Super shortcake: It's the berries

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Fruit came in bushels and berries in flats at my parents' house. Because my father was a produce shipper, my mom always had an abundance of summer fruit and berries to pile on her shortcakes.

In fact, the traditional shortcake that I grew up with was actually two huge spongecake layers filled and covered with strawberries and whipped cream. The top of the cake was crammed with "toppers," the giant strawberries used to top off each pint. My mom never fooled around with individual shortcakes when she had so much fruit.

It wasn't until I married and began moving around the country that I discovered that although all shortcakes have many things in common, they come in many guises. All shortcakes are alike in that they are made with fresh, uncooked fruit or berries that are usually sweetened and crushed or sliced. Also, the fruit sits on top of some sort of cake or biscuit that can soak up the juices, and the entire creation is covered with a creamy topping.

Generosity is a common denominator -- no skimping on the fruit or cream toppings. On the other hand, the shortcakes themselves can vary from slices of poundcake to spicy scones to the customary enriched biscuit.

When biscuits become shortcakes, they should be rich and tender. Adding an egg and additional sugar and using rich milk or cream for the liquid turns biscuits into shortcakes. Replacing some of the all-purpose flour with cake flour tenderizes the shortcakes. Similarly, scones made from a soft, tender dough make a good base for the fruit and cream. Another option is to use slices of poundcake, which can be made in varied flavors. Vanilla, lemon or orange poundcake complements most berries, while chocolate poundcake goes well with raspberries.

Shortcakes are for summer when there is an abundance of seasonal fruit. Fresh and ripe are the only requirements. Beginning with strawberries, as the summer weeks roll by, we add berry after berry to the list of possibilities. Peaches are around most of the summer as the different varieties come into season. Plums are a less common choice, but when ripe, they add a sweet but slightly tart quality to the mix.

Toppings do not have to be limited to whipped cream. Ricotta cheese mixed smooth in a food processor or mascarpone stirred with some rum or liqueur makes a creamy alternative.

Before the weather turns sultry, I bake and freeze individual shortcakes, poundcakes and spongecakes so they're ready for the summer-fruit procession. Poundcake or spongecake only needs to be thawed, while biscuits and scones benefit from being warmed in a low oven. Ten to 15 minutes in a 250-degree oven warms and refreshes them.

For a make-your-own summer party dessert, try serving a platter of assorted shortcakes with big bowls of berries, fruit and creamy toppings, then let everyone create his own shortcake extravaganza.

Golden Cornmeal Shortcakes With Blueberries and Cream

Serves 10

3/4 cup cold buttermilk (nonfat is fine)

1 large cold egg

1 cup all-purpose flour

2/3 cup cake flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup cornmeal

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces

5 cups fresh blueberries

2 cups cold whipping cream, whipped to soft peaks with 2 teaspoons vanilla and 3 tablespoons powdered sugar

Mix buttermilk and egg in small bowl. Set aside.

Sift flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt into large bowl of electric mixer. Stir in cornmeal and granulated sugar. Mix in butter on low speed until size of peas, about 1 1/2 minutes. Slowly add buttermilk mixture, mixing until soft dough forms.

Gather dough into soft ball. Lightly flour work surface and pat dough into 3/4 -inch-thick circle. Cut out 2 1/2 -inch circles with biscuit cutter. Gather dough scraps together and pat out to 3/4 -inch thickness. Cut out remaining shortcakes.

Place shortcakes 2 inches apart on ungreased baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees about 15 minutes until tops are golden and bottoms are light brown. Cool shortcakes on baking sheet.

Use sharp knife to split shortcakes horizontally. Arrange 2 halves, cut side up, on individual serving plates. Spoon about 1/2 cup blueberries over each shortcake, then top generously with whipped cream. Or fill bottom half with cream and blueberries and cover with top half.

Chocolate-Chip Shortbread Shortcakes With Raspberries and Ice Cream

Serves 9

1 1/2 cups flour

3/4 cup cornstarch

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup (2 sticks) cold, unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

1 cup (6 ounces) miniature semisweet chocolate chips

2 pints raspberry or vanilla ice cream

2 pints fresh raspberries

Sift flour, cornstarch and salt into large bowl of electric mixer. Add sugar and mix on low speed just to blend ingredients. Add half of butter pieces and mix until size of peas, 1 minute. Add remaining butter and mix until fine crumbs form, about 1 minute. With mixer running, add almond extract. Mix in chocolate chips. Continue mixing until large crumbs form and dough holds together.

