I’m in the middle of strawberry swooning season. It happens every year. We wait all year long, patiently, and then not so patiently, for real strawberries to appear at the farmstands here. From the fall until spring, we can wait. We freeze the red berries so we have some more smoothies and the occasionally decadent fruit pie in January. There are chilly lovely touches to the winter foods too. However, by April, we can’t wait.
And every year, we fall for it again. Maybe this will be the time that the plastic clamshells stuffed with perfectly shaped huge berries will be right this time. And so we buy one, take it home, tug off the green top, and bite down. Then, we come up with grimaces. We fell for it again. Inside those bright red spheres? White, white, pale and deathly white. Those aren’t real strawberries.
So, when they finally do arrive — smaller than the grocery store strawberries, a bit smushed on one side, and so sweet they taste as though they have been dipped in honey — we go wild. We have a strawberry riot. We let the strawberries sit in some sugar and lemon juice to make jam, then set aside some of that syrupy goodness for homemade strawberry sodas. We make strawberry coulis with black pepper and balsamic. We put whole berries into cold yogurt and make Lu popsicles for the summer evenings. We freeze them. We make pies. And we eat them, by the handful, sighing into the sweetness and that dark dark red inside.
Oh my, it’s strawberry season.
A couple of weekends ago, I had the joy of seeing a passel of kids I adore gathered around our table, hands reaching, bare chests covered in red splotches, giggling, and cutting up strawberries. Some of my best friends here on the island came over to bake bread and talk about our lives. The kids ran around our yard, happily shrieking as they climbed trees or turned sticks into swords. At one point, all the adults were called out to “see the play! We made a play!” We stood on the deck, these women and I, watching our children gather under the cherry tree, holding hands, and babbling something incomprehensible about princesses and rescuing turtles and a pirate with a bandana mistakenly covering his eyes. The kids dispersed to go down the slide and have pretend tea parties and the women and I returned to the kitchen.
Someone asked if I had a strawberry shortcake recipe I like. Having just found one I love, I said, “Let’s make some.” As I pulled more flours out of the cupboard, some of the older kids wandered into the house. “Are you baking? Can we watch?”
We pulled chairs up to the counter for the little kids, who followed the big kids in adoration. As I cut up butter into small cubes and explained why we were mixing flours and butter, I looked to my right to see 8 children under 8, craning their necks, jostling for position on chairs, and asking to feel the dough. In that moment, all was alive in the world.
“Okay, we need some strawberries cut up,” I said. The kids jumped down from their chairs, the older ones shouting, “I know how to use a real knife!” We mamas set up cutting boards and grabbed butter knives and plopped pints of strawberries onto the table. The kids chattered happily, some of them eating more than cutting, juice running down their chins. The sun was shining through the windows from the west, the windows were thrown open, everyone felt released into the warmth of summer that took a long time coming this year.
A few moments later, one of these wonderful women said to me, “This is why I moved to this island. This: kids playing, women baking, wonderful talking, someone is nursing, we’re sharing our lives.”
I felt as much amazement as she did.
After we pulled the shortcakes out of the oven, spread a bit of melted butter over the tops, and let them cool just enough to keep them together, we pulled the plates down from the cupboard. We only had five shortcakes — and one had been nibbled to bits by all the tasting — so I plopped shortcakes on plates, topped them with strawberries we had let sit with sugar and lemon juice, then grabbed forks for every kid.
And for a few moments, there was silence. We reached toward those red berries and flaky crumby biscuits and sighed.
Then the room exploded in happy talking, the joy of berries finally in season, the gathering around the table. All the women in the room looked at each other and smiled.
We were here. And so were the strawberries.
GLUTEN-FREE STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE, adapted from Cristina Ferrare’s recipe in Big Bowl of Love
After months of working on shortcakes, with recipes from some of my favorite cookbooks turning out fine but not flaky, I was thrilled to find this one emerging from our oven. It’s a sweet, slightly crumby biscuit, with enough gravitas to hold a tumble of sugared strawberries without falling apart, yet light enough to disappear on the teeth.
And we owe this one to Cristina Ferrare.
