It's strawberry season, and no single dessert shows off the wonders of California's favorite berry as its eponymous shortcake. Buttermilk biscuits, freshly-whipped cream (what fancy pastry chefs call crème Chantilly) and strawberries that have been tossed in sugar; that's all you need.
4 cups (590 grams by weight) White Lily or all-purpose flour
3 Tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
12 Tbsp. (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, in small cubes and very cold
1½ to 2 cups buttermilk
2 punnets fresh strawberries
½ cup plus 1 Tbsp. sugar
1 pint heavy whipping cream
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1. Hull and slice the strawberries and mix in a bowl with ½ cup of sugar. Let stand at least an hour, but overnight is fine too.
2. Preheat the oven to 450°F.
3. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a large bowl.
4. Working quickly, rub the butter into the flour until the flour looks like moist sand and the largest butter pieces are the size of peas. (See the picture to the right for a visual aid, since cookbooks never explain it adequately.)
5. Pour in the buttermilk and mix with a spoon. Start with 1½ cups, but if it's still dry add a little more.
6. At this point, decide you must: you can make one large shortcake, or 18 individual ones.
7. For a single large shortcake, divide the dough in half and roll each half out on a floured surface until it's an inch thick.
8. For individual shortcakes, roll the dough out to an inch thick and use a biscuit cutter to cut out 18 shortcakes, rerolling as seldom as possible.
9. Transfer the shortcakes to an ungreased cookie sheet (with the cakes just barely touching, if making individual cakes).
10. Press down the center of each shortcake slightly with your thumb (to avoid "doming").
11. Bake 15 minutes for individual shortcakes, 20 minutes for large shortcakes, until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean. Let cool.
12. Whip the cream in a cold metal or glass bowl until slightly thickened, using either a large whip or an electric mixer set at its fastest setting.
13. Add the remaining sugar and vanilla and whip to stiff peaks (this means that when you dip the beater in, remove it, and turn it upside down, the cream's peak won't fall).
14. For a single shortcake, place one large shortcake on a plate and poke holes in it with a toothpick or chopstick.
15. Drizzle half the strawberry syrup (but not the berries themselves) over the cake.
16. Layer with half the whipped cream and half the strawberries.
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17. Repeat steps 14-16 with the remaining cake, syrup, cream and berries. Serve immediately.
18. For individual shortcakes, split each shortcake in half and drizzle the syrup over the cut pieces.
19. Assemble the shortcakes by layering a biscuit half, cream, strawberries, the other biscuit half, more cream and more berries. Serve immediately.
For a cake that can be held before service, press cakes, syrup, berries and cream into a crock or casserole dish and refrigerate. You will still need to serve this the same day; the cream will break down otherwise.