“Let me take you down
‘Cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields
Nothing is real
And nothing to get hung about
Strawberry Fields forever”
― The Beatles (John Lennon and Paul McCartney), “Strawberry Fields Forever”
So here we are, at the beginning of July, about to celebrate a long holiday weekend. Usually at this time of year, strawberry season is winding down or well past its peak in most of the U.S., but here in New Hampshire, strawberry season is in full swing. In late June, just as the kids finish up the school year and we’re finding our summer groove, nature rewards us for enduring the typical cold, snowy winters and rainy, muddy springs with an abundance of the quintessential summer fruit. As soon as the local farms alert us that their strawberry fields are open to the public, we check the calendar and choose a free morning, then, adequately covered with sunscreen and hats, we head out to the fields to pick our share of fresh, locally grown strawberries. It’s become one of our favorite summer traditions.
For reasons I can’t quite remember now, we have always scheduled our annual strawberry-picking outing for Independence Day weekend. (Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that my husband would have the time off from work and thus he’d be able to help me corral the boys.) Over the past 12 years, our strawberry-picking adventures have been as varied as the New England summer weather: I remember carrying my older son as an infant in his baby carrier, with my husband doing most of the collecting of strawberries (because although it’s great exercise, it’s actually not easy—or fun—repeatedly squatting up and down in the hot July sun with a 15-pound baby strapped to your chest). I remember my husband and me taking turns chasing a toddler through the seemingly endless fields while the other tried to pick as many berries as we could before the inevitable toddler meltdown occurred. I remember being pregnant with my second son, holding my first-born son’s little 4-year-old hand as we made our way through the fields (while muttering under my breath about how hot it is in those open fields with the sun mercilessly beating down on me and my pregnant belly: How is it already 80 degrees? Why do we always choose the hottest, most humid morning of the summer to pick strawberries?). I remember heading out to the fields that first year as a family of FOUR, now with TWO boys in tow, spending more time getting ready to leave the house and driving to and from the fields than actually picking strawberries. I remember trying to patiently teach our young boys how to determine when the berries are ripe for the picking and how to gently pick the strawberries from the plants without crushing or squeezing them. And now, more recently, I remember overhearing the boys challenge each other to find the biggest strawberry or, just this week, a strawberry that looks like a butt.
This year, we set out to the local strawberry fields a little earlier in the season than we usually do, nearly a week before the Fourth of July weekend, taking advantage of an unseasonably cool, partly cloudy morning that my husband was free. As soon as we drove up to the edge of the strawberry fields, flung open the car doors, and got a whiff of the sweet scent of strawberries, all of those memories of our previous strawberry-picking adventures instantly flashed before my eyes, like a movie montage of ordinary yet remarkable moments that filled me with both joy and melancholy, all set to a groovy summer soundtrack, of course. As we walked through the fields, the memories continued to flood my mind as I noticed younger (yet slightly more weary) moms chasing toddlers, carrying infants, and patting growing bellies. I watched them for a moment, wistfully and yet with relief, simultaneously missing those days and feeling grateful that those days are well behind me. And then I turned my attention back to my own boys, these ever-growing, always-hungry, food-loving boys. These boys, now 12 and 7 years old, surprised me with how expertly they navigated those strawberry fields this year. And although they still compete to find the biggest strawberry or a strawberry that looks like a butt (they are BOYS, after all), they are basically pros now at picking the ripest, juiciest strawberries: We managed to fill our cardboard basket with more than 4 pounds of ruby-hued, super-sweet berries in record time this year.
Once those strawberries are picked though, their days are numbered. As much as strawberries are enjoyed in our house, even my hungry, growing boys can’t consume them quickly enough to keep some of the berries from making a trip to the compost bin. So each year after we return from the fields, I usually get to work in the kitchen and try to extend the life of the berries by turning them into wholesome summer treats: I might make a batch of strawberry muffins or strawberry popsicles, or even some quick strawberry jam, but I always save at least a pound of those berries for our favorite traditional Independence Day dessert: strawberry shortcakes!
