Gingerbread strawberry shortcake

This is less a recipe than a suggestion, and less a suggestion than an essay on strawberry shortcake, which well-made is one of the great triumphs of American cuisine and deserves more respect than it usually gets.

gingerbread strawberry shortcake

First, the gingerbread shortcake. I had a batch of early American gingerbread cakes around and then bought some strawberries, which is how this started. I’ve taken to baking the gingerbread cakes with heirloom whole wheat flour (more on that later) and Muscovado sugar (also known as “organic dark brown”), because I’m growing increasingly geek-snotty about the historical accuracy, and also because they taste really good that way, but season and sweeten them as you like. Feel free to cut back the ginger a bit, but I find that good ripe strawberries stand up well to the spice.

A word, though, about shortcake. If you present a dessert as strawberry shortcake, it ought to involve strawberries and shortcake. This should be obvious, but, as my wife observed today about children, it’s the rules you’d never think of making that you often find yourself needing to make. Shortcake is a sweet cake leavened primarily with butter (or other shortening) rather than with eggs. These gingerbread cakes can be substituted for the traditional shortcake because they are, in fact, shortcake. Lightly sweetened biscuits qualify as shortcake, as do scones. The puffy yellow monstrosities sold in the produce aisle of the supermarket next to the strawberries are not shortcake. Cake, possibly (though I am skeptical), but not shortcake. We will speak no more of them.

In other words, while strawberries and whipped cream might be delightful with a light, moist gingerbread cake or with gingersnaps, the resulting would not be strawberry shortcake. By all means eat what you like, be bold in your cuisine, but be realistic with your nomenclature.

Next, the strawberries. These should be perfectly ripe jewel-red strawberries, which you have hulled and cut up if they are larger than bite-sized. Drizzle them with a bit of a decent orange-flavored liqueur, if you have some around — Cointreau or triple sec is good and doesn’t get in the way of the other flavors, and the orange meshes nicely with the ginger. And/or sprinkle them with vanilla sugar, if you are the sort of person who fishes the half-spent vanilla beans out of hot cream for your créme brulée and dries them and stores them in jars of sugar. If you are not (and if you are considering becoming one I warn you it is a dangerous line to cross) a little plain sugar will do just fine. But only a sprinkle: The point here is not to sweeten the berries, which ought to be sweet already, but to draw out a few tablespoons of the juice to soak into your gingerbread.

While the strawberries are macerating (a word, that, ironically since this is all about dessert, originally meant “wasting away from fasting”), whip your cream. You should whip your own cream if for no reason other than that your guests, having just eaten three courses that took a week of your spare time to prepare, will go positively apeshit when you they learn that you (OMG) whip your own cream. A task that takes less than a minute.

Whipping cream is not rocket science. Once you’re in the habit, it’s trivial. Unlike whipping egg whites, it doesn’t require copper bowls and a workout plan. It will take you twice as long if you use an electric mixer; you need only a bowl (slightly larger than you think) and a good wire whip. The key to the whole thing is the cream.

First, you want heavy cream, or heavy whipping cream, and not plain “whipping cream,” which, oddly, does not have quite enough butterfat in it to whip easily.

Second, if at all possible, do not buy ultra-pasteurized cream. Ultra-pasteurization somewhat extends the cream’s shelf life, but the extra heating leaves it grouchy and less willing to fluff up than it ought to be. (This is not the technical explanation, but it’s close enough.) I usually buy cream from a local dairy, but Organic Valley heavy whipping cream is excellent and widely available, and it’s what I used for the photograph.

Pour some cream into your bowl. (The cream should be cold, but that business of “chill the beaters, chill the bowl” is an industrial-overkill response to the industrial-overkill problem of ultra-pasteurization.) Move the whip quickly in a motion that stirs a little but mostly lifts — the idea is to beat air into the cream, which you do by lifting it and turning it over. I read somewhere that you should whip cream in a figure-eight pattern so you don’t whip too much air into it and turn it into butter, but I’ve never found this to be a problem. After less than half a minute, you’ll have soft peaks, which means that when you pull the whip out of the cream, the cream will form a peak that droops over. That’s what you want. If you keep going, you’ll soon have stiff peaks, acceptable but not ideal, and beyond that you will, indeed, have butter. If in doubt, it’s better to leave the cream a little soft than to over-whip it.

If your cream is not as sweet as you like, sprinkle in some sugar (or vanilla sugar, or sugar and a drizzle of vanilla extract) when it’s nearly whipped (“mounds,” not quite soft peaks) and then finish whipping. Don’t over-sweeten; the point is not to replicate the flavor of the stuff in the can.

Finally, the assembly. Set the gingerbread shortcake, still warm, on the plate, mound some macerated strawberries around and partially on top of it, and top with generous dollops of the freshly whipped cream. Sprinkle with a little turbinado sugar if you’re photographing it for your blog or charging somebody six bucks for it.

Admire for as long as you can stand it, which I find to be something just short of three seconds, and then eat the damn thing.