Vanilla Dream Strawberry Shortcake

Reader Contribution by Laura Damron
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There are a few things that I absolutely refuse to eat fresh, if it’s out of season. I mean, I generally try to eat in season anyway, but it has nothing to do with the ethics of it; it’s a simple matter of taste. Strawberries are one of those things, so when they start showing up in the supermarket in February, I know I still have to bide my time for a bit longer. I won’t even touch one of the containers until April, when they actually start to look like they have some real color to them. Usually, I’m disappointed for another month or so. I have one rule: if I pick up the container, and I can’t smell the strawberries from 8 to 10 inches away, then they’re not ready. And I must wait.

But yesterday was my lucky day! The market had beautifully dark red, decently sized, fragrant berries for me. To celebrate, I made up a batch of vanilla scones to use for our first strawberry shortcake of the season.  I think they’re the perfect background to let the berries shine through and take center stage.

The inspiration for these scones came from a recipe posted here on Smitten Kitchen, some years back. (That particular recipe is incredibly good too, I make them with cranberries and orange zest, but that’s another day.) The scones are only the slightest bit sweet and have a light, biscuit-like consistency that I absolutely adore in a scone.

These take maybe 30 to 45 minutes total to put together, which makes them a perfect spur-of-the-moment dessert, in my book. I love things that come together fast and easy like this; and it’s versatile too – I think you could use pretty much any berry – although, I’m pretty sure that blueberries would probably be out of this world.

Let’s get started, shall we? Here’s the recipe, as adapted:

For the scones:

– 2 cups all-purpose flour
– 1 tablespoon baking powder
– 3 tablespoons sugar
– 1/2 teaspoon salt
– 5 tablespoons butter, chilled
– 1 cup heavy cream
– 1/2 vanilla bean pod, split and scraped

Preheat the oven to 425 F, and pop the stick of butter in the freezer.

First, I measured out the cup of cream into a small saucepan, and turned my burner to low. Then, while it was warming, I split and scraped the half vanilla pod into the cream. I tossed the whole deal into the pot, pod and all, to let it warm for a few minutes. I didn’t want to get the cream hot, necessarily, but you want some heat to pull that vanilla flavor out faster. I stirred everything a few times to make sure the beans are well dispersed, and then it was time to set it aside to cool.

I like to use a half-pint canning jar for this; the lid keeps a skin for forming on the cream and I just put the whole thing in the freezer to get it cold, fast.

Once that’s off and chilling, I usually pause here to slice up my berries and get them macerating with a little bit of sugar – maybe 1 tablespoon, just to help pull the juices out. I just covered mine and left it at room temperature to do its thing while I put the scones together. You could, of course, do this as far ahead of time as you’d like.

I combined the dry ingredients in a large bowl, using a whisk to incorporate some air and fluff everything up, while ensuring it’s all well mixed. That’s the key with these – you want to do all of the mixing up front, before the cream goes in.

Now, it’s time for the butter. This little tidbit is probably one of my favorite baking “secrets,” and I’m going to share it with you. Get out your box grater.

No, really. Forget cutting it in with a fork, or fiddling with a pastry cutter; when you use a grater the pieces start out at a more uniform size and are way easier to incorporate without warming things up and melting the butter. I cut the paper wrapper at the 5T mark, so I didn’t get my fingers all buttery and also so I’d know when to stop grating.

If you have cold hands, you can mix the grated butter into the dry ingredients until it’s a coarse, mealy texture. Otherwise, a wooden spoon or a spatula will work just fine. My hands are always cold, so I just crumble it all together with my fingers.

A word about heat – if it’s really warm where you are you may want to pop the bowl into the fridge or freezer after you mix the butter in, if the butter is starting to melt. Give it 5 minutes to firm back up and you’ll be on your way again.

Once the cream is cooled, it’s time for the final step. It’s important to work the dough as little as possible – keep that in mind. Pour in the chilled cream (minus the big pod pieces) and stir gently. As soon as the flour absorbs the cream and starts to come together, it’s time to stop mixing. Pull it into a ball to pick up any stray bits of dough, and then put it onto a piece of parchment paper.

See the vanilla and the butter? Yum! Oh, and don’t put that jar in the sink just yet. I like to take the pods, cover them with some fresh cream, and put the jar back in the fridge. This way, I can just take out a bit later when I’m ready to make the whipped cream. Or coffee.

Pat the ball into a round, about an inch thick. Score the top by pressing a knife into the top about halfway through, making 8 scones.

And it’s time for the oven! Bake at 425 F for 12 to 15 minutes. It will take on a lovely golden color and have a hollow sound when tapped, when done. I cool mine for about 10 minutes on the pan, before sliding the parchment off onto a wire rack to finish cooling.

While the scone is off resting, I make the whipped cream. A quarter cup of cream plus a few minutes with my handheld mixer, and voila! Fresh, unsweetened whipped cream with the tiniest hint of vanilla. The longer it stays in the jar with the pods, the more flavor will develop.

Finally, it’s all ready to be assembled on the plate: spoon some strawberries over the scone, add a dollop of the whipped cream, and some more strawberries on top of that. This, my friends, is what it’s all about!

Enjoy! The scones that are left over will last about two days or so, covered. I’m only guessing about that, though, as they’re usually gone pretty fast around here. In fact, I’m having one right now- topped with the Rhubarb and Orange Jam from last week. I am a very lucky gal.

Do you have a favorite spring-summer dessert that just kicks off the season for you? Tell me about it! Either leave a comment here, or stop over on our Facebook community page to share. 

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