Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Berries Jubilee (Shortcakes with Mixed Berry Flambé)

Strawberry shortcake is a classic dessert, and I've been obsessed with it for as long as I can remember. As a child, I'd wait with bated breath for dessert-time, ever irked when my mother insisted it was so-named because the table is "deserted" from having cleaned one's dinner plate and cleared the way. Even when I was little, I knew the difference between a sponge cake and a shortcake and, despite how groceries dutifully place the spongy yellow pucks next to the strawberries every summer, I would accept no substitutions. Proper shortcake should be like a biscuit or a scone. Not spongy, but crumblingly delicious, at once dry and yet delectably saturated with oil; with flaking crumbs that melt away on the tongue and leave nothing but happiness in their wake.

Pictured: happiness
It is unsurprising, then, that my shortcake recipe bears superficial resemblance to my scone recipe: dry ingredients are mixed, fat is cut in until it forms pea-sized crumbs, and then you douse the lot with heavy cream and stir until just barely mixed. The difference, and the source from whence shortcake derives it's name, is in the use of shortening. I think butter offers superior flavor but, as the song goes, "mama's little baby loves shortnin' shortnin', mama's little baby loves shortnin' bread." Shortening may flag a bit on flavor, but it also brings superior texture to the table. Taking a cue from many a pie crust, I blended them as a dynamic duo for the best of both worlds.

The right stuff
In a turn from bland conformity, and with a cry of "vive la différence!"I chose to forgo singular strawberries and instead grabbed every berry my market had available. Not only does this make for a color palette more adaptable to Independence Day, but I think it livens up the whole dessert. Strawberries may be a symbol of sweet simplicity, but sometimes it's sometimes better when things are a little more complicated. In that same line of thinking, I chose to liven things up by forgoing chilled maceration and instead served the berries en flambé. A quick kiss of fire makes for incomparable presentation, caramelizes sugars, and cooks away the harsh alcoholic bite for something more subtly sophisticated.

Suffused with sophistication
Theatrically flaming food dates back to at least the 14th century, but the modern vogue came with Crêpes Suzette in 1895. Since then, chefs have concocted all kinds of means of setting their dinner on fire (usually on purpose). The rules are relatively simple: use cognac, Bourbon, rum, or some other flavorful liquor that's about 40% alcohol. Do NOT use higher alcohol liquids, like Everclear. These are highly flammable and more dangerously volatile than necessary. Always employ a skillet with a tight-fitting lid, and keep it nearby to smother the flames if things get out of hand. Remember the flames can rise high, and keep flammable objects, such as drapes, your face, and interloping children well clear. Bring the alcohol to a gentle simmer, first, or it will not ignite. With those simple steps in mind, flambé can be fun, easy, and dramatic. With a little make-ahead planning, this is the perfect recipe for   cooking over the grill or campfire on the 4th of July, adding extra fireworks to the party.

Party time!
Shortcakes with mixed berry flambé, honeyed cream

2 cups cake flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons white sugar
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons shortening
3/4 cup heavy cream

3 cups mixed berries, such as blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries
1/2 cup cognac

1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons honey

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

Mix flour, baking powder, salt and sugar in a large bowl, then cut in butter and shortening until it forms small crumbs. Pour in the cream and stir until everything has just come together.

Ready to cut in
Drop by heaping tablespoonfuls onto a baking sheet and gently pat into 8 cakes. Bake for 15 minutes or until lightly gilded across the top.

Like so
Remove to wire racks to cool completely.

Whip the cream and honey to stiff peaks with a stand mixer or hand mixer, then chill for later.

If only I'd looked up how to photograph fire!
Toss the berries and cognac into a skillet and carefully place over medium heat (or a grill or campfire, close to, but not directly above, the burning embers). When just beginning to simmer, gently tilt the skillet to one side, pooling the liquor in a far corner and, again carefully, ignite with a taper or long lighter. Right the pan and shake continuously and very gently, to keep exposing fresh alcohol to the blue flame. Cook until the flames die out.

Slice shortcakes in half and place the bases in martini glasses or lowball glasses, top with heaping spoonfuls of berries and equally heaping dollops of cream, then top with the remaining shortcake crowns. Serve immediately.

This post also appeared as an article in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette

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