Thursday, April 05, 2007

any excuse to make biscuits

One of the first baking fears I conquered was cutting butter into flour for pastry crusts and biscuits. Pastry crusts and biscuits are my absolute favorite because it's so quick. In under 10 minutes, I can get homemade biscuits in the oven and just a few minutes later I have hot "bread" to go with my meal. I've heard frequently from excellent home cooks that they wouldn't dare making pie crust - too scary, too hard. Perhaps it's the stern warnings in many cookbooks and cooking shows, implying that only the most attentive and experienced bakers can produce an edible crust. But it's quite simple if you follow two basic rules: cold butter and don't over mix (stop when you have small, unevenly sized lumps).

The other key is a good biscuit cutter. You must have a thin sharp edge on your cutter to quickly cut through the dough without mashing the butter layers. This enables the biscuit to rise tall. If you use a glass or can, the mashed edges hold the biscuit down, resulting in sad squatness. If you are making square or triangle biscuits, you can use a knife, but sharpen first and cut decisively. A few years ago I impulsively bought these graduated circle cutters, to make homemade donuts and since then I've been amazed at how often I find uses for them. I also like that I can choose from a variety of sizes to suit the dish I'm serving.

So late Sunday night when I was scouring the fridge for a treat and discover strawberries and cream, how could I resist whipping up some strawberry shortcake?

Strawberry Shortcake from The Best Recipe
Start the recipe by preparing the fruit, then set the fruit aside while preparing the biscuits to allow the juices to become syrupy. Serves 6

8 cups fresh strawberries, hulled (note: if you don't have this much on hand, you can get away with about 4 cups, but remember to reduce the sugar accordingly)
6 tablespoons sugar (2 1/2 ounces)

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (10 ounces), plus more for work surface and biscuit cutter
5 tablespoons sugar (about 2 1/4 ounces)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon table salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter , chilled, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 large egg , lightly beaten
1/2 cup half-and-half plus 1 tablespoon, (can substitute milk)
1 large egg white , lightly beaten

Whipped Cream
1 cup heavy cream , chilled, preferably pasteurized or pasteurized organic
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. FOR THE FRUIT: Place 3 cups of hulled berries in large bowl and crush with potato masher. Slice remaining 5 cups berries and stir into crushed berries along with sugar. Set fruit aside to macerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours.

2. FOR THE SHORTCAKE: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees. In workbowl of food processor fitted with metal blade, pulse flour, 3 tablespoons sugar, baking powder, and salt to combine. Scatter butter pieces over and process until mixture resembles coarse meal, about fifteen 1-second pulses. Transfer to medium bowl.

3. Mix beaten egg with half-and-half in measuring cup. Pour egg mixture into bowl with flour mixture. Combine with rubber spatula until large clumps form. Turn mixture onto work surface and lightly knead until it comes together.

4. Use your fingertips to pat dough into 9 by 6-inch rectangles about 3/4 inch thick, being careful not to overwork dough. Flour 2 3/4-inch biscuit cutter and cut out 6 dough rounds. Place rounds 1 inch apart on small baking sheet, brush tops with egg white, and sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons sugar. (Biscuits can be covered and refrigerated for up to 2 hours before baking.)

5. Bake until shortcakes are golden brown, 12 to 14 minutes. Place baking sheet on wire rack and cool cakes until warm, about 10 minutes.

6. FOR THE WHIPPED CREAM: As soon as shortcakes go into oven, place nonreactive, deep bowl and beaters of electric mixer in freezer for 20 minutes. (If freezer is too crowded to accomodate bowl, place beaters in bowl, fill with ice water, and chill on counter. When bowl and beaters are well chilled, dump out ice water and dry thoroughly.)

7. While biscuits are cooling, remove bowl from freezer and add cream, sugar, and vanilla. Beat on low speed until small bubbles form, about 30 seconds. Increase speed to medium and continue beating until beaters leave a trail, about 30 seconds. Increase speed to high and continue beating until cream is smooth, thick, and nearly doubled in volume, about 20 seconds for soft peaks.

8. TO ASSEMBLE: When shortcakes have cooled slightly, look for natural crack around the circumference. Gently insert your fingers into the crack and split the shortcake in half.9. Place each cake bottom on individual serving plate. Spoon portion of fruit and then dollop of whipped cream over each cake bottom. Cap with cake top and serve immediately.
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