I was first introduced to the concept of strawberry shortcake made with biscuits, rather than with yellow cake, when I moved to Maine as a new bride, over 30 years ago. We settled down midway up the coast, entranced by the restless sea bordered by lines of fir trees, and the shoreline snaking in and out of countless rocky coves. Little did we know, at the time, that the rocky shore made for problematic “beachcombing”; and the ocean, while lovely to look at, was brutally cold to swim in.
But that knowledge came later, along with all kinds of other “insider” intelligence: where to eat out during the summer, when tourists filled all the usual haunts; the best places to buy fresh shrimp, just-picked blueberries, and lobster right off the boat; and—a lasting lesson—how to make Maine strawberry shortcake.
Coming originally from Connecticut, I was used to strawberry shortcake being served in little sponge cake cups, bright yellow, springy cakes that came wrapped in plastic from the grocery store. But the first time I encountered this strawberry shortcake, at the American Legion’s weekly supper—huh? Where’s the cake? I watched the veterans’ wives preparing dessert, and they were dishing sliced strawberries and mounds of soft whipped cream onto—biscuits? Yup, biscuits. EEEWWWW! But I’ve always approached food (and life) with an “I’ll try anything once” attitude, so I went through the line, grabbed a paper plate of shortcake, and sat back down.
Tentatively digging in, I saw that strawberry juice and heavy cream had soaked the bottom half of the biscuit; it crumbled into a sweetly comfortable melange of bread, cream, and fruit at the touch of my fork. The top half, crisp and perky, held just a small dollop of whipped cream, and a single strawberry; it played an ascetic counterpoint to the luxuriant berry/biscuit combo below.
Later, after I’d learned how to bake a decent biscuit, I added my own touches. Starting with an oven-hot biscuit, I’d butter it, then spoon on some heavy cream (unwhipped), then strawberries, then whipped cream, then add the top (buttered) half of the biscuit, and more lightly whipped cream, which would flow like lava down the strawberry-biscuit mountain. This dessert, enjoyed outside at the picnic table on a soft Maine night in June (on the rare occasions when blackflies weren’t enjoying me while I enjoyed my shortcake), is the essence of Maine living: sweet, comforting, a throwback to an earlier America.
Strawberries are available year round now. We don’t have to wait for their short, sweet season like we used to. And sometimes I regret their new ubiquity… what’s common can become commonplace. Still, Maine strawberry shortcake, made with oven-warm biscuits, is always a pleasure. Just like Maine itself.
Here’s the easiest way to make biscuits. No cutting in butter; all you do is combine flour with salt, baking powder, sugar, and heavy cream. (If you’re a fan of butter-based biscuits, try the simple recipe on the back of the Maine Bakewell Cream can sometime. It’s particularly apropos for this Down East shortcake.)
Can you see the difference between a biscuit cut with a sharp biscuit cutter (on the left), and one cut with your grandma’s favorite tool: a drinking glass (on the right)? You want good, clean edges, not edges that have been squashed down. A clean edge makes a higher-rising biscuit.
When you’ve cut 8 biscuits (or as many as you can cut from the dough on the first pass), gently shape the scraps into an oval, and two last biscuits. You don’t have to use a cutter for this; just cut the oval in half, if you like. The resulting biscuits won’t be perfect circles, but you will have efficiently used up all of the dough.
Next comes a big spoonful of very lightly whipped cream. This cream is barely holding its shape, as you can see. That way, some of the cream seeps into the biscuit. And when you take a spoonful of shortcake, you get warm biscuit crumbled in cream, which is a truly ethereal culinary experience.
…the top half of the biscuit (which I usually butter), a dollop of whipped cream (or a lava-flow of whipped cream—your choice!), and a piece of strawberry, like the cherry atop the sundae. See the coarse sugar? It adds visual appeal, as well as crunch and flavor. What are you waiting for? Dig in!