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Strawberry shortcake is a fruit dessert which appears to have been developed in the United States, as the first recorded recipe for strawberry shortcake is from the American South. The dish is most commonly served in the summer, when strawberries are in season, and in fact in the 1850s, people used to hold “shortcake parties” to celebrate the start of summer and the first strawberry harvest of the year. This dessert is sometimes found on offer at restaurants, and it can also be made at home relatively easily.
The “shortcake” in “strawberry shortcake” is a leavened quick bread which may be called a biscuit or a scone, depending on where one is. Americans tend to use the term “biscuit,” while British people prefer “scone,” as they reserve “biscuit” to refer to the dessert Americans call “cookies.” Whatever one calls it, shortcake uses a great deal of butter or shortening, which explains the name, and typically a sweetened shortcake is used for strawberry shortcake, sometimes with the addition of a tangy ingredient like buttermilk or lemon zest.
To make strawberry shortcake, cooks start by washing, patting dry, and slicing strawberries before macerating them in a mixture of lemon juice and sugar. The macerating softens the strawberries, and leaches some of the moisture out of them, causing a flavorful syrup to pool around the fruits. Generally, maceration takes around an hour under refrigeration. If the fruit is allowed to soften too long, it will turn mushy and cloying.
Once the fruit is softened, the shortcake, which is traditionally round, is cut in half to create a top and bottom. The bottom is plated, covered in macerated fruit, and garnished with whipped cream, and then the top is applied, and the process is repeated. The end result is a layered dessert with shortbread, strawberries, and whipped cream, with the strawberry syrup from the maceration process adding moisture. For a neater presentation, some people use a pastry ring to make strawberry shortcake, assembling the shortcake inside the ring and then pulling the ring away to leave a neat column of shortcake on the plate.
In some regions, people use sponge cakes instead of shortcakes, often baking individual sponge cakes with small hollows which can be filled with strawberries. Scraps of baked pie crust are also used for strawberry shortcake in some corners of the world, especially the American South. Purists, however, prefer high-quality shortcake made with fresh cream and butter, because it has a light, flaky, tender texture which pairs beautifully with the juicy fruit.