The first time I had strawberry shortcake was in elementary school, when I helped with our church’s annual Strawberry Festival. It was part of a larger town-wide celebration of spring in upstate New York, when we emerged from our homes after the snow melted to blooming lilacs and roses almost fragrant enough to make us forget that we had ever had a winter.
Every June, I was part of the crew of volunteers recruited to set up what felt like hundreds of folding tables and chairs under a big yellow tent in the church yard. In exchange, I was promised a free strawberry shortcake with extra whipped cream: more than a fair deal for a nine-year-old.
I loved laying out checkered tablecloths and placing little vases of flowers on each table, knowing that most of our town would pass through our tent before the weekend was finished, after listening to live bands and perusing through art stands or jumble sales.
I loved walking through the stalls later in the day, strawberry shortcake and the promised extra whipped cream in hand, listening to the jazz music play to an audience on lawn chairs and picnic blankets.
But my favorite part of the day was always first thing in the morning, long before the streets filled with people. I stood in the church basement with the ladies in aprons who had arrived far earlier than me, slicing strawberries and pulling biscuits out of the oven. They talked and joked with the kind of warm companionship that can only be born from years of standing together side by side.
I loved walking through that kitchen, breathing in the smell of freshly baked biscuits as I waited to be given trays to carry upstairs or another tablecloth to set up. I hardly knew those women, apart from their surnames, and yet they always felt so comfortable and familiar to me.
I have long since moved away from that town and its annual Strawberry Festival, but every spring, when the strawberries start to ripen, I get nostalgic for it and return.
This year, with the current circumstances of the world, the Strawberry Festival was canceled, but I still found myself craving the festival’s signature dessert. My sister-in-law and I decided a strawberry celebration was still in order.
A Backyard Celebration
Rather than stick to strawberry shortcake in its traditional cake-like form, we decided to make a deconstructed version of the dessert. We filled martini glasses with strawberries and lemon whipped cream, and topped them with a mini-biscuit. It felt like a fun and fancy twist on a classic indulgence.
There are some desserts, like puff pastry and layer cakes, that require too much attention for my small children to help with. But it felt important for them to be a part of this one. If my children and niece and nephew can’t attend a strawberry festival, I can at least give them the comfortable camaraderie of me and my sister-in-law baking together, the feeling of being included in the kitchen the way those ladies at the church included me so long ago.
We brought them in to add ingredients, roll out the biscuit dough, and cut out the rounds. It took three times as long as it would have otherwise, as I expected. But I loved watching their faces light up when it was their turn to stand on the stool and roll or press a biscuit into the baking tray. More than once, we caught them sneaking strawberries for each other when they thought we weren’t looking.
We filled our martini glasses—with extra whipped cream—and ate our creations outside, stretched out on picnic blankets with our faces turned up toward the sun. There was no live blue jazz band, but we listened to “Wheels on the Bus” on repeat. There were no art galleries and no face paint, but they had their little balance bikes and sidewalk chalk, and promises of a splash pad if the weather warmed up.
It’s easy, in this season, to think about all the things my children are missing: story time at the library, splashing in the public pool, festivals, and parades. But as I watched my daughter and her cousins eat this perfect summertime dessert, thinking only of this moment and of what they would play when they were finished, I thought that for them, today, this is just as good as a festival.
Maybe this year, a quiet afternoon in the backyard eating strawberries out of a martini glass could be good enough for me, too.
Of course, the extra whipped cream helped.
Deconstructed Lemon-Strawberry Shortcake
This recipe will make more biscuits than you will need. The remaining biscuits can be frozen to use another time, or used to mop up the remaining strawberry juice at the bottom of your glass!
For the biscuits:
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cups (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, diced
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1/2 cup cold heavy cream
- 1 egg beaten with 2 tablespoons milk (for the egg wash)
- 2 pints fresh strawberries, hulled and thickly sliced
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
- 3 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- Zest of one lemon
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line two sheet pans with parchment paper.
Mix together the flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, baking powder, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the butter and mix on low speed until the mixture takes on a crumbly, pea-like consistency, about 3 minutes.
Add in the eggs and heavy cream. Mix until just combined—the dough will be very sticky.
On a well-floured surface, roll out the dough to 1/2-inch thick. Use a 2-inch plain round pastry cutter to cut out biscuits. You should be able to cut about 18–20 biscuits from the dough.
Place biscuits on the prepared baking pan and brush with the egg wash. Bake for 15–20 minutes, until the tops are browned. Let cool on the pan.
While the biscuits are baking, whip heavy cream on high with an electric mixer until soft peaks form, about 5 minutes. Slowly add the confectioners’ sugar and lemon juice. Beat until well combined.
Toss the strawberries in 1/3 cup of sugar and divide them among 6 martini glasses. Top the strawberries with whipped cream, a biscuit, and a sprinkle of lemon zest.
Serve with extra whipped cream, if desired.
Rachael Dymski is an author, florist, and mom to two little girls. She is currently writing a novel about the German occupation of the Channel Islands and blogs on her website, RachaelDymski.com