Strawberry shortcake is one of the most beloved desserts in American cuisine. It is made from sweetened biscuits (a soft, crumbly type of bread), paired with strawberries and whipped cream (cream that has been mixed until it is light and fluffy). Strawberry shortcake is a very unique dessert. Traditionally it uses a biscuit as a base, it can neither be considered cake, nor bread. Perhaps it is the best of both worlds, sharing the quality of both. Shortcake provides the perfect base for this desert because it is hard enough that the juice from the strawberries does not make the desert soggy.
While the strawberry shortcake is rather short indeed (most are only about 7 centimeters in diameter and 4 centimeters tall), the term “shortcake” doesn’t refer to its small stature. It actually points to the use of “shortening” in the dough. When the term was coined, shortening was used to address any type of fat that was solid at room temperature. Adding fat to the dough inhibits gluten strands to form, causing them to be “short”, so the final product is easily crumbled. However, I will point out that modern use of the term “shortening” refers to hydrogenated vegetable oil. Most of the time recipes for strawberry shortcake will use butter or lard.
It is believed that shortcake was a European invention, dating back to the 1500’s. Strawberries on the other hand, can be traced back to ancient Roman times, about 200 B.C.E. However, most historians agree that topping off shortcake with strawberries was a uniquely American invention. Strawberry shortcake first became popular in the Unites States around 1850. Strawberries were one of the most popular berries of the time, and considered to be a seasonal treat exclusive to the summer months. Strawberry fever was often mentioned, as it seemed people just couldn’t get enough of these sweet red berries. Many people would make strawberry shortcake to celebrate the coming of summer and to enjoy the new crop of strawberries. Strawberries were often still available during the beginning of July, so strawberry shortcake also became a favorite dessert for Independence Day (July 4th) . With advertisements and magazine articles featuring strawberry shortcakes, the dessert only became more popular.
With the introduction of the transcontinental railroad, strawberries could be shipped all over the country, surrounded by ice to keep the berries fresh. And with new advances in refrigeration, whipped cream was found in most American homes. This aided the rise in popularity of strawberry shortcake, as it could now be enjoyed in all seasons.
Nowadays, there are many different variations in strawberry shortcake. Instead of using a sweetened biscuit as a base, many people prefer using a soft cake, or bread, or even cookies. I suppose that is part of the beauty with strawberry shortcakes. While the dessert has always been composed of a pastry base and strawberries on top, there has always been a lot of room for improvisation . One of the most popular versions of the dessert available today is where strawberries marinated with sugar are heaped on a round of sponge cake, a firm, yet aerated cake with a structure similar to a sponge (also known as a pound cake), and topped with whipped cream.
Strawberry shortcakes have also been commercialized. Different companies such as Little Debbie and Hostess have made snack cake versions of this popular dessert, which consist of strawberry jam and whipped cream sandwiched between layers of sponge cake. While these are a far cry from the original strawberry shortcake, they are very simple and very popular.
Strawberry shortcakes are especially popular down in the South. Most of the time, we will make traditional strawberry shortcake: a hearty biscuit topped with fresh strawberries and whipped cream (though I still like adding sugar to the strawberries).