In Northern California spring can start in February and continue through May. First we see daffodils, then flowering pear, plum, crab apple and quince trees. Spring crops come in slowly: green garlic, lettuce, then asparagus, followed by peas. On my last Farmers’ Market visit two weeks ago the strawberries had white shoulders and the grower I like to buy them from (Lucero Farms of Lodi) had not yet taken up a stall, but I had a feeling I would find strawberries today, and there they were, small red Seascape berries with long stems destined for the year’s first strawberry shortcake.
There are many variations of strawberry shortcake: you can make it with angel food cake or lemon pound cake or sponge cake or olive oil citrus cake. I have tried them all, but my favorite recipe for strawberry shortcake is a biscuit base, split and covered with fresh strawberries, served with lightly sweetened whipped cream. To honor the ritual of spring I will use organically grown Farmers’ Market strawberries, and whipping cream from Straus Dairy in Marin County.
I will buy my cream at a local supermarket, but because it is Earth Day I want to think a bit about what it took to produce this traditional spring dessert. Someone had to plant the strawberries, tend them, water them, pick them, bring them to market. Someone had to raise sugarcane and refine it. Someone mined the salt, picked vanilla pods, raised wheat, ground it into flour. Someone had to raise the dairy cow, feed her on grass, milk her. Someone had to separate the cream, sterilize the bottles, fill and cap them. Someone had to drive the cream to the supermarket. Someone had to put it on the shelves. Someone had to drive the bus that takes me from market to market and home again. In a day gone by, members of my family, relatives from a few generations back, might have kept the cow and skimmed the cream and planted the strawberries in Illinois where they farmed, but my parents both moved to California as teenagers and never went back to the Midwest. Celia’s small farm at The Kitchens Garden might be something like the farms my mother knew in her youth, farms with hedgerows, vegetable gardens, small orchards, cows and chickens, diversified crops.
In California I now buy the bulk of my produce from an organic farm eighty-seven and a half miles from where I live. Someone drives to Berkeley each Wednesday and places boxes of vegetables and fruit on a front porch. I take a bus and walk several blocks, load the heavier vegetables into my backpack and the delicate items into a canvas bag. I have no choice in what goes into my produce box: someone at Riverdog Farm decides what is best each week and loads it up. I unpack the box and fold it: the farm driver will collect it the next week. I like the idea that I am getting produce picked that morning or the previous day and I like it that in a small way my food dollars are supporting small, diversified agriculture on a farm that uses organic growing methods: although I cannot farm myself I have farming roots. Small farmers are real to me, people that raise food and think about how they are raising it. The Capay valley where my produce comes from has many small farms started by former students at U.C. Davis on land that agribusiness did not want.
I shop at the Farmers Market to supplement my produce box. There I can buy a flat of peaches in June, more corn in July, bunches of fresh basil in August, these first spring strawberries in April. Every week I can walk down the center aisle and look to see what has come in, compare prices, sniff the air perfumed by seasonal fruit. I am grateful to live in a state where the growing season is long and next to a city that supports three different farmers’ markets year-round.
Enough. Now it is time to go into the kitchen to make that special shortcake with the first strawberries.
First, shake the cream bottle to redistribute the fat evenly. Then pour the grassy-smelling cream into a small mixing bowl and set it into the refrigerator to chill, along with the beaters. The cream will triple in volume as you whip it, so make sure your bowl is not too small. If you wish, you may season it at this point: I like to add 2 and 1/2 tablespoons of sugar and 1 tsp. vanilla and, sometimes, the barest grating of fresh nutmeg.
While the cream chills, prepare the shortcake:
Preheat the oven to 425.
Sift together 2 cups of flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp kosher salt
2 Tbsp sugar.
Cut in 1/3 cup unsalted butter (if you use salted butter, omit the kosher salt)
Add 1 cup milk
Stir just until combined.
Put into a buttered cake pan.
Bake for 12 to 15 minutes until lightly browned in spots.
While the shortcake bakes, prepare the strawberries: remove the hulls and stems and then wash berries in a minimum of water. Let them drain in a colander or pat them dry. Taste one. If your berries are ripe and sweet, you need not add anything, but if you are my mother you will insist on adding a few tablespoons of sugar so that the berries give off more juice — it’s your choice since Mom is not in the kitchen with you. You will also whip the cream now. We like ours moderately stiff so that we don’t have to whip it again the next day.
Once the shortcake is out of the oven, split it in half and pile berries between the layers and on top. Serve with whipped cream.
I will return the plastic strawberry baskets to the market next week for re-use (and perhaps buy more strawberries). I will return the cream bottle to the grocery store eventually, collect my deposit and try not to buy more cream for awhile.
Food Notes: Strawberry shortcake features two elemental foods, cream and strawberries. To make a delicious shortcake, start with the best cream and berries you can find: local dairy cream and organically grown berries will give you the best flavor. Some things are worth waiting for and it is better to make this with ripe, red strawberries that have developed their sugars than to use white-capped or green berries. If you cannot get local cream, choose cream from your market that has not been marked “ultrapasteurized.” Ultrapasteurized cream has been heated to a high temperature to give it a longer shelf life and has a cooked taste that you will want to avoid once you have tasted the alternative. We sweeten our cream with white cane sugar to keep the flavor pure, but you are free to use any sweetener you prefer as long as you do not introduce chemical sweeteners. Finally, you may use any sort of cake or biscuit base that you like, but I implore you to bake it yourself and eat it while it is warm from the oven.