Monday, July 28, 2014

Market Inspired: Balsamic-Macerated Strawberry Shortcakes

Nothings marks the beginning of summer than quarts of fresh-picked, Ontario strawberries at the farmers market. Though peaches have got to be my number-one most anticipated fruit of the summer, there's something about the arrival of strawberries that always seems to turn me into a giddy school girl. Perhaps it's the fact that strawberries remain in the grocery store all year long, tempting me with their vibrant red colour and monstrous size, only to let me down each time with its crunchy texture (strawberries are not meant to be crunchy!) and tasteless flavour. Perhaps its the sentiment of being reminded of childhood summers picking strawberries at St. Andrews Acres with my mom. More than anything, I'm sure it's because strawberries always seem to be the first guest in attendance at Summer's "Welcome Back" party. The arrival of strawberries means the arrival of Ontario's superb summer bounty, and reminds us of the raspberries, cherries, peaches, and pears to come. 
I got so excited at the sight of Ontario strawberries at the first week of the sip & Savour Ontario Farm & Artisan Market that although I had planned on taking home different goods each week, I just couldn't help myself from taking home strawberries for at least six weeks in a row! Each week I would purchase a quart (or two!) from the lovely duo manning the Bizjak Farms tent and would chat with them about all the delicious desserts I had planned on making with my strawberry haul. Upon my return at the Bizjak Farms tent each week for more strawberries, I was always asked what I had ended up making with all those strawberries, only to be faced with the same answer each week, "I just ate them all out of the quart! They were too good to bake with!" And they were. Those juicy, bright red, little strawberries were so incredible on their own, I couldn't even think of manipulating them into the pies, cakes, and tarts that I had previously been so eager to make. 
As the rows and rows of strawberries began to dwindle in the past few weeks at the market, I knew my opportunity to create a market-inspired strawberry recipe was going to pass me by if I didn't do something quick! Not wanting to destroy the great fresh flavour of the fresh in-season strawberries, I decided to make very simple strawberry shortcakes using a recipe for Classic Strawberry Shortcakes I had found on the Williams-Sonoma website, which would allow me to feature strawberries as the star of the dessert, without sacrificing their fresh-picked flavour. Though I love the simple flavours in classic strawberry shortcakes, I wanted to kick the recipe up a bit and give it a more complex flavour, ultimately adding depth to a traditionally very uncomplicated dish. To achieve the depth of flavour that I had in mind, I decided to cut back on the amount of sugar that is generally used to macerate the strawberries (softening them and releasing their sweet juices), and instead just use a sprinkle and allow the powers of very good quality balsamic vinegar to soften the strawberries and release their juices to create a tangy balsamic-strawberry juice. The strawberry shortcakes turned out fantastic, and turned out to be the perfect dish to allow Ontario strawberries to shine like the star that they are! 

Visit the sip & Savour Ontario Farm & Artisan Market website for more details.

Note: I chose to cut the strawberries in half as opposed to in 1/4-inch slices because I wanted to manipulate the strawberries as little as possible. If you prefer, you may cut into slices.

* Turbinado sugar is a large-granulated, raw, brown sugar that adds a nice little crunch to the top of the shortcakes.

** I turned out the dough and formed into a rectangle, and cut the dough into six even squares. I found the shortcakes to be a little tougher in texture than I had hoped, so I would suggest using the ice cream scoop method to achieve the fluffiest shortcakes. 

Recipe slightly adapted from Williams-Sonoma
For the shortcakes:
1 2/3 cup flour
2 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
3/4 tsp salt
8 tbsp cold, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
3/4 cup buttermilk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
about 2 tbsp milk (optional)
about 1 tbsp turbinado sugar (optional) *
For the strawberries:
4 cups strawberries, hulled & cut in half, keeping small strawberries whole
1 tbsp sugar
enough balsamic vinegar to coat strawberries
For the whipped cream:
3/4 cup heavy cream, well chilled
2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

  1. To make the shortcakes, preheat the oven to 400ยบ. 
  2. In a bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, lemon zest, and salt until well blended. Using a pastry blender, cut in the butter until the pieces are no larger than peas. Add the buttermilk and vanilla and gently toss with a fork or rubber spatula until the flour is just moistened and the ingredients are just blended. Do not over-mix.
  3. At this point you may either turn out the shaggy dough onto a well-floured surface and form into a rectangle, to be cut into six even squares/rectangles and placed on an ungreased non-stick baking sheet OR you may use a quick-release ice cream scoop and scoop out the dough onto an ungreased non-stick baking sheet, making sure to space the shortcakes well-apart.** Brush the tops of the shortcakes with milk and sprinkle generously with the turbinado sugar. Bake until puffed and golden for about 15-18 minutes. 
  4. Meanwhile, prepare the strawberries. In a bowl toss together the strawberries with the sugar and balsamic vinegar. Cover with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator until ready to serve.
  5. To make the whipped cream, pour the heavy cream, sugar, and vanilla into a bowl of an electric mixer. Beat on medium-high speed until soft peaks form and the cream is billowy, about 2 minutes. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve, for up to two hours.
  6. To serve, carefully cut the shortcakes in half horizontally and place the bottom halves facing-up on serving dishes. Evenly spoon over the strawberries and the balsamic-strawberry juice. Top evenly with whipped cream, and place the top piece of the shortcake on top. Serve immediately.
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