The First Fruit of Spring
“There were others who prophesied, with rays shining on their foreheads, about the sometime ditches that would carry water all over the valley—who knows? maybe in our lifetime—or deep wells with steam engines to pump the water up out of the guts of the world. Can you imagine? Just think what this land would raise with plenty of water! Why, it will be a frigging garden!”
East of Eden, John Steinbeck
In California, spring came early. It rained like crazy in December and we were hopeful that the drought would ease. Instead we have had an early spring with so many days of sunshine I have almost forgotten about the coastal fog. I got an email notice from our local farm stand, The Farm, saying the strawberry harvest began early this year and flats of berries were available before the farm stand opens in late April. I was so excited at the thought of sweet, organic strawberries that I had to have some. Driving home, the scent of the first fruit of spring was overpowering. I easily devoured an entire basket that afternoon. The next morning we had some with our breakfast. I made these shortcakes and then as quickly as they arrived, the first fruit of spring was gone.
A vibrancy in flavor comes from pairing mint with strawberries in this classic American dessert. Mint might be the forgotten flavor of spring. In my garden it has already emerged from winter dormancy and is begging to be clipped back. A few sprigs will bring sparkle and brightness to this dessert. I reduced the amount of sugar in the shortcakes, berries and whipped cream to make sure the naturally sweet berries would be the center of attention.
A tender and buttery shortcake felt like spring. I took a chance and used cake flour. What a difference changing flour makes in a recipe. The dough was so tender the shortcakes grew wider rather than taller. I also used European style butter which has a higher fat content and less moisture than American style butter. The European butter gave my shortcakes rich buttery flavor and a sunny yellow color. Essentially a sweet biscuit, flaky, light shortcakes are easy to make. The critical step is how the dough is treated once the liquid is added to the dry ingredients. I don’t use a spoon to mix in the liquid, I prefer a flexible dough and bowl scraper. Using the scraper with a lifting and rolling motion to mix the liquid and dry ingredients until they are almost combined results in a biscuit with a soft and flaky texture. I scrape the dough out of the bowl and unto my floured work surface. With just a few gentle kneading motions the dough comes together in a cohesive ball. With a quick roll and cut into shapes the shortcakes are ready for the oven.
|Strawberries and Mint|
|3 sprigs||fresh mint|
|3/4t||fine grain sea salt|
|1/2C||cold, unsalted European style butter, if available|
- Clean and slice the berries into a bowl. Mince several leaves of mint and add to the bowl of strawberries. Reserve a sprig of mint to garnish the finished shortcakes. Toss the berries and mint with 2 tablespoons of sugar and let macerate while making the shortcakes.
- Line a sheet pan with parchment. Heat the oven to 425°.
- In a medium sized bowl sift or shake through a sieve the cake flour, 3 tablespoons of sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Cut the cold butter into cubes and add to the flour mixture. Using your fingers or a pastry cutter work the butter into the flour. Combine until the butter is coated with flour and resembles very large crumbs. Some chunks should remain larger, roughly the size of dimes or pennies.
- Add the buttermilk to the bowl with the flour mixture. Gently mix to combine, just until the dough comes together. Do not over mix. If the mixture remains dry in places and does not come together, add more buttermilk, a tablespoon at a time. Place the dough on a lightly floured surface and gather the dough together in a ball. Give the dough a few gentle kneads to form a cohesive ball and then pat into flattened circle. With a flour dusted rolling pin or your hands gently flatten the dough into a circle that is 1” high. To make seven shortcakes use a floured 3” in diameter pastry cutter. Cut out the biscuits by pressing straight down, without twisting the cutter. Place them on the parchment covered sheet pan two inches apart. Gently reform the scraps to make more biscuits.
- Brush the tops of shortcakes with buttermilk and then sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 15-20 minutes until the biscuits are fluffy and golden brown on the edges. Remove from the sheet pan to a cooling rack to cool completely.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whipping attachment add the cream. Begin to whip the cream on low speed, gradually increasing speed as the cream thickens. When the cream is the consistency of thick yogurt gradually add the tablespoon of sugar while the mixer is rotating. Then add the vanilla. Once the sugar and vanilla are incorporated, stop the mixer and check to see if the cream is ready. For shortcakes the cream should form soft cloud like pillows that will drape across the shortcakes and flow down the sides onto the plate. If stiffer whipped cream is desired, continue beating the cream for another minute and check it again.
- To serve the shortcakes cut them in half. Place the bottom half on the serving plate and place a generous scoop of whipped cream on top of the shortcake. Add a large spoonful of macerated berries with their juice. Then place the top of the shortcake on top of the berries and cream. A dollop of cream can be placed on top of the shortcake with a garnish of mint leaves. Serve with lots more berries.
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