Saturday, August 7, 2010

Balsamic Strawberry Shortcake At Its Finest

I don’t think I’ve ever met a version of strawberry shortcake that I didn’t like. I love it in its most classic form: a tender biscuit split in half horizontally and filled with sliced berries and softly billowing whipped cream. I’ve made variations on berry shortcakes too many times to count, and I find myself experimenting with each new batch. Sometimes I invite blueberries and raspberries to join the fun, thinking that strawberries shouldn’t have exclusivity at this summer dessert party. I often brighten the berries with grated lemon zest, and I recently made a delightful version in which I tossed the strawberries with a bit of lavender sugar. I’ve spiked the cream with Grand Marnier, whipped it with crème fraiche for a tart contrast to the sweet berries, and I’ve made it like this and that. As long as there are berries, some kind of biscuit-type base and a generous amount of whipped cream, I am a happy camper. But my latest version is a Balsamic Strawberry Shortcake, and I have to admit that this is one of the best I’ve ever tasted.

The shortcakes themselves—a sweet variation on a classic biscuit—are easy enough to make. Some shortcake recipes call for a variety of dairy products to bind the dry ingredients together, producing a base that could range from flaky-layered biscuits to tender-crumbed scones, and I’ve even seen recipes that incorporate finely chopped hard-boiled egg yolks into the mixture. But this recipe plays it clean and straight, requiring only chilled butter and some cream to transform ordinary flour, sugar and baking powder into extraordinary little shortcakes.

Aren’t they pretty? I think so.

As for the strawberries, I know that the thought of balsamic vinegar mixed with ripe berries might give some of you pause. I assure you, this is truly a magnificent combination. It’s as though the tangy balsamic vinegar echoes the tart sweetness of the strawberries in a lower octave, adding depth of flavor. The Italians have long been onto this flavor combination, knowing that drizzling fresh summer berries with a few drops of syrupy aged balsamic creates a dessert that is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts. If you are lucky enough to have some high-quality aged balsamic vinegar in your kitchen, this is absolutely the time to bring it out and show it off.

My family tends to favor desserts that aren’t overly sweet but instead have layers of flavor and involve fresh whipped cream, and I was all the more excited to share this balsamic strawberry shortcake recipe with them. On Tuesday night, the six of us sat down to eat together at my table, something that hadn’t happened since my parents last came to New York together three years ago. Since it was the first time in ages that we were all together under the same roof, it was definitely cause for a celebratory meal. My strongest memory of the evening was my mother’s beaming smile, her eyes twinkling as she sat at the table next to my dad and surrounded by both of her children, her daughter-in-law and grandson. I will carry that image with me for a long time.

But I must say that this balsamic strawberry shortcake will also linger in my mind for quite a while, for this quintessential summer dessert was positively devoured by all. Even the nearly-9-year-old Little Chef wasn’t the least bit deterred by the balsamic-laced strawberries, and he wasn’t the only one disappointed that nothing was leftover for seconds. I don’t know when our whole family will all be together next, but if it’s anywhere near strawberry shortcake season, I’ll be sure to make a double batch, especially if there’s balsamic vinegar involved.

Barely adapted from a recipe in Bon Appetit by Cindy Mushet, June 2010
The original printed recipe claims that this yields 8 servings. But if your family and friends are anything like mine, you know that this really serves 6!

For the biscuits:
2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
5 tablespoons sugar, divided
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 cup chilled heavy whipping cream

For the filling:
2 pounds fresh strawberries (about 8 cups), hulled, sliced into quarters
6 tablespoons sugar, divided
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 large pinch of freshly ground black pepper
1 cup chilled heavy whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Make the biscuits:
Preheat the oven to 425°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat baking mat.

Place the flour, 4 tablespoons sugar, baking powder, and salt in a food processor. Using on/off turns, process the dry ingredients to blend. Add the butter, pulsing with on/off turns until the butter is cut in the size of large peas, about five 1-second intervals. Pour in the cream and process just until moist clumps form. (If you don’t have a food processor, you can make the biscuit dough by cutting the chilled butter cubes into the dry ingredients with a pastry blender until the butter is the size of large peas. Stir in the cream quickly and be careful not to overwork the dough.)

Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface. Gather the dough into a ball, then flatten into an 8 x 4-inch rectangle, about 1-1/4 inches thick. Cut lengthwise in half, then crosswise into 3 equal strips, forming 6 square biscuits. Transfer the biscuits to the prepared baking sheet and chill for 20 minutes. (You can make the biscuits up to this point as much as 1 day in advance. Cover and keep chilled.)

Sprinkle the biscuits with the remaining tablespoon of sugar. Bake until the biscuits are golden brown, about 15 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool. (These can be baked up to 8 hours ahead of serving time.) Let stand at room temperature.

Make the filling:
Mix the strawberries, 5 tablespoons sugar, balsamic vinegar, and the black pepper in a medium bowl. Let the berries macerate for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

When the berries are almost ready, prepare the whipped cream. Use an electric mixer to beat the cream, vanilla, and remaining tablespoon of sugar in another medium bowl until soft peaks form.

At serving time, cut biscuits horizontally in half. Place the bottom half of each biscuit, cut side up, on a plate. Divide the strawberries among biscuits, letting some of the balsamic/strawberry syrup soak into the bottom of each biscuit. Spoon a generous dollop of whipped cream on top of the strawberries, and cover each with the top half of biscuit.
Serves 6.

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