The waitress at the Reston restaurant was going through her dessert spiel: Blah, blah blah, creme brulee, blah blah, chocolate walnut cake, blah blah, peach shortcake. . . .
Wait. Peach shortcake?
That sounded good. It was a warm day and we were eating outside. Something summery like peach shortcake would be the perfect ending to a relaxed meal. So my husband and I ordered one (with two spoons, of course) and waited.
A few minutes later, the waitress appeared with a little white dish of baked peaches topped with what looked like a beige hockey puck dusted with cinnamon.
Uh, this was not shortcake. This was a cobbler with a doughy, day-old hat. We each took a nibble, just to be sure. Yup, we were sure. Time to call the dessert police.
Or maybe it was just time for a short shortcake history lesson.
Shortcake is not really cake. It's really a rich biscuit. A warm, crumbly, buttered biscuit, split in half, and filled with strawberries or peaches or some other wonderful summer fruit and topped with whipped cream. (Think of it as just-short-of cake.)
Shortcake dough is leavened with baking powder, like biscuits, but is enriched with butter, egg, cream and a little sugar. It's gently kneaded, then patted out and cut into circles for a brief baking.
The name "shortcake" dates to William Shakespeare's England, according to The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson, although its 16th-century meaning varied widely from a shortbread-like cookie to a small cake.
In early America, shortcake meant one thing: a dessert with berries.
New Englanders liked theirs with blueberries, but, as Evan Jones writes in "American Food: The Gastronomic Story," nothing is more American than strawberry shortcake.
"An unimpeachable strawberry shortcake needs a baking powder biscuit dough lavishly mixed with butter and cream. Baked to flaky perfection, this is carefully split into two layers, the lower of which is usually slathered with butter before accepting its burden of berries with sugar to make a filling that drips in rivulets down the sides," Jones writes. The top half, also hot, is buttered and then placed on top of the berries.
Strawberry shortcake became wildly popular in this country in the 1850s. After the Civil War, recipes for strawberry and peach shortcake using a rich biscuit dough were standard in cookbooks of that era. Today's American baking books -- especially those specializing in homey desserts -- aren't much different.
Of course, if your mother (like mine) used to serve you a slice of pound cake or angel food cake topped with strawberries and say, "Here, honey, I made strawberry shortcake for you," then shortcake means cake, and making biscuits, even slightly sweet ones, will seem strange to you.
Not to worry. There is a compromise.
Karen Barker, winner of the 2003 Pastry Chef of the Year award by the James Beard Foundation and co-owner of the Magnolia Grill in Durham, N.C., straddles the cake/biscuit line in the three shortcake recipes she includes in her new book, "Sweet Stuff: Karen Barker's American Desserts" (University of North Carolina Press, 2004). Her shortcakes are softer and cakier, made from a dough that contains an extra egg yolk and cream.
My personal favorite biscuit recipe for shortcake (sorry, Mom, but I go with tradition on this one) also includes egg and cream, but it's still more flaky biscuit than cake. It's from the late Bill Neal's classic book on Southern baking, "Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie" (Knopf, 1990). I think of this as my "now it's really summer" recipe. I particularly like his version because it makes two really big biscuits that will handle about four cups of sliced strawberries. It's very dramatic to serve it whole, then cut everyone a wedge. Alternatively, you can cut out smaller biscuits so that everyone gets their very own shortcake.
Or try Barker's chocolate shortcake. It's soft, studded with chocolate chips, but not too sweet -- a nice foil for really ripe strawberries. She tops it with whipped cream that's been blended with a little melted white chocolate. Oh, man, it's good.
Someone ought to suggest it to a certain restaurant's pastry chef.
Strawberry (or Peach) Shortcake
8 to 10 servings
This is a more traditional shortcake that is like a rich, sweet, flaky biscuit. Adapted from "Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie" by Bill Neal (Knopf, 1990):
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for the work surface
5 tablespoons sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold, cut into pieces, plus additional for buttering
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
4 cups sliced strawberries or peaches
Heavy cream sweetened with sugar, beaten until soft peaks form
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Butter a baking sheet.
