By Gil Marks
I have recently gathered a talented team of contributors for The History Kitchen. I look forward to sharing their writing with you. Gil Marks joins the team to write about the history of American Cakes, revealing the history and culture of the United States through its classic treat. Read more here. ~ Tori
“The true shortcake is neither bread, nor cake, nor pastry, though bearing what might be called a ‘differing likeness’ to each. It is a modernized form of the pandowdies of our grandmothers.”
—May 1894 issue of The New England Kitchen (Boston)
Strawberry shortcake, among the most beloved and enduring of American foods, consists of sweetened biscuits (shortcake) or sponge cake loosely paired with fresh berries and whipped cream. Its greatness lies in the contrasts of textures and flavors of simple cake, fruit, and cream -— hard and soft, moist and dry, sweet and tart, acid and cake. Shortcake proves the ideal base, as it is firm enough to stand up to the juicy berries and damp cream and absorbing only some of them without losing its identity or becoming a mushy mess.
The short in shortcake does not refer to stature or scope. Rather it derived from a 15th century British usage of “short” akin to crumbly. Adding a large amount of fat (hence shortening) to flour coats the proteins, thereby, inhibiting the gluten strands from forming and resulting in a crumbly and tender texture. Short cakes were sweetened with sugar making them even more tender. The first record of the term “short cake” and the earliest recipe for it, an unleavened rich cookie, was in the anonymous Elizabethan cookbook The Good Huswifes Handmaid for Cookerie in her Kitchen (London, 1588), the second printed English cookbook. Within a decade, Shakespeare used the term shortcake for the name a character in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Among the developments that distinguished 19th century American baking (and classic strawberry shortcake) from the Old World was the addition of potash and later baking soda to baked goods. Thus Mary Randolph in Virginia Housewife (Baltimore, 1824) presented an early baking soda quick bread: “Soda Cakes. Dissolve half a pound of sugar in a pint of milk, add a tea-spoonful of soda; pour it on two pounds of flour—melt half a pound of butter, knead all together till light, put it in shallow moulds, and bake it quickly in a brisk oven.” As a result of chemical leavening, American shortcakes became lighter and fluffier than the English originals.
A transitional stage in the development of the modern strawberry shortcake was “Strawberry Cakes” found in the June 1, 1845 issue (page 86) of The Ohio Cultivator (Columbus), which entailed a thick unleavened cookie, split, layered with fresh strawberries, and covered with a hard sugar-and-egg white icing: “Cover the whole top and sides with an icing made in the usual way, of beaten white of egg and powdered loaf-sugar. Although already raspberries were offered as an alternative (and soon sliced peaches), strawberries would remain the preference. Before the icing is quite dry, ornament the top with whole strawberries…” Eliza Leslie, the predominant American culinary personality of the mid-19th century, copied this recipe in The Lady’s Receipt-Book (Philadelphia, 1847), popularizing it nationwide.
Shortly after The Lady’s Receipt-Book, leavened shortcakes emerged as the most popular pastry for American strawberry cakes, although still made without whipped cream, and immediately the term strawberry shortcake took off in America. An early appearance was in Holidays Abroad by Caroline Kirkland (New York, 1849) “…and here we lunched on gateau aux fraises – which proved to be just what is called at the West a strawberry shortcake.” The October 1857 issue of The American Cotton Planter and the Soil of the South (Montgomery, AL) reported on a simple version: “Strawberry shortcake is a luxury. Make a large, thick shortcake, split it twice through, and spread with butter and a layer of fresh strawberries and sugar, put the parts together again, and serve hot.”
By the time of the June 1862 issue of the Genesse Farmer (Rochester), “Strawberry Shortcake” consisted of a soda biscuit layered with fresh berries, sugar, and cream: “The cake should be made like soda biscuit, rather richer, but very light, and baked in a round tin about the size of a dinner plate. Immediately upon taking it out of the oven split it in three parts, and spread them with butter very thinly. Have your strawberries prepared by covering them with sugar. Spread a thick layer of these upon one of the sliced of the cake, and pour over them the richest cream that you can process; then add another layer of the shortcake and another of strawberries, as before. Cover the whole with the remaining slice of cake, add some cream and powdered sugar, and you have a dish which would tickle the palate of an epicure.” A similar recipe with three cake layers, berries, and cream was included in Jennie June’s American Cookbook by Jane Cunningham Croly (New York, 1866), the author noting: “This is the method of making at the finest city restaurants.” In post-Civil War America, strawberry shortcake was the rage from farm houses to the chicest New York eateries.
