Sunday, 26 June 2016

The Seductive Power of Strawberries

D'Urberville began gathering specimens of the fruit for her, handing them back to her as he stooped; and, presently, selecting a specially fine product of the 'British Queen' variety, he stood up and held it by the stem to her mouth.
'No - no!' she said quickly, putting her fingers between his hand and her lips.  'I would rather take it in my own hand.'
'Nonsense!' he insisted; and in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in.  
  (Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d'Urbervilles)

In my last post I wrote about literary links between food and seduction, ending with Alec d'Urberville's seduction of Tess through strawberries.  Whilst strawberries on their own - provided they have been grown naturally in plenty of sunshine - can be beautifully sweet and delicious, needing no other accompaniment, I wanted to find a recipe that would present them in their full glory and have a meaningful relationship with Hardy's novel.

Strawberries are readily matched with cream, and the Dorset setting of Tess - and all Hardy's novels - made me think particularly of clotted cream.  And then of cream teas.  And then of strawberry shortcake, that lovely combination of a scone-like cake coupled with cream and strawberries.

Now whilst strawberry shortcake is strictly speaking an American concoction - the first published recipe for it appears in an American cookery book, The Ladys Receipt Book by Miss Leslie where it is called Strawberry Cakes ( - the first recipe for shortcake actually appears in a 16th century English cookbook:  The good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin (first published 1594).  The recipe given is as follows:

To make short Cakes.
TAke wheate flower, of the fayrest ye can get, and put it in an earthern pot, and stop it close, and set it in an Ouen and bake it, and when it is baken, it will be full of clods, and therefore ye must searse it through a search*: the flower will haue as long baking as a pastie of Uenison. When you haue done this, take clowted Creame, or els sweet Butter, but Creame is better, then take Sugar, Cloues, Mace, and Saffron, and the yolke of an Egge for one doozen of Cakes one yolke is ynough: then put all these foresaid things together into the cream, & temper them al together, then put them to your flower
and so make your Cakes, your paste wil be very short, therefore yee must make your Cakes very litle: when yee bake your cakes, yee must bake them vpon papers, after the drawing of a batch of bread.  (see

* I would guess that 'searse it through a search' means sieve the flour since the writer says that the baked flour will be 'full of clods'.

I like the fact that this recipe includes 'clowted Creame' - a West Country delicacy - and 'saffron' which is still used nowadays in Cornish baking.  I decided to use the clotted cream to sandwich together the cut shortcakes (with the strawberries) and use creme fraiche instead in the mixture (inspired by a Nigella Lawson recipe in How to be a Domestic Goddess) and used the saffron to give a West country glow to the finished shortcake (though this can be omitted).


Ingredients (makes 8): 
325g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
5 tablespoons caster sugar
1 pinch saffron threads (optional)
125g unsalted butter frozen
1 large egg, beaten
125 ml creme fraiche

1 beaten egg and 3 tablespoons granulated sugar to brush on the top of the shortcakes
Strawberries (hulled and quartered) plus clotted cream in abundance to serve.

Preheat oven to 220C / 200C fan / Gas mark 7.
Mix together the flour, salt, baking powder, sugar and saffron - if using -  in a large bowl.
Grate in the butter and, using your fingertips, crumble it into the dry ingredients.
Whisk together the egg and creme fraiche and pour it gradually into the dry ingredients, mixing with a fork until it comes together into a soft but not sticky dough.
Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface to a thickness of 2cm.
Cut into rounds using a cutter: if you use a 7.5cm cutter you will get 8 - a smaller cutter will yield more.
Place the cakes on a greased and lined baking sheet.  Brush the tops with beaten egg and sprinkle with granulated sugar.
Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden-brown.
Leave to cool.  When ready to serve, split open and fill with clotted cream and strawberries.

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