Like most food traditions in our family of four, this strawberry-shortcake tradition has a long history: I have been making strawberry shortcakes every Fourth of July for at least the past 12 years. I’ve kept to the same recipe more or less, making a few tweaks over the years to make it a little more healthful, but, let’s be honest: This is a special-occasion, once-a-year DESSERT, albeit one that is made with wholesome ingredients and is relatively low in added sugar. However, unlike most food traditions that I’ve started with my own family, this wasn’t a tradition I began in an attempt to recapture my childhood: I didn’t grow up eating strawberry shortcakes, nor was I a huge fan of strawberries until I was well into adulthood. If I think long and hard enough, I can recall a time or two from my youth when I consumed what was probably the closest thing I had to a strawberry shortcake: a few bites of Sara Lee pound cake (or maybe one of those little spongy round yellow cakes with concave centers that came in the noisy plastic wrappers) with a few pallid strawberries and a generous squirt of whipped cream from the can (or, more likely, Cool Whip), but it wasn’t ever my first choice for a dessert (especially if there was a chocolate option). I also didn’t grow up with any solid Fourth of July traditions, food-related or otherwise, unless you count my dad waking up me and my two younger sisters obnoxiously early every July 4 by loudly announcing “Happy Birthday, America!” on the house intercom system, then sticking a lit sparkler in a snowball (conveniently stowed away in the back of our freezer since the previous winter) and tossing it into the air in our backyard.
And yet, despite my limited childhood experiences with strawberries and shortcakes and Independence Day traditions, when my husband and I moved to New Hampshire and discovered that we lived in close proximity to several fruit farms with pick-your-own orchards and strawberry fields, I couldn’t resist the allure of picking my own strawberries. It was almost as if it were an unwritten New England rule that I was now required to connect with the land and harvest my own berries, as only a true rural New Hampshire resident would. And once I picked my very first batch of local strawberries, ruby red and warm from the sun, there was something about the idea of making strawberry shortcakes from scratch with those sweet, juicy berries that intrigued me. Maybe it was because it is a quintessentially American dessert, which seemed fitting for the Fourth of July, or maybe it was because I’ve always had a penchant for taking on new, never-before-attempted baking projects on long holiday weekends (I also have a penchant for starting baking projects at 10:00 p.m. on a weeknight, but that’s a whole other story). Although the impetus behind this strawberry-shortcake tradition is uncertain, the recipe inspiration is more clear: After one lazy (read: pre-kids) afternoon in early July and a quick browse through Nigella Lawson’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess cookbook (she really knows how to sell a recipe), our Independence Day strawberry-shortcake tradition was born, and it has been going strong ever since.
I’ve taken great pleasure in introducing each of my boys to this iconic summer dessert, first with small spoonfuls of freshly whipped cream and a few sliced strawberries, then a couple of bites of the tender, crumbly biscuits. Eventually they “graduated” to sharing a fully assembled (but kid-sized) strawberry shortcake, and now each of them can easily polish off a full-sized dessert of his own, leaving no crumb behind. This is one tradition I don’t think we will ever outgrow, or at least I don’t want us to ever outgrow. So here’s to many more years of strawberry-picking adventures with my boys and strawberry shortcakes on the porch on the Fourth of July. Strawberry Fields (and Strawberry Shortcakes) Forever!
The recipe as written below makes 8 strawberry shortcakes. When I make them for our family of 4, I make the full recipe for the shortcakes, but only half of the recipe for the strawberry filling. I also scale down the recipe for the whipped cream, using 1 cup of cream and adjusting the other ingredients accordingly; we usually have leftover whipped cream, but with the addition of the Greek yogurt, it keeps well in the refrigerator for about a day, and we don’t have any trouble finding another use for it. The scone-like shortcakes are best enjoyed the day they are made, but my boys will happily eat the leftover cakes the next day, even though their texture suffers slightly and they become more moist and cake-like and less biscuit-like. (I store them in an airtight container in a cool, dry place—i.e., my pantry. To help improve the texture of day-old shortcakes, you can warm them in the oven before serving.) And although I’ve never needed to do so, I’m pretty certain you can freeze the shortcakes before or after baking. (I wrote some guidelines for freezing scones before or after baking in my last post; since these shortcakes have scone-like properties, I think the same guidelines can apply here as well.)
