[Strawberry shortcake, Mother’s Day 2007]
In my ongoing quest to simplify, I decided that I would make an easy and fresh Mother’s Day luncheon. Famous last words, of course: Saturday night saw me preparing an old favorite couscous dish and baking cakes for strawberry shortcake — though I did wait to whip the cream until Sunday morning — rather than taking a night off. But though don’t consider myself a perfectionist, I do like things to be rather good, and thus I usually wind up taking some time to make them so. Cheerfully, though; there is little else I love better than planning for and cooking a meal.
In the Bay Area for the month of May (and perhaps elsewhere?), local museum admission is free if you have a Bank of America account, so for the first time since its renovation, I finally visited the de Young. Oh, I do my usual run out there through Golden Gate Park, have eaten at the cafe, and have taken many visitors up in the tower to see the whole city and beyond laid out in sparkling rows. But I’d never actually been into the heart of the collection, and after a leisurely walk to the museum (and a fortuitous run-in with some friends enjoying the sunshine in the Panhandle), we perused the hodge-podge of California landscapes, Impressionist portraiture, Shaker furniture, and pre-Revolutionary War silver with growling stomaches. Luckily, I’d planned a big feed for when we got home.
In the book about Alice Waters, she gives a recipe for a carrot soup that is just carrots, a little water or broth, and salt and pepper — very simple and clear to let the flavors of the vegetables sing out. For some reason, this reminded me of a leek soup I had made years ago, and I decided to start off my lunch with a variation of it: just leeks, a few cloves of garlic, and an onion simmered with a little broth and a bay leaf until very soft and melting.
I followed this with a salmon steak (fresh, local, wild-caught) baked on high heat with white wine, lemons, and basil, a roasted tomato and garlic couscous salad, and green beans and shiitake mushrooms. But the desserts were the star: strawberry shortcakes with organic whipped cream, and tiny angel food cakes layered with strawberries and jam. To me, this menu is the essence of spring — and very simple, which is just what I wanted.
And it didn’t take too much effort to prepare, after all, so there was plenty of time to enjoy the windy, sunny, San Francisco day.
Strawberry Shortcakes, adapted from williams-sonoma.com
1 pint strawberries, washed and sliced
1 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. salt
8 Tbs. (1 stick) softened unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2/3 cup milk
To make the shortcakes, position a rack in the center of an oven and preheat to 350°F. Grease and flour a 6-well shortcake pan (I used individual mini tart pans, but you could also use mini loaf pans and cut to size).
Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.
Beat the butter on medium speed until smooth and creamy, 30 to 45 seconds. Reduce the speed to low and gradually add the sugar, beating until blended. Increase the speed to medium-high and continue beating, occasionally scraping down the sides of the bowl, until the mixture is light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Beat in the zest. Add the eggs a little at a time, beating each addition until well blended before adding more, until the mixture is thick and creamy, 1 to 2 minutes. Stop the mixer occasionally and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Beat in the vanilla. Reduce the speed to low and fold in the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the milk and beginning and ending with the flour, until just blended and no lumps of flour remain.
Divide the batter among the prepared pans and bake until a toothpick inserted into the cakes comes out clean, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and cool the cakes in the pan for 10 minutes. Carefully turn the cakes out onto the rack and cool completely, bottom side up, at least 1 hour. If not serving the cakes immediately, store them in an airtight container at room temperature.
To serve, slice each shortcake in half horizontally. Place the wide shortcake halves, sliced side up, on individual plates. Top each with strawberries and whipped cream, then top with the other half of the cakes, cut side down. Garnish with additional strawberries and a dollop of whipped cream.