Cake or biscuits? Strawberry shortcake lovers are divided

aweigl@newsobserver.comApril 23, 2013 

Strawberry shortcake is like potato salad: We all have our own version.

“It comes down to one of two camps,” says Chapel Hill cookbook author Sheri Castle, “Biscuit people or cake people.”

With strawberry season upon us, we set out to explore this divide among strawberry shortcake lovers.

The biscuit folks, who tend to be Southern, will serve either individual biscuits topped with berries and sweetened whipped cream or make one large biscuit with the same toppings but cut like a cake. (Castle prefers this version and adds one more treat to the mix: chocolate gravy.)

The cake camp is more fractured. They will serve sliced strawberries and whipped cream with a slice of pound cake, angel food cake, shortbread or sponge cake, including those sold in groups of six, wrapped in plastic and stacked next to the berries at the grocery store.

Southern food writer and television cooking personality Nathalie Dupree considers a biscuit traditional for shortcake, where the dough is made “short,” or crisp with a high ratio of fat to flour.

But Dupree says, “I don’t think it really matters as long as it doesn’t decompose and is sturdy enough to be broken easily with a fork.”

Breaking from tradition, Dupree sometimes serves her strawberry shortcake splashed with a bit of sweet balsamic vinegar or replaces the whipped cream with Greek yogurt flavored with vanilla and powdered sugar.

No matter whether you use cake or biscuits, the one drawback of strawberry shortcake is that it typically has to be assembled at the last minute so the biscuit or cake doesn’t disintegrate from too much berry juice and whipped cream.

But cookbook author Sara Foster serves up a buttermilk layer cake at her Foster’s Market in Durham that takes advantage of that very problem. Her four-layer cake has berries and cream between each layer and can be made up to a day ahead.

“You want everything to mush together,” she said. “The cake soaks up the flavors of the whipped cream and the strawberries.”

Regardless of where you fall on the strawberry shortcake divide, Foster said, “If strawberries are good and in season, you really can’t go wrong.”

Fresh Strawberries and Shortcake Cream Biscuits With Chocolate Gravy Feel free to omit the chocolate gravy and serve this with whipped cream instead. From “The New Southern Garden Cookbook,” by Sheri Castle, (UNC Press, 2011). 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 3/4 cup cake flour 1 cup plus 5 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided 2 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt 10 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled, divided 1 cup heavy cream, plus more for brushing 4 teaspoons turbinado, Demerara or raw sugar 4 cups capped and sliced strawberries 1/4 cup cocoa powder 3 tablespoons instant flour or all-purpose flour 2 cups whole milk

HEAT oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

WHISK together 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour, cake flour, 3 tablespoons sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Use a pastry blender or your fingertips to work in 6 tablespoons of cold butter until the pieces are the size of small peas. Stir in the cream until shaggy dough forms.

TURN dough out onto a very lightly floured surface and knead 2 or 3 times, just until it comes together. Roll or pat the dough into a rectangle about 3/4-inch thick. Stamp out 5 biscuits with a 3-inch cutter. Press straight down without twisting the cutter so that the biscuits can rise evenly to their full height. Gently gather and roll the scraps of dough and cut out the sixth biscuit. You might have enough scraps for an oddly shaped bonus biscuit.

TRANSFER biscuits to a baking sheet. Brush the tops lightly with cream and sprinkle with turbinado sugar. Bake until golden, about 25 minutes. Cool to room temperature on a wire rack.

TOSS berries with 2 tablespoons granulated sugar in a large bowl and set aside for at least 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

SIFT cocoa, 1 cup granulated sugar and instant flour into a large skillet (preferably cast-iron). Slowly add milk, whisking until smooth. Cook over medium heat, stirring continuously with a heatproof spatula until the gravy thickens to the consistency of thin pudding, about 8 minutes. The gravy will thicken around the edge first, so keep it stirred up from the bottom and sides. Remove pan from heat and add remaining 4 tablespoons butter, one piece at a time, stirring until it melts before adding the next.

SPLIT biscuits in half and divide among the serving plates. Top with berries and their juice. Ladle a generous amount of warm gravy over the top and serve hot.

Yield: 6 servings

Buttermilk Cake with Fresh Strawberries and Cream Foster’s Market makes this cake with square pans, which produces an unusual look, but feel free to use round pans instead. This cake can be made up to a day ahead and refrigerated. From “The Foster’s Market Cookbook,” by Sara Foster with Sarah Belk King (Random House, 2002). 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 1 tablespoon baking powder 1 teaspoon baking soda 1/2 teaspoon salt 3/4 pound (3 sticks) unsalted butter 2 1/2 cups granulated sugar, divided 6 large eggs 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract 2 cups buttermilk 3 cups heavy cream 3 pints fresh strawberries, hulled, and cut into 1/2-inch lengthwise slices 1 pint fresh strawberries, hulled (for the top) Confectioners’ sugar, to garnish, optional

HEAT oven to 325 degrees. Grease and lightly flour two 9-inch round or square cake pans. Set aside.