For many years, I made these shortcakes by hand, cutting the butter into the dry ingredients with a pastry cutter, then mixing in the liquid ingredients with a fork until the dough came together. Then I’d roll out the dough and cut out the cakes with a biscuit cutter. However, over the years I’ve gradually simplified the whole process, and my current way of making the shortcakes is reflected in the recipe below. I now use a food processor to make the dough, and I no longer roll out the dough, but instead form the shortcakes with a measuring cup—much easier! If you don’t have a food processor, you can still mix the dough by hand (see the directions in this post about scones if you need more guidance), but I recommend you try forming the shortcakes using the measuring-cup method, rather than rolling and cutting the dough. It is a baking game-changer (or at least it was for me)!
Thinking ahead to the rest of the summer, I imagine that you could serve these shortcakes with any kind of berry (tossing some local blueberries in with the strawberries would make these shortcakes even more patriotically festive!), or even stone fruit: I bet sliced local peaches or plums would be delicious in August. Just keep in mind that you’ll want about ½ cup of sliced and macerated fruit per serving. Local berries and fruits are usually sweet enough on their own, so toss the sliced fruit with a minimal amount of sugar to start; you can always add more to taste if your fruit isn’t as ripe or sweet. After mixing the berries (or whatever fruit you choose) with the sugar, be sure to let them sit at room temperature for at least 15 to 30 minutes (or up to 2 hours), stirring once or twice, so that they get nice and juicy as the sugar dissolves. That’s the good stuff right there.
One last note: I used to brush the tops of the shortcakes with cream or half-and-half (or a lightly beaten egg white) and sprinkle them with sugar before baking, but over the years my lazier self rationalized that this was an unnecessary extra step, especially considering that the shortcakes get buried under a mountain of sweet berries and cream, and no one in my family noticed when I omitted this step. So, you have this lazy mom’s “permission” to skip this step altogether, but of course feel free to include it if you’re feeling fancy, super motivated, and/or you’re serving them to guests. It’s totally your call.
- -- 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons flour (all-purpose flour or a combination of whole-wheat pastry flour and all-purpose flour; see note below) *
- -- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- -- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- -- 3 to 4 tablespoons natural cane sugar, plus more for sprinkling on top, if desired (I like these shortcakes barely sweet; my husband likes them a little sweeter. I almost always use 3 tablespoons of sugar, but sometimes I bump up the amount to 4 tablespoons, usually if I’m making them with whole-wheat pastry flour, to better balance the flavors.)
- -- ½ cup cold unsalted butter (1 stick/8 tablespoons/4 ounces), cut into small cubes and chilled (I cut up the butter then put it back in the refrigerator until I’m ready to use it.)
- -- ½ cup cream or half-and-half, plus more for brushing the tops, if desired (When testing this recipe, I’ve found that I usually need to add 1 additional tablespoon of half-and-half when I make these with half whole-wheat pastry flour, since the whole-wheat flour absorbs more liquid; if you use only all-purpose flour, you won’t need the extra tablespoon.) **
- -- 1 large egg, beaten
- -- 1¾ pounds (about 6 cups/about 3 pints) strawberries, rinsed, hulled, and sliced (I like to reserve one whole strawberry per serving to garnish the top of each shortcake, ideally the most perfect, blemish-free berries—not the ones that look like “butts.”)
- -- 1 to 3 tablespoons natural cane sugar, or to taste
- -- 1½ cups heavy cream
- -- ¼ cup + 2 tablespoons plain Greek yogurt (I use Greek yogurt with 2% milkfat; whole-milk Greek yogurt will also work fine, but I haven’t tested the recipe with nonfat Greek yogurt) ***
- -- 1½ to 2 tablespoons natural cane sugar, or to taste
- -- 1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade, pulse together the flour(s), baking powder, salt, and sugar until combined. Add the butter, and pulse until the mixture looks like coarse sand with some larger, pea-sized bits of butter, about 10 to 12 times.
- In a small bowl or a large glass measuring cup, whisk together the cream or half-and-half and the beaten egg. Pour over the flour mixture in the food processor, and pulse until the dough starts to come together and some large clumps begin to form, about 25 to 30 times. The dough will be soft yet a little bit shaggy, and a little sticky. (If you’re using whole-wheat flour and the dough seems too dry, you can add an additional tablespoon of cream or half-and-half here to help moisten the dough a little more and help it come together.) Don’t overmix the dough, or you will end up with tough, dry, and/or dense shortcakes.
