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Vintage Cookbooks: A memorable strawberry shortcake birthday

Thursday, May 01, 2003

By Alice Demetrius Stock, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

I'll never forget my 13th birthday party. After the usual party games and presents, five of my girlfriends and I, in frilly party dresses and funny paper party hats, retired to the dining room for ice cream and cake.

It wasn't, however, traditional birthday cake. Asserting my new-found, teenage persona, I had asked my mother to make strawberry shortcake instead. That is the first reason I remember that day.

I don't recall what we were all laughing about as we spooned up strawberries and ice cream with gusto, but suddenly, my best friend, Diane, laughed so hard she threw up all over the party table. That's the second reason I remember that day.

Diane must have loved strawberry shortcake as much as I did because after Mom cleaned everything up -- including Diana -- Diana asked for another helping.

Red, ripe, juicy and sweet, strawberries -- relatives of the rose family -- are at their peak from spring to midsummer, though these days they are available from California all year long. But local berries or, if you can find them, those from Louisiana, another strawberry-producing state, may be a fresher choice.

In any case, the berries are only half the dish. That's why I wince every time I see those artificial yellow-colored, sponge cake-like cups stacked near the berries passing themselves off as "shortcake." They aren't even short (meaning crumbly).

Many cookbooks include recipes for strawberry shortcake, and they're all a bit different.

Sometimes the shortcake is plain; sometimes it's enriched with egg or sugar.

Sometimes the biscuits are made for individual servings; sometimes the cake is left whole and baked free-form like scones; sometimes it's patted into a cake pan.

Sometimes the berries are warmed on the back of the stove to make them juicy; sometimes left sugared in the fridge overnight for the same purpose.

Sometimes the finished cake is buttered while it's hot; sometimes not buttered at all.

Sometimes the dish is served with homemade whipped cream; sometimes cream is poured on top.

And to be fair, now and then a recipe will indicate that a "sponge cake" might be used in place of the "shortin' bread" or "hoe cake" (once baked on the flat surface of a hoe placed near hot ashes).

Reminiscing recently about my 13th birthday party got me thinking about the strawberry shortcake my mother used to make; the kind I enjoyed at strawberry festivals and church socials in the 1950s.

I checked through my cookbooks and found a red, spiral-bound paperback book by Mary Moore Bremer who, in 1932, created a collection of "New Orleans Creole Recipes" that included one for strawberry shortcake. Her book was republished 24 times until 1969.

One thing is common to all the recipes for old-fashioned strawberry shortcake I've found so far: Tasteless yellow commercial sponge cups are not mentioned.

Shortcake Like Mother Made

Biscuit dough:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 4 level tablespoons shortening (we prefer cold butter)
  • Enough ice water to make a stiff dough -- about 3 to 4 tablespoons (The amount will depend on how much moisture is in the air.)
  • Have ready:
  • Enough soft butter to moisten shortcake after baking
  • 3 cups fresh, sliced strawberries that have been standing in sugar (to taste) for at least an hour
  • Heavy cream for topping the cake

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Combine dry ingredients and cut in the shortening until mixture resembles cornmeal.

Add water and mix with hands until a ball of dough forms.

Turn the dough out on a floured board and pat it flat and round until it's about an inch thick.

Bake until golden, about 12 to 15 minutes. Take out of oven, and with a large, heated knife, carefully split it and butter it as you would a biscuit. Put strawberries inside the still-hot buttered cake.

Serve immediately in bowls, with thick cream poured on each serving at the table; cream should not be put on ahead of time as the pastry should be crisp when eaten.

"New Orleans Creole Recipes," Mary Moore Bremer, 1932 (1969)

Alice Demetrius Stock can be reached at astock@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1601.

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