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Baltimore’s traditional home bakers sought strawberries to make a rich shortcake

Strawberries like these from Hills Forest Fruit Farm in Kingsville at the Baltimore Farmers' Market were essential to the traditional Baltimore strawberry shortcake.
Strawberries like these from Hills Forest Fruit Farm in Kingsville at the Baltimore Farmers' Market were essential to the traditional Baltimore strawberry shortcake. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

A few weeks ago a line of about 40 customers stood at the opening hour of the 32nd Street Farmers Market in Waverly. There, at 7 a.m., they wanted first crack at Eastern Shore strawberries, which were just arriving as the first local berries of the season. The berries soon disappeared.

Local fruits and berries have power all their own. Peaches start coming in during July, and Baltimore goes crazy over peach cake.

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But dessert makers of years ago took pride in their homemade strawberry shortcake, produced in Baltimore kitchens — unlike peach cake, which people prefer to buy at bakeries and argue about the merits of one baker over another.

A peculiar to Baltimore dish was a local version of the strawberry shortcake. It was both complicated and demanding and exceedingly rich.

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People got their berries wherever they were available in the relatively short season. Those hanging around the kitchen responded to the jingle of horse bells in the alley. This meant the local huckster or fresh produce seller (known in Baltimore as the a-rabber) was on the way. A deep, resonant voice called out “Straw-BERRIES” in a sound that echoed off old garages and back porches. It was an unmistakable Baltimore cry, a sound that could be considered not unlike the roars at Memorial Stadium on a July night.

In strawberry season, the back alley wagon master might also cry out, “Soft crabs, soft crabs!”

The berries disappeared off the wagon and were then washed, hulled, sugared, cut up and mashed down in a bowl and let sit.

Then came out the flour, salt shortening and baking powder for the biscuit base to the dessert. Cooks tended to keep their kitchens as cool as they could during the warm months but this recipe called for a hot oven, if only for a brief period of time.

This base was not like an individual biscuit — it was a small island of biscuit dough that raised up to a little more than two inches high. There was no sugar in this chapter of the confection.

The base biscuit got its own layer of icing, one that Baltimore cooks named nun’s butter icing. This delicious icing was a basic homemade buttercream icing, powdered sugar, vanilla and butter. It was lightly lathered over the cooled biscuit base.

Then the crushed strawberries were topped over this. The effect was what you needed — the biscuit was flaky but dry and the buttercream and the mashed-up (and somewhat runny) berries counteracted this. The nun’s butter icing held everything in place because this was one gloriously gloppy dessert made to be consumed on the spot and remembered and rhapsodized about for a full year.

But the dessert was not ready yet. The third act awaited.

Then came the whipped cream. Baltimore cooks had favorite local suppliers for high grades of heavy cream. They insisted it was not all alike.

Dessert makers whipped the best cream available (often from Castle Farms in Carroll County and sold at a Lexington Market stall) or from other independent dairies — Royal Dunloggin, Cloverland, Kress, Will’s, Koontz, Western Maryland, Green Spring, Wilton Farms and Prices.

People were picky about their heavy cream and wanted it to beat up in a way that did justice to the berries. The cream had to have little peaks — and was considered a disaster if it didn’t whip well and came out of the bowl runny. The cream was also sugared, but maybe just a teaspoon.

The whipped cream crowned the berries, nun’s butter and biscuit. It was unspeakably rich and rather heavy at the same time. Those who complained of its sinful decadence often enjoyed a second piece.

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