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Recipe: Grandma Toots’ shortcake


“Strawberries on the table?  Here’s the shortcake:”

Strawberry shortcake at the picnic (photo by Polly Bowman Wright)

Those are the lines written atop the dog-eared original recipe card for my grandmother’s shortcake recipe.  This was my all time favourite cake as a child (ok – in the winter, maybe a close second to black magic chocolate cake).  The recipe yields a crumbly, sweet, slightly salty, biscuit base (biscuit in the American Southern sense, not the British).  It’s heavy with the fragrance of nutmeg, and pure heaven when split in two and topped with macerated strawberries and a great dollop of sweetened cream.  And just 10 minutes in preparation and 15 minutes in the oven – very little trouble on a warm day in early summer when the strawberries are waiting.

The recipe below, in American measurements as always.  If you prefer metric – take to the internet for equivalents, or buy a cheap set of measuring cups:

Grandma Toots’ Shortcake

yields approx 8-10 portions

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 4 t. baking powder
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • Nutmeg (the recipe doesn’t specify, but my mother insists on a good grating of the fresh stuff, as I’m sure her mother did – maybe equalling 1/2 t.? )
  • 1/3 cup Crisco shortening (or Cookeen or Trex, but I think Crisco is nicer) or butter (I use mostly Crisco as my mother does, but cut a bit of butter into it for the flavour)
  • 1 free-range egg
  • 1/3 cup milk

Preheat the oven to about 450F, 220C.

Sift all the dry ingredients into a large bowl.  Gently incorporate the shortening into the dry ingredients with your finger tips – it helps if your hands are a little cold.  (If it’s a warm day, wash your hands in cold water and run the cold tap over your wrists for a few seconds – it cools the blood flow into your hands).  The mixture should look like rough breadcrumbs.

Whisk the egg and drop it in along with the milk.  Roughly stir until everything is incorporated – don’t overdo it.

The pan you choose for baking is up to you – my mom used a 9in square pan.  In college I liked using a round pan to create a pie-wedge per portion.  Recently D suggested making them in a cupcake pan for individual portions and that turned out nicely – it made about 10.  So, it’s really down to personal preference and how you plan to serve up.  Either way, butter your pans and dust with a little flour to ensure you can get the cake out in the end.

Bake for 12 – 15 minutes, or until the tops are golden and a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake/a cake comes clean.  Cool on a wire rack for about 15 minutes.

Prep strawberries: Roughly chop or gently slice your berries, or mash them to a pulp if it suits you.  Mix in a bit of castor sugar depending on how sweet the berries already are and your personal taste.  Ideally, leave a little time for them to stew in their juices before serving.

Again, it’s hard to say how many berries – this is one of those recipes that isn’t pre-planned – you just happen to have the berries that you have, so the shortcake must be made to suit.  If you have a few cakes left over, well you’ll just have a very nice breakfast tomorrow with butter and jam.  fOr if you’re left with too much berry mixture, there’s few things nicer than having those dregs poured over yogurt or ice cream.  But generally speaking, approximately 700grams of berries, or 1.5 quarts will provide a good helping of berries per portion.

Prep the cream: About 450ml or 2 cups of whipping cream or double cream should do it.  Add a little castor sugar and vanilla to taste (I like just a little hint of sweet vanilla, not overpowering), and whip until the cream holds gentle peaks.

To serve:  Slice each small cake or portion in half and lay each set of halves in shallow bowls.  Adorn with a big spoon of berries and a dollop of the sweet cream, and dig in, preferably while sitting in the sun.  Yum.

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