Is there anything sweeter than a strawberry? Call me crazy, but does any other food come as close to tasting like the start of some rather delightful adventures? Strawberries remind me of two things… summer and my mom. And for me, these two things are as firmly intertwined in my memories as a pair of shoelaces. Mom was a fourth grade teacher for 35+ years, so that meant summers were all about us kids. Those were special times, filled with an endless parade of trips to the park, picnics, bike rides, swimming, movies, games of all kinds, and of course, food. It was one eternal sleepover. Which is why this recipe is a good place to start, I think… It holds the promise of summer. The expectation of what’s to come. It’s perfection.
The berries here in Indiana are out in full force now, ripe, red, and wonderful. Just this past Saturday morning, I was fighting for my share at the Broad Ripple Farmer’s Market. Have to get them while I can. Even as I sliced them up later at home, I couldn’t help myself. I ate at least a dozen in one quick burst of juicy weakness. Not at all like those bland Styrofoam copies in the grocery store. Blech.
If you live around here, then you know what kind of day we had on Sunday. It was absolutely gorgeous – 75 degrees and pure sunshine. Blue, buoyant skies. Not a drop of humidity in the air. Windows open. Breezes blowing. And my doggies barking at EVERY SINGLE leaf and pebble that crossed treacherously into our yard. It only seemed fitting to have strawberry shortcake on this most flawless of days. Flawless, I say. Except for those crazy loud-mouthed dogs of mine.
I spent most of the weekend with my sister Katie and her kids, Abbi and Rusty. We often do weekly errands together, making a big production out of it, just like Mom did with us. (Where will we go? What’s on the agenda? What are we on the lookout for today? And most importantly, where shall we eat lunch?!) And now that school is officially out, we also head to that bastion of public indecency – the Water Park. Anyway, this recipe reminded me of the way my sister and I used to eat our shortcake. When we were kids, we hated strawberries. (Ew! Bugs! The Devil!) So we ate the cake, plus the juice from the macerated berries that collected at the bottom of the bowl, and an extra-large pile of whipped cream. That’s it. Don’t judge me.
Here’s the thing… this strawberry shortcake recipe I’m about to divulge isn’t a shortcake at all, really. According to, well, everyone, shortcake is a slightly sweetened biscuit. A “short” version of cake, pastry, and cookie, all rolled into one. If you’re looking for that version, look elsewhere. This is, in fact, a CAKE. Why? There is a reason for this, I am sure. So I asked Mom. Our conversation went something like this…
“Mom, why have we always been the laughingstock of the neighborhood, using a cake in our strawberry shortcake, instead of a biscuit? I mean, I’m really tired of explaining myself…” or so I whine in some such ridiculous manner to make her laugh. “Well,” she said, “that’s the way Mom did it.” Meaning her mom, my grandmother (oh boy, do I have lots of stories about my grandma!). “And where did SHE get it?” I ask. “From Grandma,” she said, meaning her grandma, my grandpa’s mom. I now have a frame of reference, because I know all about Mom’s grandma. Her name was Reba and she ran a restaurant (more stories there too) in teeny-tiny Center Point, Indiana. (Have you ever been there? Please say no.) Exactly what it was the “center” of, I’ve no idea. But in terms of my family history, it was the epicenter of a lot of our great food.
Anyway, that’s why we use cake instead of the plain biscuit. Because my mom did, and her mom did, and her grandma did. So that counts for something, right? And boy, is it ever good. Simple and delectable, light and fluffy, aromatic and mouth-watering. I have to admit, the shortcake employed in most recipes looks odd to me by now.
One other fascinating note: this shortcake uses a shortcut – Bisquick (blasphemy!). We always had Bisquick in the pantry; as a child, I thought it was just another form of flour. If using this ubiquitous kitchen item somehow makes you feel like a loser, then by all means use the flour, salt and baking soda that comprises it instead (correct measurements are easily found online). Because that’s all it is, my friends. I think it’s funny that my great-grandmother used something as inelegant as Bisquick in her elegant shortcake. Kinda ironic. Oh – and we don’t use ice cream either. Only whipped cream is acceptable. Remember, I never said this stuff was going to be healthy.
If you do look up the original recipe online, you’ll see there’s a crumb topping that is broiled on top of the cake (hence the name), but that part has been left off for decades. To the best of my knowledge, no one in the family has ever used it, or ever cared, and I can’t tell you why. So there.
I can tell you this much though: Mom’s appetite since the onset of her second battle with cancer has been non-existent at worst, and all over the place at best. But when I showed her my finished product with a triumphant smile and a happy flourish of my spoon (Ta-da!), Mom’s eyes actually lit up for a brief moment. I asked her if she wanted any. Yes, she said. And then she ate an entire bowl.
Velvet Crumb Cake
1 ½ cups Bisquick baking mix
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup milk or water (I used 2% here – why would you use water?)
2 T. shortening
1 tsp. vanilla
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9” round cake pan or an 8” square one. Beat together all ingredients, on low speed for 30 seconds, scraping the bowl constantly. Beat on medium speed for 4 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally. Pour into pan. Bake until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30-35 minutes. Mine turned out perfect after 33 minutes. Cool. Then cut into wedges or squares to serve. Top with strawberries and whipped topping. Yum.
2 quarts strawberries
1 T. sugar
1 or 2 tsp. water (depends on the berries; if local and ripe, you almost don’t need any water. Sooooo juicy. If store-bought with those awful white pithy centers, you’ll definitely need more.)
Hull and halve the berries. Add sugar and water. Stir. Mom also says she likes to mash or squeeze the berries to get their juices flowing. I agree – to some extent. Again, if store bought, the berries will need some coaxing to start the maceration. If fresh from the local market or your own backyard, you can skip this awful beating of the berries.
Whipped Cream (for anything!)
1 ¼ cup heavy whipping cream
1 tsp. vanilla (although Mom said a “capful,” which roughly translated, means “I’m not sure, because I never, ever measure anything. I’m that great of a baker.” What?!)
3-4 T. sugar (I used 3; just taste and add as you mix)
Pour cream and vanilla into a bowl. Using a hand mixer, beat on low speed until slightly thickened. Still beating, add 1 tablespoon sugar at a time, until it looks like Reddi-Whip. Sorry, that’s the best way I can describe it. :)