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Posts Tagged ‘Cook’s Illustrated’

So it turns out that strawberry shortcake is NOT simply strawberries with pound cake, angel food cake or sponge cake (no, not even those perfectly round little sponge cakes sold in packs of six in your grocery store’s produce section).

The shortcake you likely remember from your childhood? An imposter.

Shortcake is its very own thing. Simply placing strawberries and whipped cream (or, more likely, Cool Whip) on top of any kind of cake does not magically turn it into shortcake. (And while I’m on the subject of Cool Whip, how is it that nobody ever told me how EASY it was to make your own whipped cream?)

Shortcakes are essentially biscuits made with butter instead of shortening, with just a hint of added sugar. They’re supposed to accent the strawberries, after all, not compete for the title of sweetest dessert element.

I’ve made the Cook’s Illustrated version of strawberry shortcake a couple of times, and it’s a winner. The shortcakes are light, but substantial enough to hold the juicy berries without falling apart. The strawberries themselves could probably do with a little less added sugar, especially if you’re lucky enough to get specimens as sweet as I’ve found at the Dennison’s Family Farm strawberry stand this year. The recipe makes way more shortcakes than two people need, but the leftover cakes are good for a couple more days and you can make half, a third or even a quarter of the whipped cream recipe if you like.

Strawberry Shortcake

  • 8 cups (about 2.5 lbs.) strawberries, hulled
  • 6 Tbsp. sugar
  • 2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour (plus more for dusting the work surface and biscuit cutter)
  • 5 Tbsp. sugar
  • 1 Tbsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 stick (8 Tbsp.) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tsp. half-and-half
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg white, lightly beaten
  • 2 cups whipped cream

For the strawberries:
Place 3 cups of the hulled strawberries in a large bowl and crush with a potato masher. Slice the remaining 5 cups berries and stir into the crushed berries along with the sugar. Set the fruit aside to macerate for at least 30 minutes or up to 2 hours. (Note: Our leftover macerated strawberries were good for three more days.)

For the shortcakes:
Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 425 degrees. In a food processor, pulse the flour, 3 Tbsp. of the sugar, the baking powder, and salt to combine. Scatter the butter pieces on top and process until the mixture resembles coarse meal, about fifteen 1-second pulses. Transfer to a medium bowl.

Mix the beaten egg with the half-and-half and vanilla extract in a measuring cup. Pour the egg mixture into the bowl with the flour mixture. Combine with a rubber spatula until large clumps form. Turn the mixture onto a floured work surface and lightly knead until it comes together. (Note: I’m not sure how I avoided screwing this up, given my lack of prowess with bread dough. It was a sticky mess, but I somehow managed to work enough extra flour in to make it work without ruining it. The husband has mad dough-making skills, so I should probably convince him to handle this part.)

Use your fingertips to pat the dough into a 9-by-6-inch rectangle about ¾-inch thick, being careful not to overwork the dough.

Flour a 2¾-inch biscuit cutter and cut out 6 dough rounds. Place the rounds 1 inch apart on a small baking sheet, brush the tops with the beaten egg white, and sprinkle with the remaining 2 Tbsp. sugar. (Dough rounds can be covered and refrigerated for up to 2 hours before baking.) (The recipe notes that you can roll up the leftover dough scraps and make more shortcakes, but warns that they may not be as good as the originals. I detected no difference, so use all of your dough.)

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

To assemble:
When the shortcakes have cooled slightly, split them in half. Place each cake bottom on an individual serving plate, and spoon a portion of the fruit and a dollop of whipped cream over each cake bottom. Cap with the cake top and serve immediately.

Whipped Cream 
Makes about 2 cups

  • 1 cup heavy cream, cold
  • 1 Tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla

Chill a deep, non-reactive, 1- to 1.5-quart bowl and beaters in the freezer for at least 20 minutes. Put all ingredients in bowl and beat on low until small bubbles form, about 30 seconds. Increase speed to medium and beat until beaters leave a trail through the mixture, approximately 30 seconds more. Beat on high until the whipped cream is smooth, thick and nearly doubled in volume, about 20 to 30 seconds. (Note: Don’t skimp on freezing the bowl and beaters. That’s what makes the magic happen.)

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So I’m told by people who know such things that I’m actually getting the most difficult part of pecan pie right. Apparently it can be quite a feat to get the filling to set up correctly.

Who knew?

I got my recipe for the filling from Baking Illustrated, a book published by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated. I don’t know what part of the recipe holds the mojo, but it’s been foolproof so far.

Here’s the recipe, complete with my notes. I would have posted it last night, but my 14-year-old, somewhat standoffish cat decided to dole out some affection, and you just don’t turn that kind of thing down.

Toast the pecans while you’re waiting for the oven to reach the baking temperature to partially bake the pie crust. This should take about seven to 10 minutes; watch the pecans carefully and stir a couple of times to prevent burning. Wait until they cool off before you chop them up or they’ll crumble. (Toasting nuts is nerve-wracking; I’ve found it’s best to undertoast rather than risk overtoasting.

You’ll want to have the pie filling mixture ready to go the minute the partially baked shell comes out of the oven. (This bit of timing might be the secret to the recipe.)

Pecan Pie

1 unbaked pie shell
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
3/4 cup light corn syrup
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 cups pecans, toasted and chopped into small pieces

Follow the directions for partially baking the pie crust until it’s light golden brown.

In the meantime, melt the butter in a double boiler or in a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water. Remove the bowl from the heat and stir in the sugar and salt with a wooden spoon. Beat in the eggs, then the corn syrup and vanilla. Return the bowl to the heat. Stir and cook until the mixture is shiny and registers about 130 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Remove from heat and stir in the pecans.

Remove the prebaked pie shell from the oven and immediately turn the temperature down to 275 degrees. Pour the pie mixture into the hot pie shell.

Bake on the middle rack for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the pie looks set but still soft, like gelatin, when gently pressed with the back of a spoon. Place the pie on a rack and let it cool completely, for about four hours.

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