Herald of spring

April 4, 2017

Spring in a soup bowl. Because a dessert dish just won’t cut it.

Saturday morning, I got up and betook myself to Memphis to the Farmers’ Market, because their market opens April 1, and ours doesn’t open until May 1, and I wanted asparagus.

Personally, I do not believe a two-hour round trip is excessive to purchase fresh, local asparagus. Particularly not when you can get local strawberries, as well, on April Fools Day, which is early for local berries. But what better way to have a Sunday springtime dinner than with fresh asparagus and strawberry shortcake?

Where it begins: Strawberries, washed, cut up, sprinkled with sugar.

There are as many ways to make strawberry shortcake as there are people who make strawberry shortcake. As a kid back home, we grew the berries, but the cakes were the packaged sponge cakes with the raised rims that Mama bought at the grocery. And that’s the way everyone I knew had strawberry shortcake.

Then I moved to the Memphis area and began to experience other kinds of shortcake. I became a devotee of using sliced pound cake in mine; other people used pie crust dough, rolled cracker-thin and baked, either cut into shapes or broken into irregular pieces. I’ve had berries on what amounted to a sweetened biscuit — or a scone, if you will. I’ve had it with squirt-out-of-the-can whipped cream, Cool Whip topping from the freezer, real whipped creme, creme Anglaise (love that, but it’s too damn much trouble, though I will do it for blackberries), and my own personal favorite, sweetened creme fraiche.

First time I’ve rolled and cut out cookies in…a long time.

So one day this past week, having brought some LA (Lower Arkansas) berries back from a weekend trip to Hot Springs, I decided I’d take a different sort of run at shortcake. I would bake my grandmother’s teacakes.

My grandmother, if she were still alive, would be 110 next year. She was born the year the Model T debuted, and she was past 60 before she ever left the state of Tennessee. She always believed the moon landing was a fake.

I don’t have a lot of strong memories of her; she suffered from depression, and spent a good deal of time sitting and staring into space. But one strong memory I do have is of her teacakes. Big, round, flat, flaky cookies, only vaguely sweet, a pale golden tan, redolent of vanilla. The slightest bit of crisp when fresh out of the oven, wonderfully tender and cakey when they cooled.

They are a true “shortcake,” or butter cookie, depending mostly on an egg and fat for the moisture, though they do have a tad of milk. She always used shortening in hers, but you can use butter for a tad richer cookie. ¬†The recipe:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup shortening or butter
  • 1 tsp flavoring (I don’t remember us ever having any “flavoring” in the house other than vanilla)
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • Enough self-rising flour to make a stiff batter (Note: I recall a relatively soft dough, as cookie doughs go)

Roll thin, cut out, bake at 375 until golden brown.

Golden brown is plenty brown. You almost want them blonde.

I had to make a couple of changes to this recipe. First, as noted, I used butter instead of shortening. Second, I do not keep self-rising flour in the house, but I figured a teaspoon of baking powder for a recipe I planned to cut in half would work just fine (it did). Vanilla extract is not as strong as it was in my childhood days, when we ordered most of our spices and extracts from “the Watkins man,” a traveling salesman who also sold one of the finest antibiotic salves on the market, and a few other tonics and cure-alls as well, so I went with the 1 tsp of vanilla for the halved recipe. It took somewhere close to two cups of flour, and it made two dozen cookies.

I also didn’t have time to bake my cookies the day I made the dough, so I stuffed it in a zip-loc bag and stashed it in the fridge. Don’t do this. I think I dried it out. Keeping the fat and dough cold is not a big deal like it is in pie crust or biscuits; Grandmama, in fact, always worked up her dough with her hands, first putting a pile of flour on the bread board, making a “well” in the center, and then adding everything else to that and squishing it all up together, adding flour as needed.

I used my stand mixer. I think I either got the dough a bit stiff, or it dried out in the fridge, because my teacakes were a little dry. And I used a little fluted cutter for the pretty edges, instead of the old standard biscuit cutter Mama had. I rolled them out on a flour sack dusted with a little flour, just like she used to do. (Kroger had “flour sack” towels, about 36 inches square, a while back, and I bought three packages of them; love ’em!) I rolled them to about 1/4 inch thick, and cut out rounds, and put them on a cookie sheet. Into the oven they went.

Once they baked and cooled, (I may or may not have sampled a couple during that process), I stashed them in a couple of zip-loc bags. And the next day, I layered a couple of them in the bottom of a dish, topped them with strawberries macerated in sugar, and topped them of with whipped cream.

Beyond the fact these need softening up a bit next time, which I think can be effected by making the dough less still, this was a primo dish. I made the creme fraiche the traditional way, with a goodly splash of buttermilk in a cup or so of whipping cream, and let it sit out on the counter overnight. The next day, I stirred a couple of tablespoons of butter into it to just barely sweeten it; it was absolutely perfect. Nice and thick, and just the right sweet alongside the tang of the buttermilk. Like sweetened sour cream, but better.

You ‘n y’mama ‘n ’em betake yourselves to the roadside stand, the farmers’ market, or the strawberry patch, and get you some strawberries. Make the kind of base for it that you like, whether it’s angel food cake, pound cake, shortcake, or pie crust, and gorge on these marvelous springtime treats before they’re gone!




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