Spreading Good Will . . . and Strawberries
Occasionally family traditions just go beyond explanation. Usually that's not a bad thing, especially when the tradition in question revolves around large amounts of strawberries and butter. My great grandmother was the queen of innovative desserts and butter, so it's no surprise that this tradition is hers.
The tradition goes like this: on one Saturday in June, everyone gets together and eats strawberry shortcake. That would be normal. But this is a family tradition, and it can't end there. The strawberry shortcake is unique enough in its own right, but add on the fact that it is the meal and there's salad for dessert. That's the making of one unique family tradition.
I've been told -- I never went to the original "bash", as hosted by my great-grandmother -- that once it was just shortcake, no salad. Even when Mimi hosted it, I think that was true. My mom and MS claim that it was the in-laws who added the salad and brought some sanity to the event.
However, as good (and pretty!) as the salads always are, the focus is on the strawberries. After all, what's the fun of an afternoon dedicated to strawberries if everyone is focusing on the salads?
Now even the shortcake itself is a bit of an anomaly. There are a few rules that go with it. First of all, this strawberry shortcake is never made with Angel Food cake, pound cake or anything besides biscuit. Second of all, the strawberries are always fresh. Preferably freshly hand picked. Even if it looks like the skies will open up on you any minute after days of rain. And they have to be good and sweet and ripe. No tasteless berries. Third, there's no whipped cream that comes anywhere near this shortcake. Forth, this shortcake is not in individual servings. Confused yet?
The way my great-grandmother, grandmother and now I make this shortcake is just as much a tradition as the party itself.
The first admission I have to make is that the longstanding traditional base for this shortcake is made of, well, Bisquick. MS and I have discussed finding a real biscuit recipe to use, but, well, I don't think I 'd ever be forgiven if it didn't taste the same. It's simply Bisquick and milk, just like the Bisquick biscuit recipe on the box. That's it. However, rather than dropping or cutting biscuits, the dough is pushed into a large cake pan. The only real change in the recipe is that it has to bake 17-20 minutes instead of 8-10. So basically, it's one gigantic biscuit. And greasing the pan is a must.
Because it is just one gigantic biscuit, I had to make 5 1/2 times the recipe on the box. That's 3 recipes in one pan and 2 1/2 in the other. In case you're counting, that's 6 3/4 cups of Bisquick and 2 cups of milk for the bigger pan, and 5 5/8 cups of Bisquick and 1 2/3 cups of milk for the other pan. That's more than a whole box of Bisquick. Yup.
The other tricky thing about the giant biscuits is that they have to be thick enough to slice and warm enough to melt butter. Don't worry, the butter part is coming. We finally got a flip-out-of-the-pan-onto-a-baking-sheet-slice-and-flip-the-bottom-onto-a-platter system down.
MS helped me with the slicing part, which is always the most interesting part of the baking. In the past, we have struggled to slice it with a bread knife that didn't even reach all the way through and then ended up removing the top in pieces. MS had the wonderful idea of using dental floss to slice the cake in half. She just cut a notch to put the floss in using a knife, then pulled the floss through.
This also meant that the top was thick enough that we could just pick it up to take it off -- no worries about it crumbling in our fingers.
Then, while it's still warm, we buttered both the top and bottom of the inside of the cake. MS and I have cut it down to one stick of butter per shortcake -- I have a feeling that might be frowned upon by former generations of shortcake makers.
Meanwhile, the strawberries (all thirty pounds of them this year) have been sliced and sugared by Mimi and JD. It's best when it's done the night before so they get nice and juicy.
The sliced strawberries then get ladled over the bottom half of the cake. Yum. Don't forget juice!
Then, we flipped over the top half over the berries.
You can never put too many strawberries on the top. Or extra juice.
When it's done, it just looks like a mound of strawberries with cake sticking out in the corners, since the platters don't allow mounding of strawberries there.
It's like no other shortcake I've ever seen.
And notice the lack of whipped cream. Instead, there is a pitcher of mashed strawberries mixed with half and half. Of course the pitcher has to have strawberries on it.
There were 13 of us there this year, so I made 2 shortcakes. If there had been the usual 19 or 20, I would have probably made 3. So, on average they serve, what 6 or 7? Yeah, that's a lot of shortcake.
Then, I finally get to join the people talking outside.
Dad had the honor of the first piece this year.
This is the stuff that family traditions are made of.
And these are just the leftover berries.
Thanks to MS for her help, PM for the photography (I hope the shortcake was enough payment!), mom for picking, and Mimi and JD for prepping the strawberries!