Simply Delicious Shortcakes

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Even the color of peaches with blueberries is a sensory treat.
2 / 7
Fresh scones with jam and cream melt in your mouth.
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Piled high with whipped cream, strawberry shortcake is the perfect ending to a meal.
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Diamond shapes show biscuits' fancy side.
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The combination of raspberries and chocolate will make your tastebuds jump for joy.
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Chocolate shortcake and banana slices are a perfect not-too-sweet dessert.
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Unimpressive on the baking sheet, chocolate shortcakes taste heaven sent.

Easy Strawberry Shortcake Recipe With Herbs
Herb Syrups Recipe
Basic Wholesome BiscuitChocolate Shortcakes with Cocoa Whipped Cream
Peaches and Blueberries with Lemon Balm Syrup
Buttermilk Cream Scones with Lemon Balm
Stewed Apples with Maple Syrup

Summertime and the living is easy … time to kick back and relax, enjoy lazy summer days, vacations with friends and family, and easy, no-fuss seasonal fare.

This is my favorite time of year for fresh produce; the season provides us with an abundance of wonderful, mouthwatering fruits. Although I enjoy eating a fresh ripe peach or a handful of berries with no adornment, one of the simplest, and most scrumptious, ways to showcase these delectable fruits is piled on a homemade biscuit with freshly whipped cream.

Before heading off into mouthwatering fruit toppings, let’s first talk a bit about the history of the biscuit, which, after all, is the foundation of many a shortcake. “Biscuit” derives from the French words bis cuit, which mean “twice cooked.” This term was used originally because biscuits were twice baked – allowing them to dry out in between – which helped to keep them longer. This was how they kept sea biscuits palatable on long voyages onboard ships. The word biscuit became a part of the English language in the 1300s. In Great Britain and thereabouts, a “biscuit” refers to a flat, crisp cracker or cookie, whereas in the United States, we think of a biscuit as a round, leavened, quick bread. Seeking a tender, flaky texture, biscuits are traditionally leavened with baking powder and/or baking soda. The tradition of serving fruit with biscuits was first recorded in the mid-1800s. When the term shortcake was originally coined is not certain, but a shortcake is generally a biscuit that is split and adorned with either a sweet or savory filling.

Of course, there are many variations on the thematic shortcake: Sometimes they are made in individual small rounds, or they can be baked like a cake in a pan and the whole shortcake can be split in half, filled and reassembled. Although most shortcakes are made from a biscuit dough, or even a scone dough, nowadays we see many of them prepared with sweet dessert-type cakes like sponge or pound cakes. Today, we mostly think of shortcakes as dessert, but there are many savory recipes with creamed chicken or spinach as the filling.

The most popular star of shortcakes is the strawberry, and rightly so. When properly prepared, strawberry shortcake is a delectable combination – a perfect balance – of flavor and structure. The base is the biscuit; I prefer mine just slightly sweet. I have included a scone recipe for those of you who prefer sweeter desserts. Scones and biscuits are very similar in the way they are prepared; generally a scone is a bit sweeter and often a bit richer by adding butter or cream. Scones are most often cut into wedges, though, I often see round ones in coffee shops nowadays. Biscuits are usually cut into rounds; sometimes I cut them into squares or diamonds for variety. Both biscuits and scones make a sturdy foundation for a shortcake – cake, on the other hand, tends to get soggy quickly once juicy fruit and cream are added. Also, I find cake to be overly sweet in this preparation.

The tart sweetness of strawberries is the perfect counterpoint to a not-too-sweet biscuit. Once sliced and sprinkled lightly with sugar, syrup or liqueur, the berries give off their juice, which moistens the shortcake just the right amount. Any ripe fruit will do this: Peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries are all luscious toppings for shortcakes. Occasionally, I add herbs such as lemon balm, lemon verbena, basil, Monarda, mint, scented geranium or lavender flowers while the fruit and sugar are macerating. It is OK if you have a good cup or so of juicy syrup with your fruit – that is what you want to drizzle over the shortcake. However, sometimes when the fruit is just perfect, it needs no sweetener at all.

Freshly whipped cream, still a little soft, not quite stiff so that it peaks, is the crowning touch to this dessert. Cream whips faster and is more voluminous if both the bowl and the whisk are chilled beforehand; this is especially important in hot weather. I sweeten mine with a little sugar and just a hint of vanilla. Sometimes I infuse herb sprigs in the cream for an hour or even overnight before whipping it. I press the essence out of the leaves and remove them before whipping. As you can see in the recipe included, cocoa can make a most decadent whipped cream.

