State o’ bliss

I was first introduced to the concept of strawberry shortcake made with biscuits, rather than with yellow cake, when I moved to Maine as a new bride, over 30 years ago. We settled down midway up the coast, entranced by the restless sea bordered by lines of fir trees, and the shoreline snaking in and out of countless rocky coves. Little did we know, at the time, that the rocky shore made for problematic “beachcombing”; and the ocean, while lovely to look at, was brutally cold to swim in.

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Camden, Maine— “Where the mountains meet the sea.” My 14 years there taught me all kinds of things, including how to make biscuit-based strawberry shortcake.

But that knowledge came later, along with all kinds of other “insider” intelligence: where to eat out during the summer, when tourists filled all the usual haunts; the best places to buy fresh shrimp, just-picked blueberries, and lobster right off the boat; and—a lasting lesson—how to make Maine strawberry shortcake.

Coming originally from Connecticut, I was used to strawberry shortcake being served in little sponge cake cups, bright yellow, springy cakes that came wrapped in plastic from the grocery store. But the first time I encountered this strawberry shortcake, at the American Legion’s weekly supper—huh? Where’s the cake? I watched the veterans’ wives preparing dessert, and they were dishing sliced strawberries and mounds of soft whipped cream onto—biscuits? Yup, biscuits. EEEWWWW! But I’ve always approached food (and life) with an “I’ll try anything once” attitude, so I went through the line, grabbed a paper plate of shortcake, and sat back down.

Tentatively digging in, I saw that strawberry juice and heavy cream had soaked the bottom half of the biscuit; it crumbled into a sweetly comfortable melange of bread, cream, and fruit at the touch of my fork. The top half, crisp and perky, held just a small dollop of whipped cream, and a single strawberry; it played an ascetic counterpoint to the luxuriant berry/biscuit combo below.

Later, after I’d learned how to bake a decent biscuit, I added my own touches. Starting with an oven-hot biscuit, I’d butter it, then spoon on some heavy cream (unwhipped), then strawberries, then whipped cream, then add the top (buttered) half of the biscuit, and more lightly whipped cream, which would flow like lava down the strawberry-biscuit mountain. This dessert, enjoyed outside at the picnic table on a soft Maine night in June (on the rare occasions when blackflies weren’t enjoying me while I enjoyed my shortcake), is the essence of Maine living: sweet, comforting, a throwback to an earlier America.

Strawberries are available year round now. We don’t have to wait for their short, sweet season like we used to. And sometimes I regret their new ubiquity… what’s common can become commonplace. Still, Maine strawberry shortcake, made with oven-warm biscuits, is always a pleasure. Just like Maine itself.

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Here’s the easiest way to make biscuits. No cutting in butter; all you do is combine flour with salt, baking powder, sugar, and heavy cream. (If you’re a fan of butter-based biscuits, try the simple recipe on the back of the Maine Bakewell Cream can sometime. It’s particularly apropos for this Down East shortcake.)

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Stir till the dough comes together.

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Gently pat it into an 8” circle. It’ll be about 3/4” thick. Cut 2” to 2 1/4” biscuits using a sharp biscuit cutter.

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Can you see the difference between a biscuit cut with a sharp biscuit cutter (on the left), and one cut with your grandma’s favorite tool: a drinking glass (on the right)? You want good, clean edges, not edges that have been squashed down. A clean edge makes a higher-rising biscuit.

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When you’ve cut 8 biscuits (or as many as you can cut from the dough on the first pass), gently shape the scraps into an oval, and two last biscuits. You don’t have to use a cutter for this; just cut the oval in half, if you like. The resulting biscuits won’t be perfect circles, but you will have efficiently used up all of the dough.

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Dip the top of each biscuit in melted butter…

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Then space them out on a parchment-lined or lightly greased baking sheet.

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If the biscuits are bound for shortcake-dom, it’s nice to sprinkle their tops with a little bit of coarse sugar.

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A short bake in a hot oven, and oh boy… biscuits! Biscuits are best eaten hot, so don’t stand and admire your handiwork TOO long before getting back to business.

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You’ve prepared your strawberries ahead of time, cleaning, slicing, and sprinkling with a bit of sugar, so they’re nice and juicy.

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Now, you can go two ways with these hot biscuits. My way is to break a biscuit in half, spread the bottom half with butter, and drizzle with some heavy cream.

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A less decadent treatment is to simply spoon some strawberry juice over the cut biscuit.

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Next comes a big spoonful of very lightly whipped cream. This cream is barely holding its shape, as you can see. That way, some of the cream seeps into the biscuit. And when you take a spoonful of shortcake, you get warm biscuit crumbled in cream, which is a truly ethereal culinary experience.

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Add strawberries and juice…

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More whipped cream…

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…the top half of the biscuit (which I usually butter), a dollop of whipped cream (or a lava-flow of whipped cream—your choice!), and a piece of strawberry, like the cherry atop the sundae. See the coarse sugar? It adds visual appeal, as well as crunch and flavor. What are you waiting for? Dig in!

