June 24, 2014 at 1:00 am

Let's Talk Food: Strawberry Shortcake, and what's your true taste of summer?

Strawberry shortcake tastes like summer. (Dawn Needham)

Editor’s note: You might remember my friend Dawn from previous Let’s Talk Foods, including potato tacos and fridge mash-ups . Today, she’s taking the reins, sharing her summery Strawberry Shortcake. I’ll be back, but you can keep an eye out for Dawn — and possibly other newsroom friends — writing future columns, too. — Maureen

Emerging blinking from the long, cold, dark winter into the bright spring sunlight, my friends hatched an idea: Celebrate the greenness of the season with a primavera dinner. We gather every year to mark the fall bounty with a harvest dinner, but this would feature the fresh, bright new flavors of spring just as the farmers’ market was exploding.

As luck would have it, we chose June 21 for the date, so it quickly became a summer solstice celebration. A trip out to the garden produced pesto pasta from Domenica’s basil patch (penne tossed with pesto and meaty black olives), while Judy harvested her red and green romaine and tossed up a salad with goat cheese and cherries. We whipped up a vinaigrette using rz’s herbs, and it all went delightfully with the roasted sausages and peppers that brought protein to the party. Mary’s appetizer spread and fresh strawberry daiquiris got things started.

To me, nothing says summer like Michigan strawberries. When I saw them at the farmers’ market last week, I knew what my contribution would be. I scooped up several quarts and made strawberry shortcake. Yes, I know, everyone makes strawberry shortcake and it’s always delicious. But I think a couple of things set my strawberry shortcake apart: a vanilla sugar and fresh, homemade whipped cream. It kicks up even my sainted grandmother’s strawberry shortcake, which has embedded many happy childhood memories in my head.

I keep on hand a jar of sugar with split vanilla beans buried so the vanilla flavor permeates the sugar. This makes a great finishing sugar for cakes, cookies and breads. I sprinkle it on top of the shortcakes before baking. It’s also a perfect touch for fresh whipped cream, but if you don’t have it, you can use sugar and a little vanilla extract.

I only make this when Michigan strawberries are in season. The rest of the year, I pine and dream about June. Since the summer solstice and Michigan berry season coincided, it was the perfect way to end a seasonal meal.

Of course, the shortcake is the building block for the rest of the dessert. Don’t bother me with pound cake or angel food cake or storebought biscuits. And heaven help me, you cannot simply slice a fresh strawberry over some type of cake and call it a day. The strawberries need to swim in a sweet sea of juice that really soaks into the shortcake. Topped with a cloud of freshly whipped cream, this is summer on a plate. Bring your own spoon.

What tastes like summer to you? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below. You need a Facebook account to add comments, but they’re easy to sign up for, and free. Join the discussion!

Strawberry Shortcake

Grandma used to whip up fresh biscuits at a moment’s notice for her dessert, but I’m pretty certain Crisco played a big role. I’m a butter kind of gal, however, so I tested many recipes before finding this one from Gourmet magazine. (These are Gourmet’s shortbread ingredients but my method — I do not have the patience to rub butter into flour with my fingers. That’s why the food processor was invented.) The combination of butter and whipping cream makes a rich, sweet, biscuit-y shortcake that is the perfect base for summer’s best dessert. And if you pat it into a pan for one big cake, you can skip the rolling and cutting for individual biscuits that Grandma did.

2 cups flour

1/3 cup sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 stick unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1 large egg

1/2 cup heavy whipping cream

Vanilla sugar, to taste (see note)

Two quarts of strawberries

Preheat oven to 400 with a rack in the middle. For a large shortcake, butter an 8-inch round pan and line bottom with disk of parchment or wax paper cut to fit. For individual shortcakes, line a cookie sheet with parchment or foil.

For the dough, combine dry ingredients in a food processor and pulse a few times to mix. Add butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal. Beat together egg and cream and add to flour/butter mixture; pulse a few times to make a soft dough. Press into 8-inch pan for a large shortcake (my favorite). For individual shortcakes, place dough on a floured surface and fold over on itself 3 or 4 times. Pat out dough about 1/2 inch thick. Cut out individual biscuits with a 2 2/3-inch cutter. Sprinkle tops of shortcake with about a teaspoon or so of vanilla sugar, or regular sugar. Bake about 25 minutes for a large one or until a skewer inserted in center emerges clean. Bake individuals about 15 minutes. Cool on a rack.

Strawberries: Two quarts of strawberries made enough for 8 shortcakes with some happy, syrupy leftovers for spooning straight from dish to mouth. Wash and hull, then leave whole or slice in half if they’re large. Mash with potato masher to desired consistency. Add vanilla sugar to taste (you must taste to know how sweet the berries are, but I start with a teaspoon and add until it’s just right) and let macerate for a while until you can't stand it any longer and have to eat shortcake NOW.

Make your own whipped cream, using the best organic heavy whipping cream you can find and more vanilla sugar (or sugar + vanilla extract). I use less than a teaspoon for a half-pint of cream.

Assemble, or pass the bowls of strawberries and cream and let your guests customize their dish. Sit back and revel in summer.

Note: If you don’t make vanilla sugar yourself, add a splash of vanilla to the berries and another splash to the whipped cream.