With the advent of the new transcontinental railroad in 1869, the shipment of California strawberries on ice contributed to a surge in popularity of shortcake throughout the country. Also at this time, articles and literary references about strawberry shortcake intensified interest among the American populace. Whipped cream’s popularity spread in America corresponding to refrigeration, and it became standard in the dish. Strawberry shortcake recipes became standard fare in American homes and cookbooks in every part of the country.
In those days, strawberries were a seasonal treat, consumed fresh in and around the month of June, reveled in for an all too brief period, then any remainder transformed into jam and the fresh berries reminisced about for the ensuing eleven months till late spring returned. Many Americans would hold shortcake parties every year to enjoy the new crop of strawberries and celebrate the imminent onset of summer. The strawberry crop frequently lasted through July 4th, and many Americans celebrated Independence Day with strawberry shortcake. June 14th became National Strawberry Shortcake Day.
In the 20th century, many Americans, especially Northerners with little familiarity or experience with soda biscuits, developed a preference for substituting pound cake, angel food cake, or hot-milk sponge cake as the base. In the 1920s, the Continental Bakery Company introduced sponge cakes baked in four-inch long metal pans with a rounded bottom, under the name “Hostess Little Shortbread Fingers,” intended to be used to make strawberry shortcakes for about two months during the summer; for the rest of the year the company made Twinkies. Groceries sold packaged sponge cake cups and fingers for easy “strawberry shortcakes.” In the 1960s, the sponge cake style reached Japan, where strawberry shortcake consisting of three layers of puffy sponge cake sandwiched with strawberries and whipped cream became the most popular of all layer cakes. The classic dish, however, is made from a rich biscuit dough.
Eventually, strawberry varieties with an extended growing period (and much less flavor) were developed, leading to the berries’ availability through more and more of the year. Due to cultivation, modern strawberries are radically different than those of the 19th century, while the original flavors of the wild strawberries have been all but lost. Many cultivated varieties — such as the current California leaders, Camarosa, Diamante, and Ventana — are less intensely flavored and much harder (and hardier) than heirloom varieties, such as the Banner which dominated California production until 1950. Most modern berries are also too frequently picked before ripening. Unlike Europe, American retailers do not have to identify the variety. Years ago in California, I stumbled upon a roadside stand selling Banner strawberries. Let me just say, they had as much in common in taste with modern strawberries as most commercial American tomatoes with anything real. If you are fortunate to have access to fresh heirloom berries, I urge you to spend the extra and enjoy genuinely flavorful fruit in your shortcake. You’ll understand what the fuss was about.
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- 2 cups soft Southern or other all-purpose flour or pastry flour, or 1¼ cups all-purpose flour and ¾ cup sifted cake flour (8.5 ounces/250 grams)
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar (1.75 ounces/50 grams/60 ml)
- 1 tbsp double-acting baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup vegetable shortening or butter, or ¼ cup each, chilled (1 stick/4 ounces/115 grams)
- About 3/4 cup light cream, half-and-half, or whole milk (or 1 large egg and ½ cup plus 1 tablespoon half-and-half or milk)
- 2 pints strawberries, hulled and sliced (4½ cups), tossed with 2 to 4 tablespoons sugar (adjust according to the sweetness of the fruit)
- 1 cup heavy cream beaten with 1 tablespoon sugar and ½ teaspoon vanilla extract for topping
- Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 425°F. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.
- Cut in the shortening until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
- Gradually add the cream, stirring with a fork until the dough clings together.
- Place the dough on a lightly floured surface, flour your hands, and knead until just manageable, 6 to 10 strokes. Do not overknead; the dough will still be rough. Sprinkle lightly with flour and pat out ¾ inch thick, about a 9- by 6-inch rectangle.
- Using a floured 3-, 2½-, or 2-inch biscuit cutter or other sharp-edged circular cutter, press straight down to cut out the dough. Reroll and cut out the remnants.
- Place the biscuits on an ungreased (preferably parchment-lined) baking sheet, an 8- by 1½-inch round baking pan, or cast-iron skillet. Bake until golden brown, about 12 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool for 5 minutes.
- Split the shortcakes in half horizontally. Place the bottoms on serving plates, spoon about ¼ cup berries over top, and top with a dollop of whipped cream. Place the biscuit tops over the berries. If desired, top with more whipped cream and spoon additional berries over top. Serve at once.
- Large Shortcakes: Grease two 8-inch round cake pans, divide the dough equally between the pans, press lightly to produce an even surface, and bake until golden, about 20 minutes. Invert onto wire racks and let cool for at least 10 minutes.
- Buttermilk Shortcakes: Substitute ¾ cup buttermilk for the cream, reduce the baking powder to 2 teaspoons, and add ½ teaspoon baking soda.