Strawberries were not a berry we often ate, and I cannot remember my mother making anything with them. In fact, not until 1969, when I began wanting to offer jams and jellies for sale at my new roadside market, did I think strawberry preserves would be a good flavor to include. My sister-in-law, Jean, may have suggested that. She loved them and soon was making my strawberry jam. I was excited enough about it to drive to Poteet, Texas, find a grower, and buy two dozen flats. Strawberries are highly perishable, and we had to begin preserving them immediately. I learned much fast, but the preserves earned its place in my assortment.
Strawberries were not always like those gigantic specimens we see today. Wild strawberries are indigenous to both the Old and New Worlds. The discovery of Fragaria virginiana, an American variety, was taken to Europe in the early 1600s — likely right after the Pilgrims landed. They were eventually crossed with the Fragaria chiloensis from Chile, a larger species found by a Frenchman in the South American Andes. Virtually all modern strawberries are derived from these. One can still buy and grow the Fragaria chiloensis as ground cover to this day. They have an attractive glossy foliage with large, white, fragrant flowers.
Leaves of some strawberry varieties can be made into medicine because of the chemicals they contain — particularly antioxidants that might slow the speed at which the nervous system ages and prevent Alzheimer’s. They even pack more vitamin C than an orange. Rich in fiber they are believed to reduce cancer risks and reduce high blood pressure. Who knew? A Harvard study showed that 100,000 young women who ate 3 servings a week reduced their risk of a heart attack by 32%. They are ranked in the top 10 fruits in antioxidants and play an essential role in keeping one’s gut heathy. I am not certain that pigging out on a strawberry shortcake will do that for anyone.
Strawberry Shortcakes vary from place to place. In North America, shortcakes are a pleasing dessert, traditionally consisting of a crumbly cake made with biscuit dough, split, filled with strawberries, and topped with whipped cream — not exactly things that sound healthy, but we do live but once. Surprisingly, finding recipes for a Strawberry Shortcake was not as easy as I thought it would be. My mom didn’t have a recipe, dewberries were native to the Texas Hill Country and far more abundant. Growing strawberries took work. I can only surmise few farmers had the time, and generally, I believe it was more of an American specialty i.e. — Outside of Fredericksburg. I was more right than wrong.
Despite Shakespeare creating a character, Alice Shortcake, in his Merry Wives of Windsor, and Strawberry Shortcake’s earliest inclusion in the 1588 London publication of The Good Huswifes Handmaid for Cookerie in her Kitchen, it just didn’t catch on. The fact that Henry VIII’s wife, Anne Boleyn, had a strawberry birthmark, which proved to many that she was a witch, didn’t help. It was actually Americans who invented Strawberry Shortcake using a sweet cake or a crumbly biscuit. They may have been like “crisps and cobblers” but with one important difference – the fruit is not cooked. Shortcakes are traditionally layered with strawberries and whipped cream. The “short” indicates the crumbly or crisp nature of the cake. The term varied widely with the only common factor being the use of shortening, butter, or lard.
About the time that Prince Braunfels was looking for a piece of the Republic of Texas to purchase, the use of strawberries were being included in the 1845 fall issue of the Ohio Cultivator Magazine. Two years later a recipe by Eliza Leslie of Philadelphia was included in her cookbook, The Lady’s Recipe. Shortcakes were becoming popular because of the introduction of baking soda and baking powder. By 1850 strawberries became the most popular fruit to use. Recipes suggesting topping layers of soda biscuit with sugar and cream abounded by the start of the Civil War. In both the North and South, it became a prominent dessert. Why wage war over that? The dessert appeared to unify the country by 1893 as Harper’s Magazine boasted, “They give you a good eating — strawberries and short-cake — my oh my!”
A Simple Strawberry Shortcake
1 ½ pound fresh strawberries, stemmed and quartered
5 tbls sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
2 tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 ½ cups heavy cream
1 ½ cups heavy cream, chilled
3 tbls sugar
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp freshly grated lemon zest
Using a mixer beat the heavy cream, sugar, vanilla, and lemon zest until soft peaks form — about 1 ½ to 2 min
Mix strawberries with 3 tbls sugar and refrigerate for ½ hour minimum
Preheat oven to 400ºF
Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, remaining 2 tbls sugar, and salt in a medium bowl.
Add heavy cream and mix until just combined.
Place mixture in an ungreased 8-inch square pan.
Bake until golden brown – 18-20 minutes.
Remove from pan and place on a rack to cool slightly.
Cut into 6 pieces and split each horizontally.
Spoon some of the strawberries with their juice onto each bottom.
Top with generous dollop of whipped cream.
Cover each piece with the shortcake top.
Spoon remaining strawberries over the top and serve.