“The minute the biscuit is taken from the oven, it is slathered with butter, and partially crushed berries are ladled over the hot wedges.” ~Marcia Adams, Cooking from Quilt Country 1989
When I was growing up, my family lived not too far from a U-pick strawberry farm. Each year around the first of June, it was tradition to drive the station wagon loaded with shallow boxes to the farm to pick berries at the crack of dawn (strawberries get warm and soft as the day wears on). We would crawl along the rows of strawberry plants filling our buckets and our bellies until we had gathered eight or ten or twelve gallons. We gently emptied the buckets into our boxes, spreading the berries out in a single layer to prevent them from getting mashed. The car smelled of damp earth and warm strawberries as we hurried home to begin our jam making enterprise. For dessert that night there would be Strawberry Shortcake.
My mother was a cake person, as opposed to a sweet biscuit person, so she would bake a large single-layer Hot Milk Cake as the foundation for our Strawberry Shortcake. She would crush and sweeten the berries and whip some cream. It was a fine reward for our hard work. We would eat the jam throughout the year (on homemade bread, I might add), pleased with our efforts.
As fate would have it, I married a man who was a sweet biscuit person, as opposed to a cake person, so I learned how to make sweet biscuits for the foundation of our shortcake. I picked berries each year around the first of June at the same U-pick strawberry farm, spread them out in shallow boxes and brought them home to make jam. For dessert that night I would invite the in-laws over for Strawberry Shortcake, with biscuits, sweetened berries and plenty of whipped cream.
Last year, to change things up, I made a Hot Milk Cake as the foundation for our Strawberry Shortcake. (Sadly the strawberry farmer got old and sold his farm, so I bought my berries from the store). I crushed and sweetened the strawberries and made some whipped cream. When I served dessert, I learned something about myself — I am a sweet biscuit person. (Its important to know these things).
Shortcake biscuits usually call for shortening so I did some research on this twentieth-century kitchen staple: The production and sale of vegetable shortening began early in the 1900s as a substitute for lard which could not be produced fast enough to meet America’s demand. Butter was also used in baking, but it couldn’t keep up with the demand either. Thus, prices for lard and butter went higher and higher. Producers of shortening advertised that not only is shortening less expensive, but it also created a better baked product. Shortening was even touted as being as healthful as olive oil. American home cooks were sold.
Interestingly, my oldest twentieth-century cook book, 52 Sunday Dinners 1913, is sponsored by a shortening production company — Cottolene, and it contains a classic recipe for Strawberry Shortcake (below):
The shortcake dough is made in typical biscuit fashion, however, I was interested to discover a “lost” method of creating double-decker biscuits:
“divide the [biscuit] dough into two equal parts, roll each piece [in]to [a round] one-half inch thickness; lay one piece on a buttered jelly cake pan, brush over with soft butter, and place remaining piece on top. Bake in hot oven”. Voila! Double-decker shortcakes.
For the assembly, the large biscuit is turned out onto a platter, separated, buttered again (gotta love all that butter) and the bottom layer is covered with strawberries. The other biscuit is placed back on top, layered with berries, sprinkled with sugar and “masked” (not sure what masked means) with orange flavored whipped cream. Fancy and delicious!
To prepare the strawberries for shortcake, the recipe (above) offers two suggestions. The first starts with washing, hulling and slicing or lightly crushing the berries. They are then sweetened with a simple syrup made from two cups sugar and one-half cup water, boiled together for four minutes. This boiling method is sure to dissolve all the sugar crystals so there is no surprising crunch in the strawberry mixture. The second suggestion is the way I have always done it — sprinkle sugar over prepared berries, stir to combine and let stand for an hour to allow the sugar to thoroughly dissolve.
Still curious about double-decker shortcakes, I wanted to find out if this concept was unique to one particular cookbook, or if they were featured in other cookbooks as well.
In my 1944 The Household Searchlight Recipe Book, the instructions for Biscuit Short Cake (above) say to combine the biscuit ingredients and roll into a quarter-inch thickness. Different from the recipe above, these will be individual double-decker biscuits, as opposed to a full round. The rolled dough is cut with a floured cutter, then half the biscuits are spread with butter and placed on a baking sheet. The other half of the biscuits are placed on top of their buttered partners, brushed with butter themselves, then popped into a hot oven.
