Some desserts should not be made on an empty stomach. This favorite of my mother’s requires you to eat just before preparing it. The only rule: it has to come from a can. My favorite choice was canned peaches, but I’d settle for a can of minestrone or baby corn, or artichokes. And why a can?—because you need the empty can to fashion the biscuits, with one end cut all the way off.
It’s also helpful, but not essential, to have a strawberry patch. My husband has been warning me that it’s time to pull up the old plants and plant new ones. I haven’t understood his logic until this year, when weeding our meager yield: too many tiny wild berries have encroached on the patch, pushing the plumper ones out. And you need the plumpest and juiciest for the best shortcake. This recipe came from my grandmother Wendell’s state-of-the-art 1960’s kitchen, and originally appeared in The Pottsgrove Cookbook (published by The Pottstown Historical Society, Pottstown, Pennsylvania, 1960). We didn’t have homegrown strawberries like we do today on our farm, but my father was a regular customer of Big Joe’s Fruit Stand in Warren, Pennsylvania—the best fruit available in northwest PA—until Big Joe (whose name gives you some idea of his appearance) branched out into selling antique cars next door.
After consuming the peaches, my mother would rev up her automatic can opener, which she was very proud of in her state-of-the-art kitchen, and grind the lid completely off. We’d mix up the batter, roll out the dough to about an inch thickness, then cut the rough round biscuit shapes with the tin can. That was my job. Nearly a meal in itself, the resulting shortcake was not for the calorie-conscious, nor for main course over-eaters. My father would slice his biscuit in half, then slather yet more butter on each half before pouring on the strawberry concoction, topped by the other biscuit half, yet more strawberries, then the grand finale of whipped cream. I always could do without the extra butter, and most low-fat modern palates I’d imagine would agree.
It’s one of those dishes I always associate with June and warmer days coming on. Today is also the day of the Belmont Stakes Race, where we hope to have our first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed last took the title in 1978. I want to watch the race and celebrate with Mint Julips made with fresh spearmint from the garden (ok, so I’m three weeks late on the traditional Kentucky Derby drink) and Grandmother Wendell’s strawberry shortcake. I’ll have to wade through the wilds in search of the largest domestics and agree to grant Barrett his wish of starting over next year. But first, a can of Dole peaches.
The shortcake part are more like scones, and are especially good the next day for breakfast leftovers with your favorite jam. They are dense and rich, unlike the spongy nothings of your store-bought variety.
2 cups flour 1 egg
4 tsp. baking powder
1⁄2 cup milk, or more
2 T sugar 1⁄2 tsp. sale
1⁄4 lb. butter (can be part Crisco)
2 qts. Strawberries
Whipped cream, cool whip, frozen yogurt, or vanilla ice cream. . . . your choice!
Mix dry ingredients. Cut shortening into it. Beat egg, add milk and add to above. Roll out about 3⁄4 inch thick and cut into rounds (about 3 inches) or put into large round cake tin. (I always cut rounds either with a round cookie cutter, or by using an empty tin can with the bottom and top completely off). Bake at 375 degrees until brown.
Cut 2 qts. berries and sweeten them. An indulgent twist is to pour a splash or two of Crème de Cassis into the sweetened strawberries. If using whipped cream, flavor slightly with vanilla.
Split shortcake in half and put some berries in middle, put the top back on and add more strawberries, then either the whipped cream or frozen yogurt or ice cream.