Absolute Best Tests: Strawberry Shortcake

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In Absolute Best Tests, columnist Ella Quittner destroys the sanctity of her home kitchen in the name of the truth. She’s boiled dozens of eggs, mashed a concerning number of potatoes, and seared more Porterhouse steaks than she cares to recall. Today, she tackles a summer dessert superstar: Strawberry shortcake.


Strawberry shortcake hasn’t always been quite so recognizable. The three-part dessert—one part base, one part berry, one part sweet topping—was first popularized in America by an 1847 recipe for “Strawberry cake” penned by Eliza Leslie in The Lady’s Receipt-Book. While Leslie’s shortcakes did call for the essential three components, they were topped not with billowing dollops of whipped cream but rather with white icing designed to harden. Cream later found its way to the dish, around the 1860s, and by the time The Original Fannie Farmer Cookbook came out in 1896, strawberry shortcake called for a topping of “Cream Sauce I,” three parts cream to one part milk—beaten ‘til stiff with an egg beater—powdered sugar, and vanilla extract.

Today, a fat balloon of whipped cream is more or less a stamp of authenticity on the dessert, which can otherwise come in a number of forms. Like a tuna salad or meatloaf, strawberry shortcake is a deeply personal affair. For some, the ideal base is the classic one: a lightly sweetened cross between a biscuit and a scone, with the crumbly texture described by the “short” in “shortcake.” For others, a plush landing pad of pound cake or an Angel Food Cake is best to soak up all the thick, ruby juices expelled by a handful of peak-season strawberries. One Food52 reader wrote that a Twinkie is just a top-shelf shortcake treatment, and a quick search confirmed a wide consensus within one corner of the internet. (In fact, the Twinkie was first conceived as a way to use strawberry shortcake machinery out-of-season, so it could be considered a kissing cousin.)

So, this latest installment of Absolute Best Tests was born not out of a desire to hack the venerable shortcake or to dictate a totalitarian formula, but rather to encourage experimentation. (Think of it like the S’mores installment, but this time, I’m armed with my own findings from last month’s Absolute Best Tests: Macerated Strawberries.) And, like all moms encouraging healthy experimentation, I will remind you to have fun and be safe!

Base:

  • Sponge Cake (aka Angel Food): The obvious advantage to using a slice of Angel Food Cake over pound cake is its airy, springy texture, which is more thematically aligned with freshly whipped cream and macerated strawberry juice than almost anything else that’s sweet and edible. If you’re a fan of textural contrasts, move right along. If you adore a spoonable nursery pudding, stick around. Because sponge cake has such a light crumb (it’s aerated with egg white), it becomes soft and easily scooped up within minutes of construction. This was not my personal favorite—now is when I disclose I am indeed a fan of textural contrasts—but it made a lot of sense, and had a nostalgic value because it reminded me of those excellent store-bought discs of sponge.

  • Pound Cake: Now we’re talking! (Actually, I am very much still talking exclusively to myself. Sockless and hair-unbrushed, I beat on, borne back ceaselessly into the snack shelf.) For the textural contrast fan club, a slice of pound cake beneath the softening ripe berries and pillow-soft cream really hits. The dense crumb of the cake sops up juices and softens, but the exterior of the cake remains firm and intact. While I prefer a classic shortcake overall (huge spoiler, so sorry), the pound cake does have merits: It’s laughably easy to make a loaf of one and it retains heat more readily than an individual shortcake, so you can slice and serve while it’s mostly still warm for maximal effect.

  • Classic Shortcake: Obviously a homemade shortcake, like this one from Baking Attorney General Medrich, is a superb base for your shortcake. The standard formula is something like a sweetened drop biscuit, which means a crumbly, buttery, scone-like interior, often with a crackly sugar top crust. Producing a batch of homemade shortcakes is not quite as effortless as a loaf of pound cake, but you can bake and freeze them in advance for any shortcake emergencies.

  • Biscuit: This one’s a sleeper hit in my household (in that my dog whined greedily while my husband was sleeping and I was tasting (and loving) a biscuit shortcake). The clear benefit to using a true biscuit, rather than a shortcake, is two-fold: the true biscuit is much flakier and more buttery than a shortcake, and it’s virtually unsweetened, which means it’s extremely butter-forward in flavor. A biscuit fresh out of the oven—paired with macerated strawberries and whipped cream—lent the tiniest hint of buttered popcorn in my trials.

  • Chocolate Shortcake: Every recipe Sarah Jampel has developed is seamless and consistent and makes me want to eat the entire yield before I use it in whatever way I contractually should use it, and these Chocolate Shortcakes are not an exception to that. In fact, I ate two before I even began these shortcake trials, and decided that split open and buttered, they would be an almost unfairly exceptional breakfast. All of that said, these were incredible as a base for the berries and cream; a subtle twist on the classic. If I were to make a chocolate shortcake again, I would incorporate more chocolate, in more ways. I might whip a tablespoon or two of Dutch process cocoa into the whipped cream, and top the whole thing with a chocolate-covered strawberry. By which I mean, the delightful chocolate shortcakes were a bit of a tease, and the cocoa flavor got lost against the pert assertiveness of the berries.

