True strawberry shortcake incorporates a rich, crumbly, biscuit-like cake that is not too sweet – very similar to a scone. The biscuit dough can be shaped into one large cake and then cut into pieces, or baked as separate little cakes, either by cutting the dough into rounds with a biscuit cutter, or dropping spoonfuls of dough on a baking sheet like a drop biscuit. Each individual cake is then split in half, filled with ripe, juicy strawberries and topped with fresh whipped cream.
A popular Victorian dessert, strawberry shortcake began popping up in American cookbooks in the mid-1800s, likely evolving from the shortcake and biscuit-type desserts that were common in England, such as Derby Short Cakes (also known as Derby Biscuits or Derby Cakes) – thick biscuits sweetened with sugar and sometimes currants, cut into scalloped rounds. Derby Short Cakes were apparently an offshoot of Yarmouth Biscuits, an even richer treat made with liberal amounts of butter and eggs and seasoned with caraway seeds.
But Derby Short Cakes and the other shortcake recipes that came later were different from Yarmouth Biscuits in that they all used some form of dairy – milk, cream, buttermilk, sour cream, etc. Not only did this moisten and tenderize the dough, it also gave the biscuits a crisper crust and added structure, preventing them from collapsing in the oven.
Here’s a recipe for Derby Short-Cakes from The cook and housewife’s manual, by Mrs. Margaret Dods (Edinburgh, Scotland, 1826):
Rub down a pound of butter into two pounds of flour, and mix with this a half-pound of beat sugar, an egg, and as much milk as will make a paste. Roll this out thin, and cut out the cakes in any form. Bake on tin plates for about ten minutes. They may be iced, or have sifted sugar strewed over them.
However, these still would have been rather flat since they contained no rising agent. But once chemical leavenings came on the scene in the nineteenth century, they were added to shortcake recipes, resulting in full, fluffy biscuits with a softer crumb. For example, this recipe from 1829 by Lydia Child incorporates pearlash (potassium carbonate), which combined with an acid like sour milk or citrus, produces a chemical reaction that lightens baked goods:
If you have sour milk, or butter-milk, it is well to make it into short cakes for tea. Rub in a very small bit of shortening, or three table-spoonfuls of cream, with the flour; put in a tea-spoonful of strong dissolved pearlash, into your sour milk, and mix your cake pretty stiff, to bake in the spider, on a few embers.
(Source: The American Frugal Housewife by Lydia Maria Francis Child, 1829)
It is not known for sure when strawberries were first partnered with shortcake. Wild strawberries are native to both the Old and New World, so they would have been available to European and American cooks. Although they produce smaller berries and lower yields than today’s commercial varieties, they are sweeter and more flavorful – a perfect companion for rich, not overly sweet shortcake.
Strawberries were so beloved in America that British traveller Godfrey Vigne wrote about a strawberry party, or “Fête champêtre” that took place in Baltimore in 1831. “Quadrilles and waltzes were kept up with great spirit, first on the lawn, and then in the house till about eleven. In the mean time strawberries and cream, ices, pineapples, and champagne, were served up in the greatest profusion,” he remarked.
So perhaps it was a “given” that shortcake was topped with strawberries or other fruit, it just wasn’t written down in the recipe books. In any case, the oldest mention of strawberry shortcake I was able to find dates back to 1835, published in The New York Farmer and American Gardener’s Magazine, although the author refers to it as “Strawberry Cake”: “In several parts of New-England, and I suppose wherever the worthy housewives of that portion of our country are scattered, short-cake is made, and while hot is cut open, and strawberries sweetened with sugar are put in. This cake is said to be delicious.” Sounds like the strawberry shortcake we all know and love!
The earliest recipe I found with the exact wording “Strawberry Short Cake” was published twenty years later in 1855, and it sounds absolutely decadent:
Strawberry Short Cake
Take one pint of rich sour cream, half a teaspoonful of pearlash and flour enough to make it of the consistency of soft biscuit, salt, roll it out and bake it on a large pie plate when cold enough to split and not make it heavy; split it evenly and put a quart of nice strawberries in the centre, covering them with half a pint of rich sweet cream and powdered sugar; return the upper crust, and when you serve it cut it the same as pie. Very rich for the stomach.
