Juneteenth Recipe Suggestion: Strawberry Short Cake from Mrs. Malinda Russell’s 1866 cookbook

Strawberry Short Cake, pages 12 & 13 in A Domestic Cook Book
Adapted by Mercy Ingraham

Recipe tested and photo by Linda Jacobs

The confection called a shortcake has been around for hundreds of years.  It is first mentioned in 1642 in a biographical essay. By the early 19th century Strawberry Shortcake was a popular seasonal treat.

Mrs. Russell’s recipes for Strawberry Short Cake and Short Cake assume experience on the part of the cook. Because of that, they are missing so much in the way of directions–and important things–like flour–that I incorporated some of the directions from the first recipe above for Strawberry Short Cake.  I also had to do some research to find out what a cream biscuit was and how to make it. 

Apparently the Cream Biscuit gets its name from the cream you use as liquid.  One recipe stated that you didn’t need to add any butter because the fat was contained in the cream and would make the shortcake “short” enough.  Mrs. Russell is specific about the butter so I of course included it.  This is also apparently a class of “tea” biscuits and the directions for forming that are to either “roll the dough out a little more than an inch thick” and “cut it out with a tumbler” OR to “mold a smooth loaf.”  I chose the latter.

After pulling all of this together, this is my adaptation of Mrs. Russell’s recipe. I cut her recipe in half.

[Notes from the food scientist in the group: during the course of testing these recipes, we have found a number of typesetter’s errors in the text. From evidence in other recipes, it is clear that Mrs. Russell was aware that baking soda needs to be combined with an acid such as cream of tartar to act as a leavening agent. Another possibility is that the milk or cream should be sour, like modern buttermilk, rather than sweet. Mrs. Russell may also have used a softer, lower-protein flour similar to our modern pastry or biscuit flour. —K.P.W.]

Ingredients:

  • Flour, unbleached, preferably pastry, 2-1/2 cups (265 grams)
  • Baking soda, 1 teaspoon (5 ml)
  • [Cream of tartar, 2 teaspoons (10 ml)
  • Salt, 1/4 teaspoon (my addition)
  • Unsalted butter, 4 ounces (113 grams)
  • Light cream, 1 cup (236 ml)
  • Strawberries, 1 pound (453 grams)
  • Sugar, to taste, ½ to 1 cup (108 to 215 grams)
  • Heavy cream, 1 cup (236 ml)

Method:

Before you begin, measure out all ingredients and have them at room temperature.

Preheat your oven to 450ºF/232C. In a large bowl thoroughly combine the dry ingredients–flour, baking powder, cream of tartar if using, and salt. Once it is thoroughly mixed, blend in the softened butter with your fingers or a pastry blender.

Next make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the light cream, blending it in with a fork until it is well mixed.  Add additional flour as needed to reduce the stickiness of the dough, about ½. Knead the dough about 5 turns to blend it.  Mold the dough into a rectangle 1 ¼ inch/ high by 10 inches long by about 4 inches wide, (about 3 x 25 x 10 cm). Place on an ungreased baking pan and bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes, or until it is golden brown.

While the short cake is baking, clean, hull and cut up the strawberries into pieces.  Put them in a bowl and mash them together with about ½ cup of sugar, or more depending upon your taste for sweetness.  Allow to sit for at least 20 minutes to form a syrup, stirring occasionally.

For an individual serving cut a portion of the short cake and split it in half.  Butter the bottom half and spoon strawberries and syrup over it. Cover this with the top of the biscuit, spoon more strawberries and syrup on top, and pour cream over all.  Or if you prefer to assemble it on one large serving dish, slice the entire shortcake in half and butter the bottom, spoon half of the strawberries and syrup on bottom.  Replace the top, add the rest of the strawberries, and allow people to top their portion with either heavy cream, iced cream or whipped cream.  Serves 8 to 10.

Serving Suggestions:

It is best made when strawberries are fresh and locally in season.  I would be inclined to add a little sugar to the whipped cream. It is also delicious served with iced cream. 

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