Inside an old battered copy of the Watkins Cook Book 1948 is a recipe for Strawberry (Biscuit) Shortcake. This recipe (below) also says to roll the biscuit dough into a quarter-inch thickness and cut into individual shortcakes, stack two together with butter between and bake.
Across the page from Strawberry (Biscuit) Shortcake is a Sponge Cake recipe (below), said to be, “An excellent cake to serve with… strawberries or sliced peaches and whipped cream”. Finally, a nod to the cake-loving people. (By the way, sliced fresh peaches sweetened with a little sugar over cake or rich biscuits makes an excellent shortcake)!
Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book 1950 and Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book 1953 both have recipes for double-decker shortcakes as well. I just don’t know how this method became “lost” as it appears to have been the standard way of making shortcake for some time.
I got a tickle out of the Betty Crocker Cook Book’s 1950 introduction to Strawberry Shortcake:
“The good old-time American dessert…still first choice”
Modern Meal Maker 1939, titled its recipe Old-Fashioned Strawberry Shortcake. In a charming 1935 recipe booklet named Crescent Creations, was yet another recipe for Old-Fashioned Shortcake. If shortcake was old-fashioned in 1935, what would we call it today? Let’s just call it delicious.
Speaking of old-fashioned, in The Searchlight Household Recipe Book 1944, the recipe for Biscuit Short Cake was found in the Pudding section. Americans haven’t called dessert “pudding” for over 200 years. What were they thinking?!
Versatile and Adaptable
Two great characteristics not only for humans, but also for our ideas and inventions, is the ability to be versatile and adaptable. The concept of Strawberry Shortcake is just that. Start with freshly baked cake or biscuits, adapt the recipe to the fruit in season and a home cook can create a variety of shortcakes. This concept of versatility was demonstrated throughout my twentieth-century cookbooks.
I have already touched on Peach Shortcake which was the alternative most frequently mentioned throughout my research. Not surprisingly, many varieties of berries were recommended — raspberries, blackberries and cooked blueberries. A number of fruit combinations were suggested as well: crushed raspberries with diced oranges, sliced bananas with strawberries, rhubarb with pineapple, raspberries with pineapple, and a mixture of cranberries, apple and crushed pineapple. Finally, the two ideas that seem really unusual were apricot shortcake and applesauce shortcake. Hmmm. Maybe with lots of whipped cream they would be okay.
Thanks for joining me on my shortcake adventure. Below is my mother’s old-fashioned Hot Milk Cake recipe and the recipe that I use for sweet biscuits. This year I’m going to make them double-decker with plenty of butter. Enjoy!
Old-Fashioned Hot Milk Cake
- 1 cup cake flour (all-purpose flour will work in a pinch)
- 1 tsp baking powder
- Dash salt
- 1/2 cup milk, scalded
- 1 Tbsp butter
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup sugar
- Preheat oven to 350*.
- Grease and flour a 9″ round (or square) cake pan or line with parchment paper.
- In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt; set aside.
- In a small sauce pan, scald milk. Add butter and vanilla; set aside.
- Using an electric mixer, blend eggs until thick and foamy, about three minutes. Continue mixing while gradually adding sugar, about three minutes more.
- Add flour mixture alternately with scalded milk, mixing after each addition.
- Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake 30 — 35 minutes. Allow cake to cool 15 minutes before removing from pan.
Note: This recipe can be doubled and baked in a 9″X13″ or two layer cake pans. If using 9″X13″ pan, increase baking time by several minutes.
Recipe Compliments of cookbooklady.com
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 Tbsp sugar
- 4 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 cup (1 cube) butter, frozen
- 1/2 cup half and half cream
- 1 egg
- Preheat oven to 450*.
- In a large, bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.
- Cut frozen butter into thin slices, add to flour mixture and cut with a pastry cutter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs; set aside.
- Measure the half and half cream into a small bowl, add egg and blend with a fork; set aside.
- Create a “well” in the center of the flour and butter mixture. Pour cream and egg mixture into the “well”. Stir with a fork until mixture begins to form a ball.
- Turn dough onto a lightly floured board and knead 8 — 10 strokes. Roll to a half-inch thickness and cut with a 2-1/2″ — 3″ lightly floured cutter. Place biscuits on an ungreased or parchment lined baking sheet.
- Bake biscuits for 10 — 15 minutes at 450* or until golden brown. Remove from oven and brush lightly with melted butter if desired.
Recipe Compliments of cookbooklady.com