Growing up, we had an annual Strawberry Shortcake Festival every Father’s Day weekend in June, at the country grange* just down the road from us. This was *the* event of the year on our dusty little mountain, with people coming from miles away (from The City, even, so you know it was a big deal) and lines stretching for hours around the grange. They had the good sense to also host a craft fair, so folks could browse as they waited in line. There was also a walk-up window when you could get your shortcake to go. From an early age, I couldn’t wait for the year I’d be old enough to be a shortcake waitress. I think the minimum age was about 8 to bus tables (you got to share the tips!) and maybe 11 or 12 to be a “real” waitress. (Apparently child labor laws didn’t apply that weekend.) Since the only menu options were cake or biscuit and small, large or family, it didn’t require too much experience. Waitresses got to wear the official strawberry aprons, sewed by the old ladies of the neighborhood, with a pocket to store our precious tips. I remember the legend of a girl a few years old than us who once made $80 in a single day. A lot when you consider tips came in dimes and quarters. (Okay, I swear I didn’t grow up in the Depression, just a rural mountain in Oregon…)
Oregon (Hood) strawberries, for those who’ve never been fortunate enough to taste them, are juicy, sweet and flavorful — a far cry from the bland California creatures found in supermarkets across the country. There’s an easy way to identify the imposters, too; an Oregon berry hull pops right out with a pinch of the stem, no silly huller required. The key to a good strawberry crop is a rainy spring (which Oregon most definitely has) followed by a dry spell to let the berries ripen. Miraculously, it almost never rained Festival weekend and the berries were at the peak of ripeness. The biscuit was actually shortcake, while the cake option was more of a spongecake. Both baked from scratch by neighborhood women in the kitchen. Others would hull, slice and sugar the berries (this was one of the few areas men were allowed to participate in), whip fresh cream, and then assemble the plate. A “small” was the size of a regular salad plate, large a dinner plate, and family size came on a platter. Think turkey platter. Something like eight biscuits piled sky high with berries and cream, it was literally a meal for a family of eight.
Needless to say, Father’s Day and strawberry shortcake is inextricably linked in my taste memories. My husband, however, is more of a chocolate dessert guy and doesn’t really get my obsession with not-too-sweet shortcake doused in sweet red berry juice, cream flowing down the sides …. sorry, tastebuds were getting carried away there. So on Father’s Day I took him out for more manly indulgences, and saved the shortcake for later in the week. Rather than forcing my culinary traditions on his day, I’m declaring a new tradition: Summer Solstice Shortcake.
Because our Virginia berries just aren’t quite as flavorful as the ones from my childhood, I like to give them a boost with balsamic vinegar. One of my favorite summer salads is strawberries with balsamic, cracked pepper, basil and honey – this take on shortcake infuses some of the fresh basil taste into a classic summer dessert.
Recipe: Summer Solstice Shortcake
- 1 recipe shortcake, using your favorite recipe.
I used Betty Crocker’s, but I’m not in love with it.
- 1 pt strawberries, washed, hulled and sliced
(Westmoreland Berry Farm, VA, 71 mi.)
- 1/2 pt other berry of your choice, optional.
Used black raspberries here. (also Westmoreland)
- 2 T basil syrup
- 2 T sugar
- 1 T balsamic vinegar
- 1 c heavy cream (Trickling Springs Creamery, PA, 104 mi.)
- 1 t sugar
Toss berries with basil syrup, sugar and vinegar and let stand at room temperature for an hour. Make shortcake (or biscuits) and cool. Whip cream and sugar into soft peaks. Assemble: slice shortcake in half, place bottom half on plate and cover in berries with lots of juice. Top with cream and top half of shortcake. Garnish with basil leaf (optional), and enjoy!
* I used to babysit the boy who won the scholarship this year!! Wow. I really am old.