May 25, 2014

Near an open window

When you take a bite of strawberry shortcake—an action that is typically preceded by licking homemade whipped cream from a bowl—something carefree and lighthearted happens. I’m not sure that I can do it justice, but I almost always want to eat shortcakes outside, in the warm evening air, or near an open window. 

In an earlier draft of this entry, I toyed with the image of sitting on a swing, dangling my toes in the cool grass (almost identical to the one that I conjured two years ago in this post about strawberries and cream.) The image endures—this is really how it feels to consume them. There is something so innocent about the prospect of this dessert, something so naive and so earnest, that I am utterly flooded with a million-and-one cliché metaphors of childhood summers when I think of it.

In the summers of my youth, I remember eating macerated strawberries on thick slices of store-bought angel food cake—fluffy and sticky and caramelized on top, the bites of cake disappeared like air onto your tongue. Or there were those little pre-packed shells, labeled “shortcakes,” which were inexplicably yellow and subtly indented, like the rim of a volcano, to contain your fruit. Shortcakes, in other words, have an air of nostalgia. 

These particular shortcakes bring the deep roasted flavors of pie together with a more adult take on the classic shortcake. The shortcakes are made with rye, which creates a nuttier and heartier biscuit, and the macerated fruit is roasted until its juices are caramelized, instead of raw and dripping with sugary liquid. 

They were good. I can comfortably say that. But they weren't the shortcakes of old. I'll admit that I missed the simple—even store-bought—variety when I had these. I might have been happier merely eating my berries straight out of a bowl with heavy dollops of unsweetened whipped cream. Maybe if I was feeling fancy, I would have infused the cream with chamomile, but that's about as far as I think you need to ever go where ripe strawberries are concerned. 

But, if you are looking for something a little more grown up, something a little more complex and decadent; if, unlike me, you are not unjustly searching the bottom of the whipped cream bowl for traces of Mnemosyne (I can't help myself), you will be wholly satisfied. You will inspire oohs and aahs because you will have managed to pull the flavors of strawberry rhubarb pie into a shortcake. You will have rescued the shortcakes themselves from the doldrums of nostalgia (weep), and you will be happily living in the present (is that how it works?).

Two last little pieces of advice before you go forth this holiday weekend eating all manner of unsentimental sweets: seek fresh air when you eat this, if only from the breeze from an open window; and don't skip the whipped cream.

P. S. Something else to do with rhubarb.

Rye Shortcakes with Roasted Strawberries and Rhubarb
Adapted from Food52

Notes: In this version of the recipe, I simplified the ingredients a bit, omitting the ginger and vanilla bean (I really just can't afford vanilla beans at roughly $8 a pop). I also did something crazy before I roasted the fruit—I tried it raw, strewn over a warm biscuit, with plenty of cream, in the manner of this salad. The rhubarb was too tart, so I roasted the fruit as instructed. This might works for you, however, if you cut back the amount of rhubarb and up the sweeteners.  

1 cup rye flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold, cut into 1-inch cubes
3/4 cups chilled heavy cream
1/3 cup chilled buttermilk (or substitute)

Heavy cream or milk to brush on top
2 tablespoons turbinado sugar for sprinkling

16 ounces strawberries, hulled and cut in halves or quarters
2 stalks rhubarb, thinly sliced on the bias
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons sugar
A squeeze of lemon

Whipped cream:
1/2–3/4 cups heavy cream

Mint leaves, torn

Make the shortcakes. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment. In a large bowl, lightly whisk together the dry ingredients (flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar). Cut the butter into the flour mixture with a pastry blender or two knives, until only pea-sized pieces of butter remain. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture, and add the cream and buttermilk. Toss it gently with a spoon until it is just combined (it is okay if some dry areas remain).

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Pat it into a rectangle about 1-inch thick, and fold it in half. Gently press it into a 1-inch thick rectangle again, and repeat once more, folding in the opposite direction.

Using a floured 2-1/2 inch round cutter, or the rim of a drinking glass, cut out the shortcakes. Reform the scraps (be gentle on the dough) and cut out more shortcakes. You will end up with 8 to 10.

Place the shortcakes on the baking sheet, and place the baking sheet in the freezer for 10 minutes. When the shortcakes are chilled, brush the tops with milk or cream, and sprinkle generously with sugar. Bake until they are nicely browned, about 25 minutes.

While the shortcakes are cooling, prepare the fruit. Turn the oven down to 375 degrees. In a medium bowl, toss together the strawberries, rhubarb, honey, sugar, and lemon juice. Allow the mixture to sit for about 10 minutes, then spread the fruit and juices out on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the fruit is soft and the juices are slightly caramelized.

In another bowl, whip the cream with a whisk by hand until it holds together as a mass, but is still somewhat soft (a balloon whisk is ideal for this job).

Assemble the shortcakes by slicing open a shortcake, and layering it with strawberries and cream. Scatter torn mint leaves around the whole thing.

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