A few months ago, I had the joy of sharing breakfast with Cristina when she was here in Seattle for her cookbook tour. I’d been a fan for awhile after watching her on the Oprah show and seeing her recipes appear on the big O’s magazine and website. I love her warm and generous nature, which clearly infuse her food. For Cristina, food is the reason for gatherings, for family, for passed plates and stories told, for hands reaching and that feeling of being at home at the table. How could I not like her?
She turned out to be even more gracious and real in person than I had expected. Her daughter (the hilarious Alex Thomopolous) was diagnosed with celiac recently. Alex began reading this site, then started her own gluten-free cooking and baking blog as she also began culinary school. Watch for this one and her website, Dishn’ It Out with Alex. She knows what she’s doing. And so, Cristina came to breakfast open and excited to meet me. (That kills me.) We could not stop talking and laughing and I felt as though I had known her for years. That’s what happens when you sit at the table with someone open to life.
Cristina’s cookbook, Big Bowl of Love, has been in our kitchen ever since. The gorgeous photographs were taken by our friends Todd and Diane, who shot our cookbook trailer (Watch these two. They’re taking over the world.), so we were a little biased going in. But what Danny and I both love about this book is how simple, homey, and hugely accessible the recipes all are. This is food meant to be put on the table on big plates so you can say to your family, “Dig in, everyone.” We’ve been inspired by it.
The keys to these shortcakes? Cold butter. Working deftly and not over-handling the dough. Having a biscuit cutter and cutting straight down instead of twisting into the dough. And mostly, breathing into these and remembering why you are making them. Feed your family. It’s strawberry shortcake.
315 grams Aherns’ AP flour mix
1 teaspoon psyllium husk powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoons baking powder
3 tablespoons organic cane sugar
115 grams (1 US stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1/3 cup whole yogurt
2/3 cup cold buttermilk (if you can’t do buttermilk, check this post)
flour for dusting
2 tablespoons melted butter
Preparing to bake. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Grease a large cast-iron pan with butter. (If you don’t have a cast iron pan, may we suggest you get one? In the meantime, you can try the largest skillet you have.)
Combining the dry ingredients. Combine the flour, psyllium powder (if using), salt, baking powder, and sugar. I like to put them in the food processor and let it run for a few minutes to aerate the flours. You can also use a whisk and bowl.
Working the butter into the flour. Put the butter cubes into the bowl of the food processor. Pulse the ingredients together, about 7 times, until the butter chunks are about the size of lima beans.
(You can also work the butter into the flour with a pastry cutter or your fingers, if you prefer.)
Finishing the dough. Move the flour mixture to a large bowl. Make a well in the center of the ingredients. Mix together the yogurt and 1/3 cup of the buttermilk. Stir the liquids with a rubber spatula, moving in gentle circular motions, incorporating the flour as you go. The final dough should just hold together, with all the ingredients moist. If there is a bit of flour left on the sides of the bowl, add a dribble more of the buttermilk, then combine, then a dribble more if necessary. If the dough grows too wet, don’t fret about it. Just add a bit more flour. You’re looking for a shaggy dough, not a smooth round.
Sprinkle a little flour on a clean board. Turn out the dough on the board and sprinkle with just a touch more flour. Fold the dough in half, bringing the back part of the dough toward you. Pat the dough into an even round. fold the dough in half again and pat. this should make the dough fairly even. If not, you can fold the dough a third time. Pat out the dough to a 1-inch thickness.
Cutting the shortcakes. Dip a 2 1/2-inch biscuit cutter into a bit of flour and push it straight down into the dough, starting from the outside edges. Do not twist the biscuit cutter. Cut out the remaining biscuits. Working quickly, pat any remaining scraps into another 1-inch thick dough and cut the last biscuit.
Move the biscuits to the prepared cast-iron pan, nudging them up against each other. If you nestle the shortcakes alongside each other, edges touching, you will have taller shortcakes after baking. (They have nowhere to go but up!)
Baking the shortcakes. Slide the skillet into the oven and bake the shortcakes for 6 minutes. Rotate the skillet 180 degrees and continue baking until the shortcakes are firm and light golden brown, about another 6 to 8 minutes. remove the skillet from the oven and brush the tops of the shortcakes with the melted butter. let them rest for 10 minutes, then remove them from the pan gently. Split open the shortcakes and serve with strawberries.