Press dough evenly into buttered 9-inch square pan. Use fork to pierce dough at 1-inch intervals, pressing fork to bottom of pan.

Bake at 300 degrees about 1 hour until edges just begin to turn golden but top remains pale golden color.

Remove from oven and immediately cut 3 rows lengthwise and 3 rows across, cutting through to bottom. Cool thoroughly. Remove shortbread from pan. Place pieces on individual plates. Top each with 1 scoop raspberry ice cream. Spoon raspberries over and serve.

Our Family Strawberry Spongecake Shortcakes

Serves 9

CAKE: butter for pan

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons cake flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup milk

4 large eggs

1 1/3 cups sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon pure almond extract

FILLING AND TOPPING:

2 1/2 cups cold whipping cream

1/4 cup powdered sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 cup fresh strawberries, cleaned and coarsely chopped

18 whole, cleaned and hulled strawberries for topping cake

Butter bottom and sides of 9-inch square pan. Line bottom of pan with parchment or wax paper and butter paper.

To prepare cake, sift flour, baking powder and salt together. Set aside.

Heat milk in small saucepan until hot. Do not let milk boil.

Beat eggs and sugar in large bowl of electric mixer on medium speed about 2 minutes until mixture is fluffy, thick and lightened in color. Mix in vanilla and almond extract. On low speed, mix in flour mixture just until incorporated. Slowly add hot milk, mixing about 30 seconds until smooth. (Batter will be thin.)

Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake at 350 degrees until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean and top is golden brown, about 25 minutes. Cool cake 15 minutes in pan. Use small sharp knife to loosen sides of cake from pan. Invert cake onto wire rack and remove paper liner. Turn cake right side up to cool completely, about 1 hour.

To prepare filling and topping, beat cream, powdered sugar and vanilla in large bowl of electric mixer until soft peaks form. Transfer 2 cups whipped cream to medium bowl. Drain off any accumulated juice from chopped strawberries and fold strawberries into 2 cups whipped cream.

Split cake in half horizontally and remove top. Spread strawberry-whipped cream over bottom layer. Replace top on cake. Spread plain whipped cream over top and sides of cake. Arrange whole strawberries on top. Cover and refrigerate up to 8 hours. Cut into squares to serve.

Blackberries and Italian Cream Over Buttery Poundcake

Serves 10-12

CAKE:

butter for pan

1 1/2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

3 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon grated lemon peel

1/2 cup sour cream

BLACKBERRIES:

3 pints blackberries

6 tablespoons granulated sugar

TOPPING:

2 cups cold mascarpone

1/2 cup powdered sugar

1 cup cold whipping cream

2 teaspoons dark rum

1 teaspoon vanilla

To prepare cake, butter bottom and sides of 9-inch-by-5-inch-by-3-inch loaf pan with 6- to 7-cup capacity. Line bottom with parchment or wax paper and butter paper.

Sift flour and baking soda together. Set aside.

Beat butter and granulated sugar in large bowl of electric mixer on medium speed about 3 minutes until mixture is smooth and light from yellow to cream color.

Add eggs, one at a time, beating each completely into batter before adding another.

Mix in vanilla and lemon peel and beat 1 minute.

On low speed, mix in half of flour mixture, just untill incorporated. Mix in sour cream. Add remaining flour, mixing just until all of flour is incorporated.

Pour batter into prepared pan and smooth top. Bake at 350 degrees about 45 minutes until wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean.

Cool cake in pan on wire rack.

To prepare blackberries, 1 to 6 hours before serving, mix blackberries and sugar together. Crush blackberries lightly to release juices. Cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour or up to 6 hours.

To prepare topping, in large bowl, whisk mascarpone, powdered sugar, cream, rum and vanilla until smooth. Cover and refrigerate up to 2 days.

Cut poundcake into slices about 3/4 to 1 inch thick and place on individual plates. Top each slice with about 1/2 cup blackberry mixture.

Spoon mascarpone cream over berries and serve.

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