“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.”
— William Shakespeare, from his sonnet on shortcake
You’re skeptical? You doubt that Shakespeare would have expended his considerable talents writing about something as ordinary as shortcake?
You may be right.
But he should have, given how his words sum up this summery dessert. After all, an unadorned shortcake right out of the oven is good — very good — but not “great.” With the right recipe and a light touch, a shortcake can achieve greatness.
But it’s when you ladle on juicy, slightly sugared strawberries and add a cloud of freshly whipped cream that shortcake is thrust into iconic status among desserts.
By all accounts, it’s an American concoction. Biscuits of European descent commingled with Uncle Sam’s strawberries sometime in the 1840s. Over the next decade, people held actual strawberry shortcake parties as a celebration of summer’s arrival, according to Evan Jones in “American Food: The Gastronomic Story.”
Today’s shortcake recipes have changed little: basically, a baking powder biscuit dough enriched with an egg and a little sugar. The buttermilk gets nudged aside as well, often replaced by whole milk, half-and-half or even heavy cream, which threatens to take it out of shortcake territory and into the scone zone.
Needless to say, those little spongey-cakey cups have no standing here.
Our shortcake recipe uses half-and-half and swaps in brown sugar for half of the white sugar, which gives the shortcake a slightly caramel note. After that, we stay out of greatness’ way, taking care only to work the combined dry and wet ingredients as quickly and delicately as possible, kneading the dough for no more than 30 seconds.
Gently pat the dough to a rectangle about ½-inch thick, then cut rounds with a biscuit cutter, pressing straight down — twisting can seal the layers, leading to a dense shortcake — then place it upside-down on a baking sheet (again, to help ensure the highest rise).
OK, we do embellish greatness a bit, topping each cake with a gloss of half-and-half and a sprinkling of sparkling sugar.
Shakespeare may have counseled against painting the lily, calling it “ridiculous excess.”
When it comes to strawberry shortcake, though, that sounds just right. □