredients with the butter ahead of time and include plenty of chilling periods in this recipe. If you let the dough get too warm before baking, your cakes won't rise--they'll spread. (They'll still be delicious, but I can't say much for presentation.)

I make these shortcakes the way my grandmother used to make biscuits. The dough is mixed and formed into a rectangle. The rectangle gets cut into thirds, and one third is brushed with cream.
A second piece of dough is placed on top and also brushed with cream before it is topped with the last third.

This hunk of dough is then rolled out, chilled, and then cut with a sharp knife.
I use this method because I love the layers it produces. Using a sharp knife instead of a cutter ensures these layers are preserved, for optimal rise.
The result is a lightly sweet, tender, buttery cake that is easily cut in half. The savory butter in the dough deliciously complements the sweet strawberries.
But no shortcake is complete without a generous dollop of what we call chantilly. Which is basically flavored whipped cream. For this recipe, I add a teaspoon of vanilla bean paste to the cream for subtle flavor, since the focus should be on the strawberries.
The easy components and simple, elegant flavors of this dessert make it a family favorite. Use it in a family-style setting, or a for the conclusion of a summer dinner party. Either way, there will always be plenty of strawberries and cream leftover for dipping.

Anyway, enough with my rambling. The recipe is below. Please enjoy, and let me know what you think!

My current read is Neil Gaiman's "Fortunately, The Milk", and it's hilarious. What are you reading right now?

Thanks for reading! Until next time,

Strawberry Shortcakes
Yield: 12 assembled shortcakes

15 oz (3 cups) flour
8 oz (2 sticks) butter, cut into 1 in. chunks
3 oz (just under 1/2 cup) sugar, plus extra for dusting
1 1/2 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup cream, plus extra for brushing
1 large egg

1 pint strawberries
1/4 cup sugar

Vanilla Chantilly
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste (or whatever flavoring you desire, really)
1/4 cup powdered sugar

1. Freeze the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt with the butter chunks until the butter is solid.
2. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Transfer the frozen ingredients to a mixing bowl. With an electric mixer, paddle the ingredients with the egg and cream until just combined. The dough should form a cohesive mass.
3. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface, and roll into a rectangle about 8" by 12". Using a sharp knife, cut the rectangle into thirds.
4. Using a pastry brush, generously brush one third with cream. Carefully place the second piece of dough on top of the dough that has cream on it. Brush the second piece of dough with cream. Place the last piece of dough on top of the second piece of dough. You should have a tall stack of dough with cream in between two layers.
5. Roll the dough out to a rectangle about 1 1/2 inch thick.
6. Using a sharp knife, cut into squares about 3" by 3". Alternatively, you may use a sharp rounded cutter, but DO NOT TWIST when pushing down. Doing so will seal the layers.
7. Transfer the cakes to a parchment-lined sheet pan and chill until very firm.
8. Brush the tops with cream and sprinkle with excess sugar before baking. Bake until lightly golden on top, about 15-20 minutes. In my oven, they take 17 minutes.
9. Let the shortcakes cool ten minutes on the pan before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.
10. For the strawberries: Thoroughly rinse the strawberries. Toss lightly in the sugar. I usually let them macerate in the fridge anywhere from 1 to 5 hours.
11. For the chantilly: Add the cream and vanilla to a clean, cold mixing bowl with a whisk attachment. Whip on medium until frothy, then gradually add the powdered sugar. Whip on high to medium-stiff peaks.
12. Assembly: Carefully slice each shortcake horizontally with a serrated knife. Spoon a generous dollop of whipped cream onto each shortcake bottom. Add desired amount of strawberries on top. Cap the strawberries with the top half of the shortcake.
13. Dig in!

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