Basic shortbread technique

Biscuits and scones are among the easiest and simplest things that you can bake. From start to finish, it takes about half an hour, in a preheated oven. It is a tried and true formula – measure the dry ingredients and toss them together, then cut cold butter into little bits and cut into dry ingredients with a pastry cutter or two kitchen knives. One thing I do once my butter has been cut into small pieces is, working quickly, I use my hands to find the butter pieces and flatten them out between my thumbs and forefingers. I find that this quick little step (you don’t want to overwork the dough) gives me a flaky biscuit.

Next, add the milk, buttermilk or cream; I am very fond of buttermilk in my biscuits and scones. Also, you can use less butter and still get good flavor when you use buttermilk. If you don’t have buttermilk, just mix regular milk with 1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice, stir, and let stand for 5 minutes – and you have clabbered milk. If I am adding chopped herbs, bits of candied ginger or citrus zest, I usually add it to the liquid. Work quickly to incorporate the liquid into the dough; I usually use a fork. At a certain point, set aside the fork and use your hands. I turn the slightly sticky dough out onto a lightly floured surface, lightly flour my hands and knead gently until the dough just comes together. Do not overwork the dough or you will have a tough biscuit or scone.

Although you can pat the dough out, I think that the pressure of rolling the dough makes for flakier layers. The dough should not be more than an inch thick and not less than a half-inch thick – about three-quarters of an inch is what I aim for. I like to make a round dough and then cut it into eight equal wedges, especially when preparing scones. My standard biscuit cutter is 2 1/2 inches in diameter, which is an ideal size. When I make little biscuits, I cut them into squares or diamonds using my pizza cutter.

Depending on the occasion, biscuit dough can be cut with cookie cutters into heart shapes, shamrocks, teapots, chicks, eggs, flowers, bells, acorns, bats; whatever you fancy. Sometimes, I brush the tops with melted butter and sprinkle them lightly with sugar. Of course, both little and big kids like pink sugar on their heart-shaped scones, green sugar on their shamrocks, yellow daisies, etc. Bake biscuits and scones in a hot oven for about 15 to 20 minutes – usually it is about 17 to 18 minutes for the recipes here. Smaller sizes will bake more quickly.

The Nose Knows

You can tell when your shortcakes are done by the smell and the appearance – they should smell like biscuits – and they should be golden brown on the top and the bottom. Remove them to a baking rack and allow them to cool for a few minutes; serve warm or let them cool to room temperature. If you cover the biscuits loosely with a cotton or linen kitchen towel while they are cooling, it will keep them from drying out. Store them in a tin, or a heavy plastic bag, if desired. They can be frozen; gently reheat thawed biscuits or scones wrapped in foil at 300ºF for 15 to 20 minutes until warmed through.

In the summertime, I usually prepare the shortcakes in the morning, when it isn’t too hot in the kitchen. Sometimes I slice and macerate the fruit then too, but mostly I do that later in the afternoon since I like it best when it sits for about an hour or two. I prefer not to refrigerate the fruit; if you do, remove it from the fridge about 30 minutes before serving so it’s not icy cold, more like cool room temperature. I often whip the cream in the morning while the shortbreads are baking, refrigerate it, and give it a brief whisking just before serving to fluff it up just a bit.

The recipes here can be mixed and matched. There is a basic biscuit recipe and a basic scone recipe. You can put the strawberry and grenadine topping on either; the peach and blueberry, or the stewed apples will also be delicious with both. These are just a place to start from – experiment and create your own summertime shortcake combinations!

Basic Wholesome Biscuit

This recipe is for a basic all-purpose biscuit. You can add herbs, make it with a little more sugar if you like a sweeter biscuit, or a little less sugar. I like to use part whole-wheat flour in my biscuits to make them more wholesome and toothsome. (All whole wheat would make a biscuit that’s too crumbly.) If you prefer, use all unbleached flour.

Makes 1 dozen 2 1/2-inch rounds

1 1/2 cups unbleached white flour
1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup buttermilk

Heat oven to 400°F. Lightly butter a baking sheet; set aside.

In bowl or food processor, combine flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar. Cut butter into mixture until it becomes coarse meal. Add buttermilk to dry ingredients and mix until just blended. Do not over mix.

Turn dough onto floured surface and knead 8 or 10 times. Roll or pat dough to about 3/4-inch thick. Using 2 1/2-inch cutter, cut out rounds, using all the dough. Place rounds of dough on prepared baking sheet.

Bake biscuits in center of oven for about 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool biscuits for at least 5 minutes before splitting open; they are best served warm, but room temperature is fine.