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Pam C

    I’m in a baking group and we are making this recipe for our July challenge. I am high altitude 7200 feet is there anything I need to do to adjust this recipe.

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins

      Hi Pam,
      What a fun idea! We do have a great page of tips, plus the phone number and links for the Colorado State Extension group who really know their stuff. I hope you find it helpful. Have fun! ~ MJ

  2. Annapurna Moffatt

    Living in New Brunswick, Canada and right on the border with Maine, I have always had shortcake made with biscuits. The first time I had the cake version was at a pot-luck during my 2D Design exam last December. I definitely prefer the biscuit version–the cake was sooo squishy! 😛 I like the contrast between the crunchiness of the biscuit and the softness of the strawberries and cream. Oh, now I’m craving shortcake. It’s bad enough that strawberries are one of my favourite fruits!

    Reply
  3. Kimberly

    I am from Michigan and I grew up with my Mother making biscuits for strawberry shortcake. I didn’t have the little sponge cakes to years later when we thought we would try them. For I grew up in a family of six with three brothers, biscuits were cheaper to make than buying those little yellow sponge cakes and also more feeling, stick to the ribs type food.

    Reply
  4. PJ Hamel

    Nonni, I knew I could count on you to approve of this shortcake! As a TRUE native, your opinion means a lot—thanks for taking the time to connect. And I hope April and May up there in Old Town bring crocuses and daffodils, not blizzards and ice storms. And that June brings a bountiful crop of strawberries—along with the swarms of blackflies! Cheers, girl-

    Reply
  5. Nonni

    Well, PJ, my friend — you’ve exonerated yourself! We became great friends when I questioned your sanity for putting thyme in a New England Fish Chowder (haven’t stopped questioning, either! 🙂 But, you have done us Mainers proud with your shortcake. Never served it in little tasteless spongy cups in my 70 years and sure wouldn’t start now. Your methods of using cream intrigue me and will go with the Hamelization next time. If we ever dig out of winter in Maine, maybe we will find some strawberries waiting underneath!!
    LOVE your blog!!
    Nonni

    Reply
  6. Rebecca Boren

    One quick amendment to the recipe — if you live in the Land of No Humidity (i.e. Tucson, Arizona), you will need about 1 1/2 cups of heavy cream to make these biscuits. I know — I made 80 of them last week. Thanks to PJ for keeping me honest — I had committed to baking and stuffing ham biscuits for my church’s choir and orchestra breakfast on Easter. I had almost persuaded myself to slither by with a mix. Then I read this recipe and realized I would not have to cut in butter!
    They were an enormous hit — and ruined my plans to use the leftovers for shortcake. Leftovers?
    Rebecca

    Reply
  7. Sharon

    Yum! The pictures made me drool, so I treated my family to these delicious shortcakes for dessert immediately. We slurped up every drop of biscuit, cream and sweet fruit. They have been asking for more ever since. Keep up the good work!

    Reply
  8. Alvara Tompkins

    P.J., I just love your recipes. I am 72, so my kids are in their 40’s and barely 50’s and they always want strawberry shortcake for their birthday. But it has to be on biscuits (none of that store stuff for them). I never dipped my biscuits in butter like you did but I will try it next time. I have your round cutters with the little handles. Your pictures are mouth watering. I have been ordering from your catalog since the ’90’s when I lived in SC. The mailman had put my neighbor’s catalog in my mailbox. I called in an order and then gave my neighbor her catalog.
    Please keep blogging!

    Reply
  9. Jean Clevenger

    Biscuits hold a lifetime of memories for me which is why this caught my eye. My dear Mother, Caroline was famous for her Baking Powder Biscuits. She loved a hot one out of the oven, buttered with lots of home grown maple syrup. My Mom is gone and I carry on her tradition of biscuits with maple syrup. King Arthur’s recipe is the same recipe, except for the heavy cream. Mom used Crisco. You can bet I will be making the cream biscuits for Easter, using those wonderful fresh strawberries from Costco. I live in So. Orange County, (the OC) and watch the strawberry fields being planted, tended and harvested. MMMMMM, I can hardly wait! I am originally from PA and also remember my Dad collecting sap and boiling it down to a wonderful maple syrup and a little maple sugar candy. Hence, my pension for maple syrup.

    Reply
  10. Billie

    My question is, “Why would anyone want to make bisquits by cutting in the shortening, when you can just use heavy cream and — VOILA! — you are ready to pat them out, cut and bake them?!!!” I have made mine this way for a long time, even as savory bisquits for the main meal — so much easier. Didn’t know there was a “recipe” for them, I just tried it and it worked. (Ya, I know, I’m lazy!)

    ALL those pictures at the begining of this blog are fabulous! Keep up the lovely commentaries!

    Reply

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