A strawberry is not a true berry; it is in fact a receptacle, the thickened part of the stem from which flowers bloom. Some botanical terms have a melodious ring to them. Others do not. Don't let this off-putting descriptor alter your opinion of the strawberry. We know that this fruit, the first to ripen in springtime, smells and tastes sweetly floral.
The familiar garden strawberry (Fragaria x ananassa) is in fact a relative of the rose and is categorized in the Rosaceae family. As cultivated fruits and vegetables go, this one is relatively new. The modern strawberry as we know it did not come about until as late as the eighteenth century, when a series of fortunate, curious events brought two ancient American strawberry varieties to France. The first variety, F. chiloensis, came via the sailboat of Lieutenant-Colonel Amédée-François Frézier, who was sent to South America on assignment to document defense fortifications. In order to remain incognito, he disguised himself as a merchant and detailed the flora and fauna of Chile. It was there that he found F. chiloensis, a walnut-sized beach strawberry. He loaded the plants onto his boat and returned to France. Other European explorers in North America discovered a wild, vigorous strawberry plant, F. Virginiana, which produced large, heart-shaped fruits. In Brittany, the two New World varieties spontaneously hybridized, resulting in the sizable and flavorful berries that we are familiar with today.
A wide range of cultivated varieties came from this first hybrid, including "Seascape," "Chandler," "Camarosa," and "Aromas." Some are prized for their extraordinary sweetness while others boast firmness or berry size. They can be quite tricky to grow, however, because pests enjoy strawberries just as much as we humans do. To combat gophers, mites, and slugs, many commercial farms resort to applying heavy doses of chemical pesticides. Strawberries rank second worst on the Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen," a list of the most pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables. (For more information see Rick Paulas' story on toxic apples.) If you can, seek out organic strawberries. At farmers' markets in California you'll find baskets overflowing with bright red, fragrant berries. The Golden State produces more than eighty percent of the U.S. crop and more strawberries per hectare than anywhere in the world.
Rose-Scented Strawberry Shortcakes
The abundance of wild strawberries growing in North America awed early settlers. "We cannot set down foot but tread on strawberries," wrote one Englishman. Native Americans crushed the bountiful berries with cornmeal to make a cake that might have served as the inspiration for the first strawberry shortcake. The first recipe was published in 1847 by Eliza Leslie, and since then the dessert has become an all-American classic. Its characteristic layering of flaky, buttery biscuit, sweetened strawberries, and whipped cream will never go out of style. Her recipe didn't call for cornmeal but I think the Native Americans were on to something there. I also love to add a drop of rose water to the strawberries because the flavors combine beautifully. They are botanically related, after all!
Makes 6 shortcakes
2 pints strawberries, rinsed, hulled, and sliced into halves or quarters
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Several drops of rose water
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons (½ stick) very cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 cups very cold heavy cream
Confectioners' sugar, for dusting
In a medium bowl, combine the sliced strawberries, ¼ cup granulated sugar, and the rose water. (Be careful not to add too much rose water; it's powerful stuff and can quickly overwhelm.) Gently crush the mixture with a fork or potato-masher until the berries release some of their juices. Taste for sweetness and add more sugar, if desired. Set aside to macerate for at least 15 minutes.
Preheat oven to 425ºF. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and remaining 2 tablespoons granulated sugar. Using your fingertips or two knives, incorporate the butter into the flour mixture until there are no pieces larger than the size of a pea. Pour in 1 cup of heavy cream and stir with a fork. When the sticky dough comes together, turn it out onto a floured surface.
Pat the dough into a 3-inch-thick circle. Fold it in half, as you would to close a book. Pat the dough into a flat circle, and then fold it in half once again. Cut the dough into six equal pieces. Quickly shape each piece into a 1 ½-inch-thick circle with a 4-inch diameter. Place them on the lined baking sheet and brush the tops with a bit of heavy cream. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the shortcakes are golden-brown.
To serve, whisk the remaining heavy cream until it holds stiff peaks. Stir in a splash of Cognac, if you have some. Slice each shortcake in half. Mound about ½ cup of rose-scented strawberries on top of the bottom half. Dollop some whipped cream on the strawberries and place the other biscuit half on top. Dust lightly with confectioners' sugar and enjoy!