We professional chefs can sometimes feel the pressure of having to come up with new, delicious dishes that will get people talking and make them excited about returning to our restaurants. After all, if we served just the same old familiar recipes, their attention might turn elsewhere.
But sometimes, as the saying goes, the oldies are the goodies. Especially when you want to show off a main ingredient that is at its peak of season, the simplest, most classic treatment can be the best way of all to prepare it -- and your guests will rave about the results.
Take strawberries, for example. We've entered the last few weeks of strawberry season, when the heart-shaped red fruit is full of unbelievably sweet juice that tastes like it has soaked up every drop of summer sunshine. What should you do with berries like that, beyond just eating them straight out of the box as you walk or drive home from the farmers' market? Do you make strawberry ice cream, compote, souffles or preserves? Those all sound delicious, of course, but anything that involves crushing strawberries can seem like an insult to perfect specimens right now.
The best answer to me is to showcase the berries in a classic dessert that's almost synonymous with the fruit: strawberry shortcake. Freshly baked, tender, sweet biscuits made with butter, cream and eggs provide a perfect canvas for the berries, highlighting their flavor and soaking up every drop of their juices. Add a dollop of cold, softly whipped cream and you've got a dessert that's perfectly balanced in its tastes and textures, and utterly beautiful in its contrasts of colors and shapes.
You may wonder, though, how a well-known chef and his culinary team make their version of strawberry shortcake different than the rest. What's our twist on the classic in the version from my Wolfgang Puck Catering team? The truth is, our twist is simply that there isn't any. We don't add any special ingredients to the shortbread mixture; it's as straightforward as those made by home cooks a century or more ago. We don't add little strips of citrus zest or a splash of aged balsamic vinegar to the strawberries (though, if they aren't at their sweetest, you could be forgiven for adding just a touch of sugar). We don't even sweeten the whipped cream, because that would compete with the berries.
You might say it's a minimalist dessert. But it's elegant; the culinary equivalent of a man wearing nicely cut tuxedo or a woman in an exquisitely simple black dress.
I hope you'll try this classic yourself soon, while fresh strawberries are still around. (Or try it with sliced peaches, nectarines or plums!)
CLASSIC STRAWBERRIES-AND-CREAM SHORTCAKE
1 1/2 cups (375 mL) all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
3 tablespoons granulated sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 large cage-free egg
1/3 cup (85 mL) heavy cream
4 ounces (125 g) unsalted butter, well-chilled, cut into 1/2-inch (12-mm) pieces, kept cold
Milk, for brushing the shortcakes
STRAWBERRIES AND CREAM
1 cup (250 mL) heavy cream, chilled
1 pint organic, ripe strawberries, hulled and cut lengthwise into halves or quarters depending on size
4 fresh mint sprigs, for garnish, optional
Position the rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 375 F (190 C).
Meanwhile, sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. In a separate, medium-sized bowl, whisk together the egg and cream. Set aside.
Add the chilled butter pieces to the dry ingredients and mix on low speed until the butter resembles flattened walnuts, about 2 minutes. Turn off the machine and add the wet ingredients; then, mix on low speed again just until the dough comes together.
Dust a clean work surface with flour and scoop out the dough onto the floured surface. With clean hands, fold and flatten the dough over itself to form a uniform square.
Dust the dough with more flour and, with a rolling pin, roll out the dough to a uniformly thick square slightly larger than 6 by 6 inches (15 by 15 cm).
Using a 3-inch (7.5-cm) cookie cutter or biscuit cutter, cut the dough into rounds, placing them on a nonstick baking sheet. Brush their tops with some milk and sprinkle generously with sugar.
Bake the shortcakes in the preheated oven for 10 minutes; then, rotate the pan back to front in the oven and continue baking until the shortcakes are deep golden brown, about 5 minutes longer. Remove from the oven and leave to cool to room temperature.
To assemble, whip the cream in the stand mixer or with a hand-held mixer until it forms soft peaks that droop when the beaters are lifted out. Do not overmix.
With a sharp, serrated knife, carefully cut each shortcake horizontally in half. Place each bottom half on a serving plate.
Generously spoon whipped cream over the four bottom halves of shortcake. Divide the strawberries evenly over the whipped cream. Place the top halves of the shortcake on top. Serve immediately, garnished with mint sprigs if you like.(c) 2017 WOLFGANG PUCK WORLDWIDE, INC. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.