When April comes you can smell the strawberries from a few feet away. The fruit fills the produce section’s air with a sweet fragrance reminiscent of spun sugar. Perfume-y wisps dance under your nose to tempt you. You just know those berries are going to be juicy and sweet. The way strawberries are supposed to be. Good riddance to winter fruit from afar. New, in-season berries tell you spring has finally come.
You’ll buy some of course.
With the first whiff of fresh spring strawberries my brain registers “shortcake!” Not a bad thought, that. Strawberry shortcake is a classic, a lovely harbinger of warm weather, and although it’s a devastatingly rich and elaborate looking dessert, it is fairly easy to make. There are dozens of versions, some with yellow cake, others with individual sponge cakes and even some based on chocolate cake. Folks who need to shave some cholesterol points make it with angel food cake.
But old-fashioned strawberry shortcake isn’t really cake at all; it’s made with biscuits, which you can prepare a day or so ahead of when you need them. About an hour or so before serving the dessert, cut up the berries and sprinkle them with sugar. The berries soften and render their natural juices; when you place the fruit on top of the biscuit the sweet, red liquid seeps into the flaky pastry, flavoring every nook and cranny. Next comes whipped cream, which, for best effect should be whipped only lightly, not until thick, only thickened, but still pourable, so it will be a lush, satiny cover.
Of course you needn’t go this far or to all that bother with fresh spring strawberries. The fruit can be dessert all by itself. It is terrific diet food – only about 55 calories for a cupful, and loaded with vitamin C. Eat the berries plain or sprinkle them with sugar or a few drops of vanilla extract or Balsamic vinegar.
With just a little more effort you can make Strawberries Romanoff, a simple dish that ranks among the most elegant desserts of the world. Some say that the world-renowned 19th century chef Careme invented Strawberries Romanoff for Russian Czar Nicholas I. Others say it was the famed Escoffier who invented the dish and that Hollywood restaurateur “Prince” Michael Romanoff (whose birth name was Hershel Geguzin) copied the idea.
We’ll probably never know the real story but we do know that Strawberries Romanoff never seems to go out of fashion. It looks and tastes as if took time and fortunes. The dish can actually be done in just minutes -- soak fresh berries with brandy and juice and top them with a blob of whipped cream -- and doesn’t cost a Czar’s ransom at all.
Stuffed Strawberries are also easy to make and they’re beautiful, a nice alternative to the perennial favorite, chocolate-dipped strawberries. The narrow end of the berries are cut and then filled with seasoned and sweetened whipped cream or mascarpone cheese.
Ronnie Fein has been a freelance food and lifestyle writer since 1980. She currently writes regular features for the food and community sections of daily newspapers and has written articles for Newsday, Cook’s Illustrated, Consumer’s Digest, Connecticut magazine, and many other publications. She operates the Ronnie Fein School of Creative Cooking in Stamford, Connecticut and is the author of three cookbooks, the most recent is
Hip Kosher (DaCapo, 2008).
Classic Strawberry Shortcake
1 quart fresh strawberries
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
2-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1-1/2 teaspoons finely grated fresh lemon peel
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 large egg
1/2 cup milk, approx.
1 cup whipping cream
Preheat the oven to 450°F. Wash the berries and slice them into a bowl, sprinkle them with 2 tablespoons sugar and set aside. In another bowl, mix the flour, 1 tablespoon sugar, salt, baking powder and lemon peel. Add the butter and work into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles coarse meal. In a small bowl, beat the egg and milk together until well combined. Add the liquids to the flour mixture and mix until a soft, dough forms, adding more milk if necessary to make a smooth dough. Roll the dough to 1/2-inch thick circle on a lightly floured surface. Cut out 8 circles with a cookie cutter. Place the circles on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 12–15 minutes or until puffed and lightly brown. Remove from the oven and let cool. Whip the cream with the remaining teaspoon sugar until the mixture stands in soft peaks, but is still pourable. Cut the biscuits in half and place each bottom half on a serving dish. Place the berries and any accumulated juices on top. Pour some of the cream on top. Top with the remaining biscuit halves. Makes 8 servings.
2 pints strawberries
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons orange juice
1/4 cup orange flavored brandy
1 cup whipping cream
sprigs of fresh mint, candied orange peel or whole strawberries for garnish
Wash the berries and slice them into a bowl, sprinkle them with 2 tablespoons sugar and pour in the orange juice and brandy. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, tossing the berries occasionally. Whip the cream with the remaining teaspoon sugar until the cream stands in thick, soft peaks. Distribute the berries and their liquids among 6 serving bowls.
Top with the whipped cream. Garnish with a sprig of mint, a piece of candied orange peel or whole strawberries. Makes 6 servings
1 pint strawberries
1/2 cup whipping cream
1/3 cup mascarpone cheese (or use whipping cream)
1 tablespoon dark rum or orange flavored brandy
1 tablespoon confectioner’s sugar
freshly grated nutmeg or chocolate shavings
Wash and dry the berries but leave the hulls on. Place the berries on a cutting board with the hull down. Cut the berries from the narrow end into quarters up to the hull, but without cutting through or breaking the hull. Gently separate the berry into quarters. Whip the cream and mascarpone cheese with the rum and confectioner’s sugar until the mixture is thick. Place the mixture into a pastry bag and fill each berry piping from the stem end up to the narrow end. Sprinkle with nutmeg or chocolate shavings. Makes 4-6 servings