My paternal grandmother Ruby Robey lived her entire life in Simpson County, Ky., and she taught me to make strawberry shortcake. I think there was something about being a tobacco farmer’s wife or her Methodist upbringing that made her stern with people who defined strawberry shortcake too loosely. In her view, moral decline would start with strawberries served over sponge cake and end with the County coming to take the children.
True shortcake in her view is crumbly and flaky, not elastic, and definitely not spongy. It should have the taste and consistency of a slightly sweetened baking soda biscuit.
It is possible to find strawberry shortcake recipes dating back as far as the 16th century, but the dish in this country really became popular after the Civil War when strawberries were a fleeting treat and people had shortcake parties to celebrate (and consume) while they could.
On the East End, the tiny, sweet berries that are deep red all the way through (the ones that are best for shortcake) are in season for a few weeks, and then give way to mid- and late-summer varieties. Some local growers raise six or seven varieties of strawberries including some that bear fruit through September.
Once you put the sugar on the berries, they create syrup. A copious amount of this red nectar is another key to a good shortcake. It should be allowed to soak into the cake, flavoring it. The whipped cream should go on at the last minute — just before the cake is served. Make sure to save a few strawberries to decorate the top.
Of course, you can purchase round spongy cakes that look like cat bowls, fill them with strawberries and enjoy it. Strawberries served over sponge cake with whipped cream makes a presentable dessert, but if you call it shortcake, you may hear Ruby whispering, “Oh, mercy sakes!” as you serve it.
Ruby Robey’s Strawberry Shortcake
(Serves 8, either as one cake, or as 8 individual cakes)
• 1 quart fresh strawberries, about 3 cups when hulled and sliced
• ¼ cup sugar
• 2 cups all-purpose or self-rising flour
• 3 teaspoons baking powder
• ¼ cup sugar
• ½ teaspoon salt
• ½ cup shortening
• 1 egg
• 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon milk
• 2 tablespoons butter
• ½ pint cold heavy cream
• 1 tablespoon sugar
1. Put the hulled and sliced strawberries in a bowl, reserving one nice berry to garnish each serving. Add ¼ cup of the sugar (or more if the berries are tart) and mix to coat the berries. Set them aside for at least an hour while you prepare the cake.
2. Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Grease an 8-inch cake pan, or two cookie pans if you are making individual servings.
3. Mix the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in a medium mixing bowl. Cut in the shortening with two knives or a pastry blender until the mixture feels like coarse sand.
4. In a small bowl, mix the egg with a fork and add the milk. Add the milk mixture to the flour mixture and stir just until the dough forms a rough ball. It’s fine if there are crumbs falling off, or if the dough does not form a neat ball. Don’t overmix it.
5. Gently press the dough into an 8 inch lightly-greased cake pan, or if you are making individual cakes, divide the dough into 8 parts and gently press each into a circle about 2 inches high and 4 inches across on your prepared cookie pan, leaving at least two inches between each cake.
6. Bake at 425 degrees for 8-10 minutes for the individual cakes or 15-20 for one 8-inch cake. They are done when they are very light brown.
7. Cool for 15 minutes on a wire rack, split horizontally while still warm, and butter each cut side.
8. Spoon half of the strawberries and their syrup onto the bottom half. Replace the top and spoon the rest of the strawberry mixture onto the top.
9. Whip the cream with a hand mixer until it starts to thicken, add a tablespoon of sugar and continue to whip until soft peaks form. Spoon the cream on top of the cake(s) and garnish with the reserved strawberries.