When I was ten or eleven years old, my mother made one of the very best strawberry shortcakes I have ever tasted. My two sisters, Barb and Betty, helped me pick nearly a quart of wild strawberries we found growing in special abundance that summer on the abandoned roadbed of Wisconsin Highway 24 where it ran through a swampy area north of our property.
School was out for the summer, and we were enjoying our freedom. One day I volunteered to guide my sisters to the Whitten Dam on the Namekagon River. I have no idea why my mother agreed to this suggestion, though it may simply have been that she wanted us kids out of the house. At least, there was no traffic to worry about, though the old wooden bridge over the river at the dam was treacherous.
I knew how to find my way to the dam and back home. My parents had led us on the old road several times, and we had a picnic there once. On another occasion, Dad had caught a nice northern pike in the big pool below the spillway. She sent us off with some cookies in a syrup pail and instructions not to fall in.
We never made it to the dam. Before we were halfway there, we started picking a few wild strawberries, and when we got to the low spot in the road, my little sister Betty (three years my junior) announced that she was tired of walking and wanted to sit down and eat some strawberries. That’s when Barb and I noticed how big some of those berries were.
They weren’t a large as tame strawberries, but some of them on plants in the ditches were as big as the end of my little finger. We had not had any strawberry shortcake yet that summer, so I began a sales job on the girls who were busy popping those sweet morsels into their mouths. In a few minutes we had transferred the cookies from the syrup pail into our stomachs and were busy replacing the cookies with strawberries.
We didn’t fill the pail, but we brought home enough berries for strawberry shortcake that evening. Even Betty, who was never an enthusiastic berry picker, was motivated by the thought of Mom’s drop shortcakes covered with wild strawberries and whipped cream.
Mom helped us pick enough for another shortcake a few days later, and we picked wild strawberries once or twice the following summer, but by then my parents had planted two long rows of tame strawberries in the garden by the house. In a couple of years, wild strawberries became a special treat that we picked in small quantities to enjoy over scoops of ice cream before the tame berries were ripe.
A few years later those tame strawberries motivated my father to become a commercial strawberry farmer. There was a small pond across the field on the north end of the forty where our home was built. Dad had cleared and plowed a half acre parcel on which he had planted sweet corn for two years. Assuming that the roots in the soil had decayed enough to make it possible to dig potatoes, he then planted a half acre of russets. I can testify that some of the bigger roots had not decayed enough, but with Dad’s help we harvested a lot of beautiful spuds.
Dad was bitten by the commercial strawberry farming bug after the second year of raising potatoes by the pond. He ordered several hundred strawberry plants and laid out the patch according to instructions from the county agent. He also built a portable water pump powered by a small “one lung” gasoline engine so he could irrigate the plants when necessary.
He was enthusiastic about the new venture at the end of the first year. Most of the plants had survived, the pump worked perfectly, and the plants were tucked under their blanket of mulch ready to be uncovered and encouraged to produce lots of juicy berries the following summer.
Unfortunately, Dad did not recognize the valuable service that Nugget performed. This was understandable, since Dad liked cats while Nugget was my dog. Nugget kept the deer away from the garden by the house. He stayed home in his house or sleeping in the summer on the back stoop. He had a good nose and a pair of sensitive ears that could detect a hungry deer at a hundred yards. He also had a good bark and had developed a convincing way of baring his fangs. Deer stayed out of the yard.
But they loved Dad’s strawberry patch. Ominous signs appeared with the first blossoms. When Mom and Dad walked out to the patch to see how the strawberries were doing, they saw deer tracks in the freshly hoed soil between the rows, but there were lots of buds and Dad was confident.
“Still lots of buds, but not too many flowers,” he would report evening after evening. “Lots of deer tracks, though.”
Then it was “Some nice berries are getting ripe. Lots of fawn tracks and what looks like a big buck.”
Until finally one evening he brought home a handful of nearly ripe strawberries and announced, “Those darned deer are eating the berries as fast as they get ripe.”
The county agent recommended an eight foot tall fence but Dad decided to cut his losses and run. “Maybe I can shoot that buck,” he said optimistically, but he never did.
If you can’t find a good patch of wild strawberries and don’t have a dog to protect your tame ones, you can still make some delicious strawberry shortcakes.
For the shortcake:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 T baking powder
1 tsp. salt
2 T sugar
1/3 cup shortening
1 cup whole milk
For the berries:
1 quart fresh strawberries
1/2 cup sugar
For the whipped cream:
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1 heaping T sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
If you are lucky enough to live near a farmer who has a “Pick your own strawberries” patch, the first thing to do is go pick a couple of quarts. Berries you pick yourself will have more flavor than any you can buy in the supermarket. Next best (and a lot less work) is to get locally grown strawberries at a farmers market. You’ll need a quart for the shortcake, and you can nibble on the rest when the urge strikes you or slice, sugar and freeze them for shortcake after the strawberry season is past. Pick nice red ripe fruit.
Wash the berries and remove the stems and tops. Set aside six berries to top the shortcakes with. Slice the rest and gently mix them with the sugar. Let the berries rest at room temperature for one to two hours.
Preheat the oven to 450º and lightly grease a baking sheet.
Blend the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar together in a mixing bowl and cut in the shortening with a fork or pastry blender until the flour looks like coarse corn meal. Stir in the milk just until the dry ingredients are moist. Be careful not to mix the dough too long.
Use a mixing spoon and rubber spatula to drop six mounds of dough spaced two inches apart on the baking sheet. Put the sheet on a center shelf in the oven and bake for twelve to fourteen minutes until the biscuits are just beginning to brown. Do not overbake them. Remove the biscuits from the baking sheet and cool them on a wire rack.
About fifteen minutes before you want to serve the shortcakes, chill a mixing bowl and beater along with about three fourths cup of whipping cream in the freezer. Beat the cream until soft peaks start to form, then add the sugar and beat a few seconds until all the sugar has disappeared into the cream. Add the vanilla extract and beat a few seconds longer.
Assemble the shortcakes by slicing the biscuit in half horizontally and spooning plenty of strawberries over the bottom half. Replace the top half, spoon on more strawberries, cover with a generous spoonful or two of whipped cream and top with a strawberry.
NOTES: Shortcake actually refers to the baking-powder leavened biscuit that provides the body of the dessert. Mom made her shortcakes like she made baking powder biscuits but with extra sugar and a little more milk so the dough dropped easily onto the baking sheet.
She sometimes made strawberry shortcakes with pieces of ordinary yellow cake. They tasted pretty good too, but the cake fights with the flavor of the strawberries. You can buy preformed sponge shortcakes in the supermarket. I have used them in the middle of the winter after thawing out some sliced strawberries.
With plenty of real whipped cream, they taste okay. If a recipe suggests using “whipped topping,” skip it.