"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 might 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. During the next decade, people held 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 brown sugar for half of the white sugar, which gives the shortcake a slightly caramel note. After that, we stay out of greatness's 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 might have counseled against painting the lily, calling it "ridiculous excess."
When it comes to strawberry shortcake, though, that sounds just right.
This recipe is adapted slightly from The America's Test Kitchen Family Baking Book. Extra shortcakes may be frozen; to use, place them frozen on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes.
8 cups strawberries, hulled
8 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
2 cups flour
2 tablespoons brown sugar, packed
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoons salt
6 tablespoons unsalted cold butter, cut in ½ -inch pieces
2⁄3 cup half-and-half, plus extra for brushing
2 cups heavy whipping cream
2 to 3 tablespoons powdered sugar, to taste
Slice berries and sprinkle with 6 tablespoons granulated sugar. Let berries sit at room temperature, stirring occasionally, until sugar is dissolved and berries are juicy, about 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees and place rack in middle position. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, brown sugar, baking powder and salt.
Add cold butter pieces, working them into flour with a pastry cutter or your fingers, until mixture resembles cornmeal and no large lumps of butter remain.
In a small bowl, whisk together half-and-half and egg. Stir into flour mixture until dough comes together in a sticky mass.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured counter and knead lightly until it comes together, about 30 seconds. Dust counter with a bit more flour, then pat dough into a rectangle about ½ -inch thick. Cut 6 rounds with a floured 3-inch biscuit cutter, pressing straight down — twisting can seal the layers, leading to a dense shortcake — then place them upside-down on a baking sheet.
No biscuit cutter? You also can cut squares with a knife.
Gather the scraps, knead briefly, and cut out 2 more shortcakes.
Brush each round with some half-and-half, then sprinkle with sparkling sugar.
Bake 12 to 14 minutes, until just golden. Let cool on wire rack. Makes 8.
Combine cream with powdered sugar and whip until stiff. With a serrated knife, slice each shortcake in half and lay the bottom on individual serving plates. Spoon a portion of fruit over each bottom, top with a dollop of whipped cream, then cap with shortcake tops. Serve immediately.
Nutrition information per serving (without whipped cream): 329 calories, 12 g. fat, 167mg. sodium, 51 g. carbohydrates, 57 mg. calcium, 6 g. protein, 54 mg. cholesterol.