In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Using your fingertips, work the butter into the flour mixture until the butter is about the size of small peas. Set aside.
In a bowl, combine the egg, milk and cream. Stir the cream mixture into the dough, turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead the dough very lightly, 8 to 10 quick strokes. Divide the dough into 2 portions and shape each portion into an 8-inch rounds about 2/3-inch thick. Transfer the dough to the baking sheet and, using a fork, prick each about 8 times. Bake 15 to 18 minutes, until light brown. Transfer the baking sheet to a rack to cool, about 30 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 250 degrees.
Using a serrated knife, split each biscuit in half horizontally. Spread the cut sides of each split biscuit with unsalted butter. Return the biscuits, cut side up, to the baking sheet, transfer to the oven and heat just until the butter is warm, soft and creamy, not melted to the point of greasiness. Spread half of the sliced strawberries or peaches over each of the bottoms and place the tops on the sliced fruit. Garnish with sweetened whipped cream.
Per serving (based on 10): 297 calories, 6 gm protein, 39 gm carbohydrates, 13 gm fat, 60 mg cholesterol, 8 gm saturated fat, 392 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber
Chocolate Strawberry Shortcakes With White Chocolate Cream
This shortcake leans more toward cake than biscuit. It's softer in texture, flavored with cocoa and chocolate chips and topped with white chocolate-flavored whipped cream. (In my house, a little vanilla ice cream instead of the whipped cream is also a favorite.)
Adapted from "Sweet Stuff: Karen Barker's American Desserts," by Karen Barker (Knopf, 2004):
2 cups flour, plus additional as necessary
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/2 cup sugar, plus additional for sprinkling
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold, cut into pieces
6 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup milk, plus additional for brushing
21/2 pints strawberries, washed, hulled, halved and tossed with 2 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
White Chocolate Cream (recipe follows)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a food processor, pulse the flour, cocoa, 1/2 cup sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt until blended. Add the butter and pulse until the butter is evenly cut in and the mixture resembles coarse meal. Transfer the mixture to a medium bowl. Add the chocolate chips.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg, egg yolk, vanilla and milk just until blended. Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and mix just until combined, forming a moist but manageable dough. (If the dough is too wet to handle, gradually add a little more flour, handling the dough as gently and as little as possible.) Do not overwork the dough. Gather the dough together, turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead several times.
Using a floured rolling pin, roll the dough to about 3/4-inch thickness. Using a 3-inch biscuit cutter, cut out shortcakes and transfer them to the baking sheet. You may gather any scraps of dough together and reroll them 1 time.
Lightly brush the top of each shortcake with a bit of milk and sprinkle with a little sugar.
Bake for about 15 to 18 minutes, until the tops feel just set when lightly touched. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. (May set aside for a few hours ahead and warm slightly at 350 degrees just before serving.)
Using a serrated knife, split each shortcake in half horizontally. Place the bottoms on serving plates. Divide the berries and their juices among the shortcake bottoms and top the berries with a dollop of white chocolate cream. Top with shortcake tops and serve.
Per serving (without white chocolate cream): 450 calories, 10 gm protein, 64 gm carbohydrates, 20 gm fat, 81 mg cholesterol, 10 gm saturated fat, 300 mg sodium, 5 gm dietary fiber
White Chocolate Cream: In a medium saucepan over medium heat, bring 1/2 cup cream to just under a simmer. Add 4 ounces chopped white chocolate or white chocolate chips, reduce the heat to very low and stir until the chocolate is completely melted. Remove from the heat and gradually stir in an additional 1 cup of cream. Strain, discarding the solids. Cover and refrigerate for several hours. When ready to serve, whip cream to soft peaks, being careful not to overwhip.
Per serving (based on 8): 236 calories, 2 gm protein, 9 gm carbohydrates, 21 gm fat, 64 mg cholesterol, 13 gm saturated fat, 32 mg sodium, 0 gm dietary fiber