A few days ago it was the blog’s first birthday! I can’t believe how fast that went. 60-some recipes in and going strong (or, some days, just going at least); it’s been fun, stressful, a learning experience, and a great way to connect with tons of different people—in other words, I love it. My very first recipe posted here was Lemongrass Strawberry Shortcakes. My favorite way to make them is the simplest: macerate some sliced strawberries with a bit of sugar, briefly, and spoon into glasses filled with cubed pound cake, pressing to encourage it to soak up some of the red juices. A big, high-gloss mound of whipped cream, infused with a lemongrass simple syrup, dolloped over top—it’s pure summer nirvana. So, to belatedly celebrate my baby’s first birthday I wanted to repost the recipe that started it all. It’s got some new pictures—this time the strawberries are served over some buttermilk scones that I made as a way to use up some leftover buttermilk—and a few tweaks to the post itself, but given the current season I couldn’t help but share again.
Strawberries are synonymous with summer. It’s easy to see why, too; their shape and scarlet hue look like little hearts ready to burst—what’s not to love?! When the perfect specimen from a perfect plant is perfectly ripe they are sweet as candy and ready to burst with syrupy juice, but also have the slightest tartness to them—not sour, just slightly tart. They are easily the most adored and popular berry around. When we enter summer months you don’t need to look that hard for strawberry festivals or for them to start piling up at farmers’ markets. Our affinity towards them is nothing new, though. Shakespeare wrote in Henry V, “The strawberry grows underneath the nettle/ And wholesome berries thrive and ripen best/ Neighbored by fruit of baser quality” and as far back as the mid-1800’s people would throw strawberry shortcake parties to usher in the warmer months. They certainly take center stage come summer–ironic, being that botanically they’re an accessory fruit.
Unfortunately, these days we could interpret Shakespeare as meaning that the nettle is the superior fruit, ripening best near the inferior strawberry (I say this jokingly… the only nettle that I can think of that bears fruit is horsenettle and it’s poisonous). They can be like tomatoes, in a way; you either get a good one or a bad one and there is often no in between, and our summers are still consumed with adoration for both. Often times the strawberries we get are either mealy or rock-hard, soft in a waterlogged sort of way or totally unyielding, harshly sour or void of flavor. This year, for about 2 weeks, I was able to buy strawberries from the grocery store that were so perfect in their sweetness that they almost tasted synthetic. Now we’re back to donning ruby red accessories that, though they catch the light from a summer sun so well, they are far from a genuine gem, although they’re probably just as hard.
Disappointing and heresy to our nostalgia it may be, a batch of lackluster fruits is not the end of the world. As long as they are not totally hard and chalky and have at least the slightest lingering strawberry flavor and a drop or two of juice to give there are ways to remedy them. This is where they’re not like a tomato; a bad tomato is useless, but a bad strawberry is like a project boyfriend—“I can change him”. I’m not sure when it originated or even where, though suspicions are obvious, but there’s an almost neoclassic enthusiasm about strawberries with balsamic. There’s no real mystery there; balsamic is less acidic and much sweeter than other vinegars, (due to its aging process) a likeliness to the balance of a perfect strawberry, but with notes of fresh fig and dried fruits. Its pairing is another linkage to tomatoes, though I can’t say I’m a fan of tomatoes and balsamic but it sure is popular. Either splash a bit of a good, aged balsamic over some chopped strawberries with a little sugar and let it sit at room temperature to get the juices flowing, or reduce some balsamic in a small saucepan over low heat until its thick like honey and pour over some berries, fortified with sugar (don’t use anything too aged or expensive here, as cooking it looses some of the finer notes that justify a steeper price tag). Simply mixing some berries with a bit of sugar, splash of pomegranate juice and a pinch of very finely ground black pepper actually brings out their sweet and sharp flavors and gives them an interesting little spike, perhaps a method to distract from less than ideal produce. Stewing or roasting the fruit is also a surefire way to improve on them, too. Oh, and macerated strawberries with basil—c’mon! Really, what can’t be improved upon with garden-fresh basil?! (a lot, I’m sure, but I choose to live in ignorance)
And you can’t talk about strawberries without talking about shortcakes, too. The dessert that inspired those festive parties way back when can still do so today. Sure, they seem a little kitschy, maybe even a little too typical or safe, but there’s a level of indulgence of good strawberry shortcake that reaches truly hedonistic status. Now, according to a raggedy copy of my grandma’s Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1965), shortcake “is always made with biscuit dough, not cake, and is served with unsweetened heavy cream, un-whipped” and I’d say that’s a pretty traditional definition, shortcake being so termed based upon the shortening used in it. Admittedly, the way I make these shortcakes does not fit within this sacramental guidelines—semantics, I say. It’s the way I prefer to make strawberry shortcakes, not least because its easy, but mostly because I love the sweet + lemongrass + strawberry combination. Strawberries go so well with mint, and not just as a mere pitiful garnish to them; the sweetness of fresh mint leaves brings out that of the strawberries, but also gives a foil to their flavor by way of green, green grassiness. If your strawberries are sweet enough to cause cavities, lemon zest and, minimally, juice helps bring out some subtle and necessary tartness without being too intrusive. Sure, you can use mint and lemon in these but lemongrass is where it’s at for me. Its aromatic, herbal, and sour, but without acidity; all the wonderful qualities of mint and lemon, and none of their intrusive ones.
A few stalks of lemongrass are simmered and steeped in a simple syrup, infusing it with the lemongrass flavor. Then, as not to waste anything, I remove the lemongrass and plunk it into a bowl of cream to let it infuse even more flavor into that.
Then it’s as simple as chopping or slicing about a pound of strawberries (I say “about” because I’ll inevitably eat a fair amount) and stirring in a little sugar—anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours before you plan on eating. The exact amount of sugar is hard to say because it depends on the sweetness of the berries but for this amount I’d guess anywhere from 1 to 4 tablespoons is sufficient. Leave these at room temperature and stir every so often if you can.
In the original post I mentioned serving this in a glass, a nod to the dessert shooter fad, with store-bought pound cake taking place of the usual shortcake biscuit. It’s one of my favorite grocery store bakery items, specifically for recipes like this. Sure, you could make your own but with the freshness of the berries, their juices soaking in a bit, and the aromatic, mellow, citrusy waft of the lemongrass cream, you really won’t notice the difference between homemade and store bought cake. This go around though, I had some buttermilk that needed to be used so I went with buttermilk scones—sorry Fannie Farmer, no shortening here.
Just before serving, pour the cream into a large bowl, through a sieve to remove the lemongrass. Discard the stalks. Whip the cream until it begins to thicken–just before soft peaks would form. Beat in some of the lemongrass syrup. Odds are you won’t need all of the syrup but don’t worry–there’s a use for it!* Beat the cream until soft to medium peaks form and distribute the high-gloss cream evenly atop each shortcake.
All that’s left to do is enjoy as absolutely as possible. These, like summer, never seem to last quite long enough.
Don’t forget to follow me on BLOGLOVIN’ for more summer recipes!