Summer Shortcakes

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We are just starting picnic/barbecue season out here which often means finding something to bring along for everyone to enjoy. And it can also mean finding something that keeps well – for a post-sports or all day event, you can’t have a bowl of mayo-filled salad or a creamy pie hanging around. Even if it stays completely safe the oil starts to bead on the dish and it looks kind of gross – deal breaker.

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But just in time for Memorial Day, I re-discovered one of my favorite summer treats that is shelf stable, can be made and cleaned up within an hour, and is easy to pass around to a group. It’s going to be a shortcake kind of summer and I’m liking it already.

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Do you remember the overly sweet and styrafoam like “shortcake cups” they sell in grocery stores? The ones that sort of look like angel food cake but taste like hydrogenated oil and feel like they’ve been shellacked with sugar? Yea, these are nothing like that. These shortcakes are substantial and can soak up a lot of juice while still holding their structure. They’re not really sweet and they easily split apart to sandwich whatever filling you have ready. And even when the filling is done, they are pretty tasty all on their own or with a little drizzle of honey, like a biscuit. They are in fact, not unlike a biscuit. Mix dry goods, cut in butter, add liquids – is pretty much the recipe for good Southern biscuit although the proportions in this shortcake are different.

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When making shortcakes (or biscuits for that matter) it’s really important to use cold butter. Just as in pie dough, the crumbles of butter are what makes the final product flakey. The heat of the oven melts those pea-sized pieces of butter, creating little air pockets layered throughout the dough and a final shortcake that feels flakey (like a good pastry) rather than uniform (like a smooth cake). I’m not saying cake is bad, but it’s not what we’re looking for in this case. So make sure that butter is cold and that you don’t break it up too small when you work it into the dry goods.

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Most people talk about strawberry shortcake and that’s great, but shortcake is not a one-berry dessert. Any fruit that can be macerated in sugar within the space of 20 minutes (which is pretty much any soft fruit except bananas) can be served with a shortcake and called delicious. I’m planning on strawberry or rhubarb for now, cherry and blueberry by the end of the month, and peach for the late summer. So far these have been served at three separate parties to three separate groups of friends and there were three shortcakes leftover. Total. I’m not saying that if you make these you will be a better baker, but I’m not saying you won’t either…

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Summer Shortcakes
Adapted from Take A Megabite who adapted it from Martha Stewart

Makes 8 4-inch or 14-20 2-inch (bite size) shortcakes

¼ cup sugar
1 tbs lemon zest (fresh or dried and roasted)
1 cup all purpose flour
½ cup whole-wheat pastry flour*
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp kosher salt
¾ stick (6 tbs) butter, cut into cubes and kept very cold
¼ cup cream
1 egg, slightly beaten

Preheat the oven to 375F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil.

In a large bowl, combine the sugar, zest, both kinds of flour, baking powder, and salt. If you’re using fresh zest make sure to thoroughly mix it into the dry goods so that the oils are evenly distributed. Stir to combine the dry goods.

Add the cubes of butter and using your fingertips**, incorporate it into the dry goods until the butter is fairly evenly distributed and only pea-size chunks of butter remain. The dough should look like rough cornmeal at this point and have large pieces of butter visible within it.

Once the butter is well incorporated, add the milk and egg and the mixture with a spatula until well combined. No crumbs should remain at the bottom of the bowl and the dough will be a bit sticky.

Flour your counter or a cutting board and turn the dough onto the board. Flour the top of the dough and press it down using your hands or a rolling pin until it is uniformly about ½ – 1 inch thick. You can either cut out round shapes for the shortcakes or simply cut the dough into squares or triangles. If you’re using a cookie cutter, re-roll the scraps and then cut out more shortcakes until the dough is all cut into shapes.

Place the cut out shortcakes onto the baking sheet, leaving at least 2 inches between each one. Bake for 15 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through baking. The finished shortcakes should be pale on top with medium-brown bottoms. Remove from the oven and place on a rack to cool. Eat warm or at room temperature with any kind of fruit you like.

*Can you use only all-purpose flour for this dessert? Sure, but I like the extra nuttiness and texture the whole-wheat pastry flour adds without weighing it down like pure whole wheat might.

**Your hands produce a lot of heat but most of it comes from the palms of your hands. Your fingertips are much cooler and using them to incorporate the butter will prevent it from heating up too much. Warm butter will melt into the dough and you end up with those air pockets that make for a flakey shortcake.

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