Shortcake shortlist

Nothing could be as simple as strawberry shortcake. That’s right, isn’t it? Slice open a biscuit, put one half in a dish, spoon on some strawberries and sugar, squirt on a little canned whipping cream, lay down the second biscuit half, spoon on more berries, now definitely top with lots of whipped cream. As that Food TV chimp screams, “BAM!”

There it is — the single dessert that most says traditional America, even more, I’d argue, than apple or cherry pie. Built just like that, and consumed with a slow waning desire for a broader, deeper gullet.

Hate to break it to you, but it’s not really all that. What started out not only as a traditional dish, but also one of inarguable purity, was slowly and terribly transformed just as virtually all other American foodstuffs that went through the plasticizing of Uncle Sam’s grub (those patriotic code words are just cues to the heaven-sanctified neo-cons — who, even as we speak, are culling out those of us who need “re-education” — that I, too, just love my country to death).

For starters, canned dough, store-bought and Bisquick biscuits now pass as shortcake. You don’t know what you don’t know. Maybe you don’t care. But try the real deal, just once, and you will.

Your biscuit, or shortcake, should be just a little sweet; not much, because the berries are going to carry the whole thing. And if you can manage to make them light, way better.

A great example is the recipe for “Shirley Corriher’s Touch-of-Grace Biscuits” from National Public Radio’s “Splendid Table” Web site, I’ve touched it up just a little. Follow it exactly:

Preheat oven to 475 with the rack in the center.

Blend together 1-1/2 cups White Lily Self-Rising Flour (the only choice of good Southern cooks), 1 tablespoon sugar (raw, because that’s certainly what was used way back at the beginning) and a big pinch of salt.

Toss in three tablespoons of chilled (my accentuation) vegetable shortening, like Crisco or Spry, and work it between your fingers until the mixture is mealy looking with pieces no bigger than a baby pea.

Now add 3/4 cup chilled (me, again) whole buttermilk and 1/2 cup chilled heavy cream (that’s whipping cream; you’ll want to buy more for the finished product). Stir with a wooden spoon until just mixed; it’ll be gooey.

Next, grease an 8-inch cake pan with unsalted butter. Have 1 cup regular, all-purpose flour in a pie plate or other shallow dish. Grease an ice cream scoop or tablespoon with unsalted butter; its wrapper works great for this.

Scoop up some dough and drop it in the flour, covering it with more. Shake off the excess, shape it into a tall round, and place it in the cake pan. Continue until all the dough is used, being careful that each of the biscuits is snugly against others. This gives them no place to go but up when they rise and bake.

Bake 15 to 18 minutes until golden brown. Eat warm, or not.

Now for the strawberries.

We’re in a top berry-growing state, so it goes without saying that you should get your hands on the freshest locally grown berries you can find. Best you can do, if you don’t have your own strawberry patch, is one of the you-pick-’ems off in all directions. (For those times when you can’t get Michigan strawberries, Driscoll brand from California, widely available, seems to be the most consistently good.)

Before you use them, rinse the strawberries very well in cold water. If, at other times, you plan to use them whole, pay special attention to the hidden space under the hull; tests have shown lots of germs hide there. It’s best in this dish just to lop off the tops, taking the white cap with them.

Now chunk them up however you like into a large bowl, sprinkle them lightly with more raw sugar, stir well and let them sit at room temperature for a half-hour. During this time, called maceration, the sugar draws out the already-sweet juices and combines with them to make a sauce. As a new beekeeper, I have to add that a light-colored honey works just as well and for the same reasons.

Almost done. Mix a cup of heavy whipping cream with cold beaters in a cold bowl until just stiff, when soft peaks form. You don’t need to sweeten it; the strawberries, again, will carry this. If you want to be a rugged traditional American cook, whisk the cream by hand, but an electric mixer is lots easier and there’ll be no difference in the end.

Now split the biscuits, divvy them up between plates, ladle on a good portion of strawberries and juice and otherwise finish as I described up top.

When you taste that surprisingly pronounced difference you’ll understand how this truly simple dessert embedded itself into the American mouth. You can pimp it out by adding a little lemon or orange peel zest to the strawberries to tweak the standard version, a little black pepper or cardamom. You can judiciously splash fine sour mash or bourbon, rum or a favorite liqueur into the whipped cream. You can garnish with fresh mint, and throw some powdered sugar over all.

But first, try it “plain,” the way it was created, with only your own biscuits, the finest strawberries you can find and full-bodied cow’s cream. If you do, nothing this simple is ever better.

Is that patriotic enough for you, Mr. President?

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