Strawberry Shortcake

I finally went to Russo's, which touts itself as "the food lover's food store," a couple of weeks ago. Several people have told me I would love it there, and besides that it's always super-crowded, I do love it. There are aisles and aisles of fresh produce -- some run of the mill and some more exotic. They seem to have anything and everything you could possibly be looking for.

The first time I went was just a quick stop to get a pork loin and some bread for dinner and to scope the place out. But when I was there, I walked past the pints of strawberries and couldn't help noticing how fragrant they were. The scent made me look forward to summer even more than I do now. Somehow I walked away from the strawberries that day, but the memory of them lingered for the next week.

That and the cover of Gourmet magazine with the strawberry mascarpone tart with port glaze --which I'll no doubt be making soon -- kept my boyfriend and I regretting together that we hadn't bought those strawberries. Visions of strawberry shortcake were definitely dancing in both of our heads. So the next weekend, we found ourselves in the vicinity of Russo's again, and we both knew exactly what we wanted.

But doesn't it always seem to work out that when you know what you want, you can't always get it? (Hmmm... I'm reminded of a Stones' song here.) Well, this time when we walked past the strawberries, we smelled... nothing. I even practically buried my face in one container, hoping for a faint waft. Nothing. We couldn't buy these strawberries.

We left with some peppers and onions for the pork kebabs we planned to have that night and felt more or less defeated. We hoped that our trip to Whole Foods to pick up the pork (Russo's has a good produce selection, but not a great meat selection) would lead us to greener pastures, i.e., better berries.

The berries at Whole Foods weren't perfect, but they were better and at least had a trace of strawberry smell. I snatched up a couple of the best-looking quarts. We were having strawberry shortcake tonight; these berries would have to work.

Two years ago, I made a berry shortcake from Martha Stewart for a 4th of July party. With a little adapting (like not bothering to cut out stars and not using blueberries), I thought this would work great for a simple strawberry shortcake. Because the cake is so big and can't really be stored long once fully assembled, I made two smaller cakes.

Summer Shortcake (adapted from Martha Stewart Living)

Serves 12 to 15
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
Salt, perhaps 1/8 tsp (Martha's recipe editor must have been having an off day. It's my cooking pet peeve when something is in the procedure but missing from the ingredient list.)
1 stick (8 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
8 ounces cold cream cheese, cut into 2-inch pieces
3/4 cup buttermilk, plus more for brushing
Raw sugar or fine sanding sugar, for sprinkling
2 quarts of strawberries, hulled (small berries halved, large berries quartered)

Only cut half the strawberries if you plan to make two shortcakes like I did.
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 cups (1 pint) heavy cream

Make the biscuits: Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a food processor, pulse flour, granulated sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt until combined. Add butter, and pulse until largest pieces are the size of peas. Add cream cheese, and pulse again until largest pieces are the size of peas. Add buttermilk, and pulse until dough comes together. (I used my handheld pastry blender after not having much luck with my food processor -- maybe it's too small for this quantity.) Transfer to a bowl, and gently knead into a ball. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rest in the refrigerator at least 1 hour (or overnight).

Divide dough in half. Working with one portion at a time on a lightly floured work surface, pat into a disk, then roll into a 10-inch round. Transfer to baking sheets lined with parchment paper.
Because I knew we couldn't finish a whole shortcake between the two of us in one night, I made four discs instead of just two. I planned to make one small shortcake that night and a medium one the following night. You can do whatever works for the crowd or non-crowd you're serving.

Brush biscuits with buttermilk. Generously sprinkle raw or sanding sugar over tops and sides. Brush off sugar from parchment. Bake until dough has risen slightly and is golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes (if bottoms brown too quickly, reduce temperature to 400 degrees). Leave biscuits on sheets. Let cool.
Once cool, I placed two of the biscuits in a Ziploc bag with a piece of parchment between them -- sugared sides touching the parchment.

Make the filling: Combine strawberries, and 2 tablespoons sugar, and let macerate until juicy, 10 minutes.
If making two shortcakes like I did, just prepare half of the strawberries and mix with 1 TBS of sugar. (Then repeat this the following night or whenever you serve the next shortcake.)

Just before serving, beat cream to medium peaks with remaining tablespoon sugar and the vanilla.
I made the full batch of whipped cream, used half, and reserved the other half for the following night. The reserved cream held together well and did not need to be re-beaten.

Assemble the cake: Place one biscuit on a large plate. Spoon the berries and their juices on top of biscuit, then spread the whipped cream over berries. Place the other biscuit on top. Serve immediately, or refrigerate, uncovered, up to 3 hours. Don't be concerned about strawberries spilling all over the plate; it looks better that way!
And you can pile some extra strawberries that have fallen off onto your plate when you serve up a piece.

Sweet strawberries and luscious cream mingle between sugared biscuits to create a fabulous dessert. The shortcake comes out firm but chewy and is the perfect cross between cake and a buttermilk biscuit. Our strawberry craving was satisfied... for now.