SIFT together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a bowl and stir to mix. Set aside.

CREAM together butter and 2 1/4 cups sugar in a separate bowl with an electric mixer. Add eggs, one at a time, to the butter mixture and beat several minutes until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and stir by hand.

ADD buttermilk to the flour mixture, alternating with egg mixture, and stir until well combined.

DIVIDE batter evenly between prepared pans and bake 45 to 50 minutes, until the cakes are firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the center of each cake comes out clean.

REMOVE from the oven and cool cakes 10 to 15 minutes in the pans. Remove from pans and continue to cool on a baking rack. Once cakes have cooled completely, use a serrated knife to slice off the rounded top part of each layer to make a flat even surface. Cut each layer in half horizontally through the center to make 4 layers. Discard the trimmings.

WHIP cream in a bowl with remaining 1/4 cup sugar until soft peaks form.

PLACE one of the layers, cut side down, on a cake plate. Top with about one-third of the whipped cream and one-third of the sliced berries. Repeat the process with the next two layers and the remaining whipped cream and berries. Place fourth layer on top, cut side down. Top with whole hulled berries and sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar just before serving. Use a serrated knife to cut the cake. (If you are going to refrigerate the cake, add the confectioners’ sugar just before serving. The cake can be refrigerated up to 1 day ahead.)

Yield: 12 to 16 servings

Old-Fashioned Pound Cake From “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking,” by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart (Gibbs Smith, 2012). 3 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour or cake flour 1 teaspoon salt 1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, softened 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar 6 large eggs, lightly beaten, room temperature 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons vanilla extract or rosewater Confectioners’ sugar

POSITION rack in the lower third of the oven and heat to 325 degrees. Butter and flour a 10-inch tube Bundt pan or 2 (9x5x3-inch) loaf pans. Line with parchment or waxed paper. Butter and flour the paper.

USING a whisk or fork, mix flour and salt together in a bowl for about 30 seconds. Set aside.

CUT butter into 1-inch pieces and add to bowl of a stand mixer, and beat on low speed until soft. Increase the speed and whisk for 1 to 2 minutes, until it looks like lightly whipped cream.

ADD sugar 1 tablespoon at a time, starting on slow and increasing speed until well whipped, about 7 or 8 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary throughout the batter process. Reduce mixer speed to medium.

SLOWLY add half the eggs, 1 or 2 tablespoons at a time, until they are incorporated. (If the batter curdles, it is still usable; just try to add eggs slower the next time the cake is made.) Add vanilla and beat 30 seconds more. Reduce speed to medium-low.

ADD dry ingredients in three parts, alternating with remaining eggs, mixing for 20 seconds after each addition, continuing to scrape down the bowl as needed. The batter should be smooth and creamy.

SPOON or ladle the batter into prepared pan or pans, filling the pan two-third full; smooth on top. Give the pan a light tap on the counter. Bake in the preheated oven for 85 to 90 minutes, or until the cake is golden brown on top and begins to come away from the sides of the pan, and a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. The internal temperature of the cake should be 190 to 195 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.

REMOVE cake from the oven. Cool on wire rack 10 minutes. Invert the pan to remove the cake. Cool the cake top side up or resting on its side. Remove the parchment after cooling and dust the top with confectioners’ sugar. It freezes well.

Yield: 1 Bundt cake or 2 loaf pans

Angel Food Cake This recipe comes from an award-winning story by Renee Enna in The Chicago Tribune. To read the story and Enna’s additional notes on the recipe, go to 1 cup cake flour 7/8 cup sugar plus 3/4 cup sugar 12 egg whites 1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla 1/2 teaspoon almond extract

HEAT oven to 375 degrees. Measure the cake flour and 7/8 cup sugar into a bowl (for 7/8 cup, measure a cup, then remove 2 tablespoons); sift together. Set aside.

COMBINE egg whites, cream of tartar, salt, vanilla and almond extract into the bowl of an electric mixer; beat on medium speed with electric mixer until soft peaks form. Slowly add the 3/4 cup sugar, beating on medium-high speed until combined.

REDUCE speed to low; slowly mix in the flour-sugar mixture just until incorporated.

GENTLY spoon batter into a 10-inch aluminum tube pan. Gently cut through batter with a butter knife.

BAKE until top of cake is golden brown and crusty, and top springs back when lightly touched, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove cake from oven; turn pan upside down. Let stand until completely cool, about 1 1/2 hours.

REMOVE cake from pan: carefully loosen all pan edges including the tube’s with a butter knife. Invert onto your serving platter. To frost and fill, halve cake horizontally with a serrated knife, using a gentle sawing motion.

Yield: 10 servings

Weigl: 919-829-4848

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