  • Strawberry-Flavored Shortcake: For this trial, I experimented both with swapping some of the flour in Medrich’s shortcake recipe for pulverized, freeze-dried strawberries, and swapping some of the cream for macerated strawberry liquid. Both produced shortcakes that had a vague punch (which I suppose is a firm finger-point?) of sharpness, though blindfolded I wouldn’t have been able to tell you it evoked fresh strawberry. If I wanted to go full triple-berry on the shortcake, next time, I would lace the whipped cream with macerated berry juice as well, and dust everything with the pulverized freeze-dried strawberries for maximum flavor.

  • Twinkie: While I do hate to speak out against the Twinkie in any way (Hostess raised me), I preferred every other base to the Twinkie, due to its sweetness. Texturally, it was of course most reminiscent of the Angel Food Cake, though with a creamy core. But against the fresh whipped cream and macerated fruit, the Twinkie tasted too saccharine. Which does not mean I won’t consume 12 plain on my next road trip.


Berries:

  • Cooked: I reduced about a pint of flash-macerated strawberries (30 minutes or less) with sugar, lemon juice, and salt, and OH! BOY! I always forget how much I love jam! I would not recommend a jam-only shortcake, but if you really want to impress someone, I absolutely would recommend spooning warm jam over your shortcake base before layering on the berries and cream. Go ahead, add some basil too; why not.
  • Macerated Only: A classic for a reason. As discussed in [last month’s column[(https://food52.com/blog/28123-the-best-way-to-macerate-berries), macerating strawberries allows for their juices to collect and thicken with sugar, plus additional acid and salt, for a supercharged firetruck-red serum more powerful than anything I’ve paid $85 for on Goop. Thirty minutes will get you most of the way there; additional hours will add an incremental amount of juice and softness> 24 hours is a triumph but requires more uncrushed bits in the mix so things don’t get too slack.
  • Macerated & Raw: I used gorgeous, ripe strawberries, so I expected to like this variation more than I did, but next to the macerated specimen, the raw berries were actually a hair too tart.

Toppings:

I tested the following:
Sweetened Whipped Cream
Greek Yogurt Whipped Cream
Labne Whipped Cream
Sour Cream Whipped Cream
Buttermilk Whipped Cream
Mascarpone Whipped Cream

All of these variations were fabulous, somewhat unsurprisingly. The just-perceptible sour tang in the whipped cream is a subtle foil to the sweetness of macerated, peak-season berries—like turning up the heat in your pre-bed shower by a few degrees, then tucking yourself into a comforter-covered bed in a frigid room. Confusing reference? Just try it.

As a rule of thumb, whip your cream with a pinch of kosher salt and a tablespoon of granulated or powdered sugar for every 2 cups of liquid, until you hit soft peaks. (Soft peaks means that if you lift the whisk attachment from the cream, it will hold a tiny mountain of whipped cream, but said tiny mountain will slump over as though it just fell asleep if you flip the whisk.) Then, add your sour element at—this piece is hugely important—room temperature, in spoonfuls, until the resulting whipped cream is just slightly sour. If you add the sour element too cold, it could collect in lumps throughout the cream, which most people wouldn’t notice but it would certainly bum you out.


TL;DR:

  • If you want to experiment with a non-shortcake base, and, like me, you love a textural contrast, go for a slice of warm, freshly baked pound cake. If you prefer a soft-on-soft pud’ experience, opt for Angel Food Cake, and/or those excellent store-bought sponge discs sold expressly for the purpose of expedited shortcake.
  • If you’re a purist, you cannot beat a buttery traditional shortcake, still warm from the oven and split in two like a book just before you serve; make sure to egg- or cream-wash the tops and sprinkle with sugar before you bake. (A true flakey biscuit is also fun for the sweet-and-salty-dessert crowd.)
  • The chocolate shortcake is a noble twist, especially when deployed with Dutch process cocoa powder for Oreo-strawberry milkshake vibes. Consider adding a few tablespoons of cocoa to the sweetened whipped cream as well.
  • Swapping out some of the flour in a shortcake recipe for food-processed, freeze-dried strawberry powder, and/or swapping out some of the cream for the macerating liquid from the strawberries, is more exciting visually than it is gustatorily. Which is not to say you shouldn’t do it, but is to say that you might consider supplementing that swap with an additional hit of your emphasized flavor. (If you’re making Barbie-toned strawberry shortcake, make similar adjustments to the whipped cream and consider topping with a dusting of pulverized, freeze-dried strawberries, since the resulting shortcake flavor will be subtle.)
  • Macerate your strawberries in lemon juice, sugar, and salt for at least 30 minutes for optimal flavor, even if they’re already ripe. (Macerate up to a day for extremely concentrated flavor, but leave at least two-thirds of the strawberry pieces in larger chunks to avoid a bowl of mush.)
  • For an extremely over-the-top shortcake, make your own strawberry jam (see this ABT on Homemade Jam. Generally: macerated strawberries, sugar, lemon, and salt, simmered until thick and sticky), and spoon it over the warm base before topping with the cold cream and room temp berries.
  • Add something sour (at room temperature) to your whipped cream! Trust me on this! Greek yogurt, sour cream, labne, mascarpone, and buttermilk are all excellent options. Whip your cream to soft peaks and then add a little at a time as you run the mixer on low speed. Taste and stop when the resulting whipped cream has just a hint of tang, since it’ll taste more sour in contrast with the sweet berries.
  • See you soon for Absolute Best Tests: Homemade Butter! I’m addicted to bullet points!!!!



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