Shortcake is much more than the sum of its parts. Some cooks swear by buttermilk biscuits while others say homemade pound cake works best, but it’s the combination of juicy fruit, whipped cream, and something to soak up the juices and provide a texture contrast that makes shortcake the queen of desserts.
Unless you count the ground corn and crushed strawberries that Native Americans mixed together for the Colonists, there is no historical blueprint for shortcake. Instead, American bakers have taken the recipe into their own hands. Southern cooks lean towards using peaches and raspberries to make shortcake and have been known to top off their creations with dollops of meringue. New Englanders, who once made shortcake with sugary bread dough, use blueberries to make variations of it. Cooks everywhere take shortcuts with store-bought sponge cake and soft-serve ice cream, but what they end up with is an imitation of the real thing.
One of our favorite shortcakes starts with peaches so ripe and juicy they can be can be mashed with bare hands. Instead of adding sugar, we combine them with peach preserves to sweeten and enhance the fruit flavor. For the “biscuit” part of the recipe, we make a single pastry round with whole wheat flour substituting for some of the white flour, sprinkle it with sugar and pop it into the oven. While it’s still warm, we cut it in wedges, split them in half and add the peaches and whipped cream. There’s no soft-serve ice cream, no fruit syrup, no back into the oven to ripen—just dynamite shortcake.
By Jean Kressy, a food writer in Ashburnham, Mass.