Strawberry shortcake never changes. You can tweak it, but the basic trifecta of strawberries, cream and cake is so stable that there isn’t much room for improvement. This means it’s near impossible to screw up. These qualities made strawberry shortcake a great starter cake for my 9-year-old self.
I had some help from my friend Sara Lee and her All Butter Pound Cake, found in the frozen food section. The hardest part of the whole recipe was waiting for the pound cake to thaw. I cut it in half along a horizontal plane into top and bottom layers, plastered them with whipped cream and strawberry slices, stacked them into a two-layer cake and coated the whole thing with more whipped cream and strawberries.
My memories of that strawberry shortcake are unassailable, even though I haven’t tasted a Sara Lee pound cake in about four decades. So, as part of my 50th birthday festivities, I staged a strawberry shortcake showdown: Sara Lee versus what I would make now, if given the strawberries, cream and the ingredients for a cake.
With so little room for improvement in the formula, I resorted to doubling up on the flavors already present.
Redundancy can be annoying in some contexts, but in the kitchen it’s a powerful tool and I use it in almost all my recipes, sweet and savory. As background singers embellish the lead vocals in a band, a chorus of similar flavors can add richness and depth to flavor.
My friend Luci adds yogurt to her whipped cream, which is redundant in terms of both tartness and creaminess. I like it. But Luci admits that years back she used yogurt instead of whipped cream, arguably a borderline violation of the fundamental trifecta.
“As the kids got older and wiser, they began demanding whipped cream,” she recounts. “So now we use 50/50 full fat yogurt and whipped cream.”
When Luci enters the kitchen to make lunch, she’s as no-nonsense as a heart attack. Everything better be in its place, because she’s got work to do, including dessert.
Dessert after lunch is part of the daily bargain on the farm when you have a crew of child laborers. This time of year, it’s often strawberry shortcake. Before she starts lunch, she preheats the oven and mixes the simple batter. No butter, hardly any sugar and you don’t even have to crack an egg.
I told Missoula’s one-and-only Chef Marianne that I wanted to put rhubarb in Luci’s cake, as a way of adding more tartness. She suggested slices rolled in sugar and folded into the batter. I also replaced Luci’s milk with buttermilk, for more tang with no extra nonsense. Nailed it.
I served the fresh strawberries in a quick sauce with lemon (more tartness) and whipped the cream with nothing but vanilla. Then I prepared for battle, chef versus chef, against my 9-year-old self.
The Sara Lee version looked sharp. The smooth, almost golden pound cake juxtaposed with the stately whipped cream, which was stiffer without yogurt. Eating it was a nostalgic experience, transporting me instantly across the decades. But with a life of experience behind me now, that Sara Lee was too sweet and too plain Jane, and that stiff whipped cream kept the flavors separate when they should have mixed.
My slovenly shortcake, however, was long on flavor. The buttermilk rhubarb cake and strawberry lemon sauce came together like a strawberry shortcake should. The flavors contrasted one another brilliantly, and the textures created a place of divine creamy sogginess that you could fall into forever, if only your belly could handle it.
My kids, the new generation of critics, agreed. They were particularly impressed with the whipped cream and yogurt combo, which at first they mistook for store-bought whipped cream. They actually sprinted to the fridge from their plates, in search of the can.
Since my new formulation is messier and harder to contain than the original Sara Lee, I served it as parfait, in glasses. Parfait happens to mean “perfect” in French, and strawberry shortcake parfait turns out to be the perfect way to combine the three pillars of shortcake, with every component mixing perfectly in each bite.
It’s the parfait solution, if you’ll excuse my French, and a reminder that with a little redundancy, you can teach an old recipe new tricks.
Buttermilk Rhubarb Cake
2 cups flour
½ teaspoon crème of tartar
4 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1⅓ cups buttermilk
½ cup of oil (I use a mild, fruity olive oil)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract or equivalent
2 more tablespoons sugar (redundancy is my friend)
1-2 sticks of rhubarb, peeled, sliced into 1/4–inch thick discs (about ⅓ cup)
Combine and mix dry ingredients except the second bit of sugar. Mix buttermilk and oil and, before they separate, immediately add them to the dry ingredients. Toss the rhubarb slices in the second sugar and add it to the mix, and stir it all together. Add to a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan. Bake at 375, checking periodically, for about 45 minutes or until a knife comes out clean.
1 pint heavy cream
¼ cup full fat yogurt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon sugar
Whip the cream. Add the vanilla, sugar and yogurt and gently stir.
1 pound fresh strawberries, sliced
3 tablespoons sugar (more to taste)
Juice of one lemon (about 4 tablespoons)
Add the sugar and lemon juice to the pan and stir to dissolve the sugar. Add the strawberries and turn the heat to medium, stirring steadily once it starts simmering. Cook for about ten minutes, or until the strawberries fully soften.
Assembling the Parfait
When the cake has cooled, cut it into one inch-cubes. Add layers to your parfait cup in this order: cream, cubes of cake, sauce. Add layers until the cups are full.
(Flash in the Pan is food writer Ari LeVaux’s weekly recipe column. It runs in about 100 newspapers nationwide, nourishing food sections large and small with complete protein for the belly brain.)