Chocolate Shortcakes with Cocoa Whipped Cream

Although these are a bit unusual, they are a darned tasty combination. These biscuits are not really sweet – so don’t expect a brownie. The cocoa whipped cream is wickedly decadent so plain fruit without sweetener or syrup works best. Both fresh raspberries and ripe sliced bananas are naturally great partners with the chocolate.

Makes about 1 dozen 21/2-inch rounds

2 cups unbleached white flour
6 tablespoons cocoa
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
4 tablespoons sugar
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon milk
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Heat oven to 400°F.

In bowl or food processor, combine flour, cocoa, salt, baking powder, baking soda and sugar. Cut butter into mixture until it becomes coarse meal. Mix milk and vanilla together. Add milk to dry ingredients and mix until just coming together. Sprinkle in chocolate chips and mix until blended. Do not over mix.

Turn dough onto floured surface and knead 8 or 10 times, adding a little flour if needed. Roll dough to about 3/4-inch thickness. Using 2 1/2-inch diameter cutter, cut out rounds, using all the dough. Place rounds of dough on baking sheet.

Bake biscuits in center of oven for 20 to 22 minutes; they need to cook a little longer since they are dense and have chocolate chips in them. Cool biscuits for at least 5 minutes before splitting open; they are best served warm, but room temperature is fine.

Cocoa Whipped Cream:
1 pint heavy whipping cream
4 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
6 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

In deep bowl, combine whipping cream and cocoa; whisk to blend in cocoa. Cover and refrigerate for one hour or overnight.

Whisk cream until it just starts to thicken and add sugar. Whisk until soft peaks form. Whisk in vanilla extract.

Serve a dollop on each chocolate biscuit and garnish with sliced ripe bananas or red ripe raspberries. The cream can be made in advance and kept in the fridge – if it gets a little thin, just whisk it again.

Peaches and Blueberries with Lemon Balm Syrup

Peaches or nectarines are wonderful on shortcakes – they can stand alone, but are lovely when combined with blueberries or raspberries. The lemon balm syrup is delightful with any fruit. You can also try bergamot, orange mint or lemon verbena. If you don’t have any herbs, make the syrup with about 11/2 teaspoons lemon zest and add just a tiny splash of pure vanilla extract or a few gratings of nutmeg.

Makes enough fruit for 12 shortcakes

6 very ripe peaches, peeled and sliced
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 pint blueberries
About 1 cup lemon balm syrup (see recipe below)

In bowl, toss peaches with lemon juice. Add blueberries and pour lemon balm syrup overall. Let stand for at least one hour or up to three.

Buttermilk Cream Scones with Lemon Balm

The proper way to eat a scone is, first, split the scone in half. Next, spread each half with fruit or jam, and finally, place a generous dollop of cream on top of each. These yummy scones can be prepared for a special breakfast, brunch, tea party, or even served as dessert. Sweet herbs such as anise hyssop, lemon balm, lemon verbena, orange mint, or fruit-scented sage are best in these scones. I like these scones with strawberries or peaches. Celebrate lemon balm, herb of the year for 2007.

Makes about 1 dozen scones

2 1/4 cups unbleached white flour
2 to 4 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup cream
2 tablespoons freshly chopped lemon balm, optional
1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped lemon zest

Heat oven to 400°F.

In large bowl, combine dry ingredients and blend thoroughly. Cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse meal.

Stir buttermilk and cream together with lemon balm and zest. Add liquid to dry ingredients and stir to form soft dough.

Turn dough onto floured pastry marble or board, knead gently until it just comes together, and roll out to 3/4-inch thickness, as round as possible. Cut dough into pie-shaped wedges, either 8 or 12 pieces depending on how big you want the scones or how many you are serving. Place on ungreased baking sheet.

Bake 15 to 18 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove to baking rack to cool slightly before serving. The scones are best served warm and right after baking.

Stewed Apples with Maple Syrup

Although apples are a late-summer fruit, I included this recipe because it is so simple and so tasty. The bay leaf adds a pleasant mild spice flavor. I like these on the wholesome biscuits.

Makes enough for about 8 to 12 shortcakes

3 medium apples, cored and sliced thin
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup maple syrup
3 fresh bay leaves
Scant 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon lemon juice

In heavy-bottomed non-reactive pot, combine apples with water, syrup and bay leaves. Stir, cover, and bring to simmer over medium heat. Add nutmeg, lemon zest and lemon juice and cook for about 10 minutes at bare simmer. Test for doneness – the apples should be tender, but not mushy. Cook for few minutes more if necessary. These can be served warm, or they can be prepared ahead and served at room temperature.

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