When I was growing up, shortcake meant tender buttery biscuits, split and filled with sweetened strawberries and freshly whipped cream. Period. My mother told me that some (other) people made them with vanilla sponge cake instead of biscuits…but at no time during my innocent childhood did I suspect the truth: Shortcake isn’t a recipe—it’s a state of mind.
Whether you go with biscuits or sponge cake doesn’t matter. And there’s no need to wait for summer or strawberries. Because shortcakes are an invitation to taste and play in the kitchen—a perfect template for myriad creative combinations of flavors and textures. With three main elements—something baked, something creamy, and something ripe and juicy—all you have to do is pick flavors and textures that play well together, and dessert is done.
And not just done, mind you—done well. Shortcakes can stand tall in the pantheon of brilliant American desserts. They’re fresher and more luscious than cupcakes. Much easier to make than pie! And far more interesting than the chocolate chip cookie. Shortcake is the dessert trifecta: every bite a combination of fruity, creamy, and cakey. And so few skills are required to achieve this magic!
Try a new kind of cake (or biscuit)
Pretty much any cake that can be cut into squares or split into layers can work in a shortcake. You can start with a classic buttery biscuit or a cream biscuit made with all-purpose flour, or you can introduce a whole new world of flavor and textures by using flours like oat, corn, buckwheat—even nut flours. Going beyond wheat adds an entirely new dimension to your baking repertoire—like adding new colors to our paint palates—and they’re not just for the gluten-free crowd.
Go beyond the strawberry
Once you have your cake or biscuit, ask yourself what ripe and in-season fruit will taste especially good with it. Strawberries can be replaced with any fresh berries, or sliced stone fruit like peaches. Or go tropical with mango, papaya, bananas or fresh pineapple. The New Shortcake is not limited to raw fruit, either. Poached fruit and dried fruit compotes make fabulous modern shortcakes. In winter, consider fresh pears or apples, or dried fruit, gently poached in wine, or in syrups flavored with ginger, lemongrass, sweet spices, dried hibiscus, Earl Grey tea, or even coffee.
Customize your cream
It’s endlessly adaptable. Whipped cream is hard to beat, but tangy crème fraîche (or a combo of sour cream and whipped cream) creates a nutty, tangy flavor that balances sweeter fillings and interesting biscuits. You can fold in pastry cream, lemon curd, or grated citrus zest into whipped cream. Or take inspiration from the profiterole and substitute ice cream or gelato for the cream—who’s going to complain?
In fact, do just about anything
I really do mean anything. Spread that cake or biscuit with citrus curd, caramel, or chocolate sauce before piling on the fruit or cream. Douse the dessert in chopped nuts for crunch. Or go for the contrast of warm and cold by heating your biscuits or cake right before assembling and serving your shortcakes. You may just discover shortcake isn’t a dessert anymore: It’s a template. Yessir, shortcake is now a verb, not a noun. The only question is: What are you going to shortcake next?