(Source: The Practical Housekeeper, and Young Woman’s Friend By Marion L. Scott, 1855)
But the version I decided to try was from the journal of Anna Maxwell (also known as Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion’s “First Lady of the House”). Even though I made her recipe in August, late spring would have been the time of year for serving Strawberry Shortcake in Victorian times. We have the luxury today of buying strawberries year-round, but in Anna’s day, they would have only been available when strawberries were in season, typically May and June.
Gardeners had begun to experiment with strawberry cultivation way back in the 14th century, and by the 19th century there would have been commercial varieties available, including the “Keens Seedling,” known for its size and flavor. However, these would have probably been smaller, juicier and tastier than modern supermarket strawberries, which are bred so they are hardy enough for transport, and to reach colossal sizes.
Anna’s recipe was so easy and required minimal ingredients – simply a joy to make. The biscuits were delicious and could be served on their own as part of a chicken dinner, paired with other summer fruit such as blueberries or peaches, or even for breakfast. In fact, my children had the leftover biscuits the next morning with a little melted butter and smear of whipped cream – they raved about this indulgent treat!
Here’s Anna’s recipe:
Strawberry Short Cake
1 quart flour, 3 tablespoons butter, 1 large cup of sour cream, 1 egg, 1 tablespoon sugar. Teaspoonful of soda dissolved in hot water, pinch of salt. Bake in jelly tins, + spread the fruit sugared + creamed between the layers when cool
The recipe can be pretty much followed exactly, but I recommend a few tweaks, including starting with just two cups flour and adding more in ¼ cup increments if needed (the 1 quart as directed in the recipe would be four cups of flour). I found that a cup of sour cream was also a bit much – ¾ cup was ok. Also, it is important that the butter is cold and cut into tablespoon-sized pieces, and I dissolved the baking soda in the sour cream, not water. And instead of jelly tins (biscuit molds), I rolled out the dough and cut it into biscuits. Lastly, since the biscuits should still be warm when serving this dessert, it is helpful to prepare the strawberries and whipped cream ahead of time (directions below).
Anna Maxwell’s Strawberry Short Cake (modern version)
For the strawberries, hull and slice 1 pound of rinsed strawberries. Place in bowl and add sugar to taste. Set aside.
For whipped cream, chill whisk beater and bowl in freezer for 15 minutes. Combine 2 tablespoons powdered sugar, ½ tsp vanilla and 1 cup heavy cream in bowl. Whisk just until the cream holds its shape.
2 cups flour, 1 tablespoon sugar, ¼ teaspoon salt, 3 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into pieces, ¾ cup sour cream, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 egg, beaten.
Preheat oven to 375. Mix the flour, sugar and salt together, then add the chilled butter, blending it in with a pastry cutter until the mixture is a fine consistency. Dissolve the baking soda into the sour cream and add to the other ingredients along with the egg. Mix with a fork until a soft dough forms; add a little extra flour if needed. Form into a ball with floured hands and roll out onto a lightly floured surface to ¾-inch thickness. Cut into 4 biscuits with a biscuit cutter and place on ungreased baking sheet. Scoop up remaining dough and roll out again, cutting out two more biscuits. Bake for about 15 minutes and cool on wire rack.
To serve, split shortcakes in half with serrated knife, spread strawberries and their juices over the bottom halves and top with shortcake tops and whipped cream. Enjoy!!!
My taste testers loved this dessert and even asked for the recipe. A true American classic that’s just as excellent today as it was during the Victorian era!
Additional sources: Baking in America by Greg Patent; The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson; The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, ed. by Andrew F. Smith; Food in the United States, 1820s-1890 by Susan Williams, The Foods of England Project website- http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/index.htm