Crumbly, rich, fruity, mouthwatering … get your taste buds ready.
Strawberry fever is in the air, and with it inevitably follows the blissful, sugar-high evenings of America’s favorite summer treat: strawberry shortcake.
By Andrea Keklak — Photographed by Jazz Martin
Americans have long been enamored with this strawberry, whipped cream, and pastry creation. Distinct textures and flavors work together to create a perfect balance: a treat that is at once is dry and juicy, fruity and creamy, tart and sweet. It’s the dessert that launched a thousand summer recipes, parties, and festivals – even an annual holiday, National Strawberry Shortcake Day on June 14. But when did Americans begin making this dessert, and where did it come from?
Shortcake itself was invented in Great Britain almost 500 years ago. Its name derives not (as sometimes is assumed) from the height of the cake, but rather from one of its ingredients, shortening, which gives the cake its crumbly texture. The first recorded recipe for shortcake appeared in a late 16th-century English cookbook, yielding a triangular, scone-like pastry, which quickly grew in popularity. Only a few decades later, Shakespeare even named one of his characters “Alice Shortcake” in his play “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”
In the 1850s, bakers in the United States began adding sugared strawberries as a shortcake topping, creating a forerunner to the modern-day strawberry shortcake. The first American recipe was published in 1847, in Miss Leslie’s “The Lady’s Receipt Book.” This recipe is titled “Strawberry Cake,” but in essence appears close to today’s strawberry shortcake – the only difference is that the recipe calls for a sugared glaze, rather than whipped cream.
In the early 20th century, with the rise of home refrigeration, French whipped cream began to replace the sugared glaze, soon becoming the standard topping. The cake itself has also evolved; while the dessert continues to be called “Strawberry Shortcake,” today, the classic shortcake base is often replaced by pound cake, sponge cake, or angel food cake.
John Picariello, co-owner of Modern Pastry, a well-known Boston bakery in the North End, describes the strawberry shortcake that his bakery has been making for 80 years.“We actually have two different versions of strawberry shortcake – a cake version, and a pastry version,” he explains. “The cake version is what you’d think of as the classic strawberry shortcake.”
Modern Pastry’s “classic” version is made with Italian sponge cake, which is sliced horizontally into three pieces. Each layer of sponge is soaked with rum, and then smothered with whipped cream and sugared strawberries. To finish, the top is covered with a final layer of whipped cream and fresh strawberries, and the outside decorated with ladyfingers.
With the ever-changing nature of this dessert, the question must be asked: Will Modern Pastry continue the trend of strawberry shortcake innovation? “We’ll keep the dessert as it is – the classic version,” insists Picariello, with a smile. “I’m a traditionalist.”
“If we want to create something new, we usually create a whole other name and recipe,” he adds. “That’s what the other pastry is – a spinoff of the traditional strawberry shortcake. It’s just a bit easier to handle.”
Certainly, strawberry shortcake is a true American creation: a synthesis of locally grown strawberries, British shortcake, and French-inspired whipped cream. Though the traditional ingredients continue to evolve into new recipes, the fruity, creamy, crumbly treat continues to earn its place as the quintessential American summer dessert.