It was while I was working in Gourmet magazine's test kitchen during the '80s that I was put on the quest for the best biscuit. I tested dozens of versions, using a variety of fats and liquids in different proportions — milk, buttermilk, shortening, butter, sour cream, etc. The cream biscuits in this recipe for strawberry shortcakes easily beat out every other option.
An all-American favourite popularized by James Beard, cream biscuits weren't just the tastiest and most tender of those we tested, they also were the quickest and easiest to make. Also, cream biscuits have fewer ingredients than any other version, because a single ingredient — that would be the cream — provides both the fat and the liquid required to make the biscuit heavenly.
But it isn't only the ingredients that make these biscuits the best; it's the technique, too. The key is to mix the dough very little after you've added the cream. If you mix too much, you'll develop gluten (the protein in the dough) and the biscuits will be tough.
The dry ingredients are combined first, then most of the cream is poured in. You'll need to add more or less cream depending on how long the flour has been stored. How to determine the right amount? With a little test. Add a bit more than a cup of the cream, mix the dough briefly, then grab a small handful of the dough and squeeze it. If it sticks together, great. If it doesn't, add more cream until it does.
Now dump the whole rough mess on the counter (and it will look like a mess, but don't worry), knead it lightly a few times, and watch the dough quickly cohere enough to allow you to roll it out. Shape it into a square, cut the square into six biscuits, then bake.
Wait a minute, you say. Aren't shortcakes usually round? Indeed they are, but that requires cutting out rounds with a cutter, gathering scraps, working them back into a solid dough (which further develops the gluten), and cutting a few more shortcakes. This second batch will not be as flakey and tender as the first. Plus, the whole process is quicker if you only roll and cut the dough once. That's why we make it square.
You might also wonder why there's no sugar in the biscuits. It's because the strawberries, after being tossed with sugar and left to macerate for an hour, are plenty sweet. And the whipped cream is the perfect finishing touch. They really are wonderful, these biscuits. Try them once and you'll likely figure out that they're just as tasty served hot with butter at dinner as they are in these fruit shortcakes.
Start to finish: 2 hours 15 minutes (40 minutes active)
For the biscuits:
2 cups (8 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 to 1 1/2 cups heavy cream, plus extra to brush the tops of the biscuits
2 teaspoons sugar
For the filing:
2 1/2 pounds strawberries, hulled and quartered if the strawberries are small, cut into sixths if they are large
1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
Lightly sweetened whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, to serve
To make the biscuits, heat the oven to 425 F. Line a baking sheet with kitchen parchment.
In a large bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder and salt. Pour in enough of the cream to just form a dough. The dough should be shaggy and clumpy, but moistened.
Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Knead the dough 2 or 3 times, or just until it comes together. Use your hands to form the dough into a square. Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough into a 6-inch square about 3/4-inch thick. Cut the dough into 6 equal rectangles, transferring them to the prepared baking sheet. Leave about 2 inches between them.
Brush each square lightly with cream, then sprinkle each with the sugar. Bake on the oven's middle shelf until pale golden, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a rack and let cool completely.
Meanwhile, make the filling. In a medium bowl, toss the strawberries with the sugar and zest. Add more or less sugar to taste. Use a fork or potato masher to lightly press on the strawberries. Set aside for 1 hour.
To serve, cut the biscuits in half horizontally using a serrated knife. Arrange the flat bottoms on 6 serving plates. Spoon a sixth of the strawberry mixture (including any juices in the bowl) over the biscuit bottom. Top with other half of the biscuit, then spoon whipped cream or ice cream onto the top and serve immediately.
Nutrition information per serving: 590 calories; 340 calories from fat (58 per cent of total calories); 38 g fat (23 g saturated; 1 g trans fats); 135 mg cholesterol; 59 g carbohydrate; 5 g fiber; 20 g sugar; 8 g protein; 480 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."