- Using a ⅓-cup dry measuring cup, gently pack some dough into the cup to fill it, invert it, and tap out the formed shortcake onto the parchment-lined baking sheet. (If the dough gets stuck a bit, use a thin spatula or knife to help remove it. You can also flour the cup to keep the dough from sticking, but I usually don’t need to do this.) Repeat to form 8 round shortcakes, spacing them at least an inch apart on the baking sheet. If desired, brush the tops of the shortcakes with cream and sprinkle with sugar; otherwise, leave them plain. (If you are baking these scones on a warm day in a warm kitchen and the butter seems to be warming up too much while you are mixing the dough, put the cut shortcakes on the parchment-lined baking sheet and then into your refrigerator for 15 to 30 minutes to chill the fat again before baking. This will help ensure that the shortcakes bake up light and tender. Also, if it helps to make your life a little easier, you can cover the shortcakes on the baking sheet with plastic wrap and refrigerate them for up to 2 hours before baking.)
- Bake until the shortcakes are puffed and light golden brown on top and the bottoms are medium golden brown, about 10 to 15 minutes (or possibly longer, if they've spent any time in the refrigerator). (To help ensure even baking, rotate the baking sheet front to back halfway through the baking time.) Carefully transfer the shortcakes to a cooling rack to cool for at least 15 minutes before slicing and assembling.
- In a medium bowl, toss the sliced strawberries with 1 tablespoon of sugar, then taste them. If they’re still too tart for your liking, sprinkle with additional sugar, and stir.
- Let sit at room temperature until the sugar dissolves and the berries are juicy and syrupy, at least 15 to 30 minutes, but no more than 2 hours.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, add the cream, Greek yogurt, sugar, and vanilla. Whip on medium to medium-high speed, stopping the mixer once or twice to scrape down the sides of the bowl and fully combine all the ingredients, until the mixture forms soft peaks. Watch carefully, as you don’t want to whip it so much that it turns into butter.
- Serve immediately, or store in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed container. (I use a glass container with a tight-fighting plastic lid.) It’s ideally served within 4 to 6 hours of making it, but it will keep for up to 24 hours in the refrigerator. Just whisk it gently a few times before serving. (You don’t need to break out the stand mixer again; a handheld whisk will do just fine.)
- Split the shortcakes in half horizontally with a serrated knife. (They’re crumbly and fragile, so slice gently.)
- For each serving, place the bottom half of the shortcake on a plate. Spoon about ½ cup of the berries and their juices over the shortcake. Add a generous dollop of whipped cream and cover with the top half of the shortcake. Top with a small dollop of whipped cream and another small spoonful of the berries. Garnish with a whole strawberry, if desired.
- Enjoy on Independence Day, or any lovely summer afternoon, ideally on a shaded porch or in your favorite relaxing summer spot.
** I use half-and-half, because I always have half-and-half in my fridge for coffee. Alternatively, you could use roughly equal amounts of heavy cream and whole milk to equal ½ cup total, if that’s what you have on hand.
*** This amount of Greek yogurt (with 2 tablespoons of sugar) is the amount that the boys and I have come to agree upon as the ideal ratio of yogurt to cream to sugar that satisfies the taste buds of all four of us; it is neither too tart nor too sweet for us. However, you can omit the yogurt altogether if you prefer; just keep in mind that the whipped cream will not keep well and thus it will need to be served immediately. If you want to make the whipped cream ahead of time but don’t want to use Greek yogurt, you can add a small amount of sour cream or crème fraîche to stabilize it for up to 24 hours, as I explained in this post. Or… if you really love the tang of yogurt in the whipped cream and/or want to lighten it up even more, you can increase the amount of Greek yogurt to as much as equal amounts of yogurt and cream. You might need to adjust the amount of sugar and/or vanilla to get it to your liking, but this recipe is a good place to start.
Recipe adapted from How to Be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking, by Nigella Lawson. Method for making shortcakes adapted from Everyday Food magazine, May/June 2003.