Pushing Summer Strawberry Shortcakes

Summer is my favorite season and I’m not completely sure why because, like birthdays, the expectations run high and the disappointments can take you down low. But I can’t help myself. Every year I look forward to the weather warming up and the sun delivering its shiny dose of happiness. S.A.D., be gone!

As a child, summer is all about a break from homework and the release from the restlessness of being indoors. Even as an adult you can’t help but succumb to that school’s out for summer vacation-y, anything is possible feeling. Although I remember a certain summer where the pressure was worse than any I’d experienced during a school semester; the year I graduated from college and was forced to face up to what I’d done a pretty good job at avoiding, real life. While my friends jumped on their bikes or hopped on planes bound for European trains, I stayed put—too nervous about finding a job to take those few weeks to explore. As if a month Eurailing would de-rail my entire future.
So, living back at my parents’ apartment and feeling that sea of time with no buoys feeling, I started my job search. It seemed like every day I put on my lapel-less, shoulder padded, red, linen, Working Girl, power suit, waded though the humidity to the subway station at 96th & Lexington and headed to an employment agency or informational meeting with the friend of a family friend, handed over my internship-stuffed resume and hoped for the best. Only to climb up those same subway stairs a few hours later, blow dried hair fully surrendering to the Israeli folk dancer lurking within, silk shirt stuck to my back, pantyhose digging into my waist. And who thought a linen suit was a smart fabric choice for presenting my best, buttoned up self? By the time I arrived anywhere I looked like a used dish rag. Maybe that’s why I didn’t find a job until October when I traded linen for wool.
It’s been over twenty years since that hideous, nerve wracking, waste of a summer. I don’t think women even wear sheer pantyhose anymore, unless they’re flight attendants. Unfortunately, this year’s crew of college graduates is facing an employment environment not unlike the one we faced in the late 80’s. Yet somehow they seem to have a whole lot more swagger (or is that entitlement?) than I remember being able to summon up back in the day. Still, I can’t say I envy them.
Okay, this is getting way too nostalgic and I’d like to focus on this summer. As always, we’re being pushy by ringing it in with Memorial Day, about a month before the official start of the season. Oh, and let’s take a minute to acknowledge what the day is all about. Don’t you find that holidays just turn into days off from the regular grind without any attention paid to why you have the day off in the first place? On Monday why not pause for a minute and think about all those who’ve served and lost their lives for our country. When you really stop and take it all in it’s such an overwhelming concept. I can’t imagine making it through basic training much less fighting in any kind of combat. Now I’m thinking about Private Benjamin but really, it’s much more serious than that and between Iraq and Afghanistan there are a lot of men, women (and their families) who have made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf. They deserve some thought. As a wise man once wrote, "attention must be paid."
Oh dear. Now I’ve been nostalgic and depressing when I was supposed to be explaining why summer is my favorite season. Unemployment? War? What’s there to love? Well, there’s sand, surf, ice cream cones, long, warm days, barbequing, the smell of suntan lotion, bad top 40 hits, blockbuster popcorn movies, picnics, lobster, sweet corn, tomatoes that taste like tomatoes, and all of my favorite fruits! First up are strawberries.
When you bite into a locally grown strawberry, as opposed to the steroidal berries that come to you in a plastic box straight from Plant City, FL (I love that there is a place called Plant City), it is hard to believe they are both members of the same species, fragaria ananassa. I usually think of June as prime strawberry time but they hit the markets within the last week and I am not waiting one minute longer to celebrate them. Of course eating them like candy straight from the box (after a quick rinse) is fantastic. I also love them with vanilla ice cream topped with balsamic vinegar and even some cracked pepper. Anything that keeps them in their raw, juicy state is great. But summer wouldn’t be summer without strawberry shortcake. There are lots of ways to pull this off but I’m a fan of the individual shortcake, whipped cream, berry composition (no surprise there since I can control each cream to berry to cake forkful) as opposed to the slices of cake or one mega biscuit to be split among the group.
This recipe is great because you can make the components a few hours ahead of time and put them together right before serving. Letting the juices soak into the bottom of the cakes for just a bit before piling on the cream, more berries and the top of the cakes is key for me. Yay, I’m excited about summer again. Oh wait, next month is my birthday. Ugh. Strawberry shortcake, please! And make mine a double.
Adapted from Barefoot Contessa Parties, 2001, by Ina Garten
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2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
12 tablespoons cold unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), diced
2 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup heavy cream, chilled

1 egg beaten with 2 tablespoons water or milk, for egg wash

1 cup heavy cream, chilled
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 pounds strawberries, hulled and halved or quartered (depending on berry size) to medium size slices
5 tablespoons sugar


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

In a medium bowl toss strawberries with the 5 Tablespoons of sugar and set aside to allow juices to develop for at least 30 minutes. If you are doing this for use later in the day, refrigerate until ready to use.
Meanwhile, sift the flour, 1 tablespoon sugar, the baking powder, and salt into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.

On lowest speed blend in the butter until the butter is the size of peas.
Combine the eggs and heavy cream and quickly add to the flour and butter mixture. Mix until just blended. The dough will be very sticky.
Turn out dough onto a very well-floured surface. Flour your hands (a lot) and pat the dough out 3/4-inch thick. You want to see pieces of butter in the dough.

Cut 6 biscuits with a 2 3/4-inch cutter (fluted looks nicest), pushing cutter straight into dough and lifting straight up (do not twist or shortcake won't rise) and place on a prepared baking sheet.

Brush the tops with the egg wash. Sprinkle with sugar and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, the outside will be crisp and firm to touch. Cool on a wire rack.
While shortcakes cool, whip the cream and 2 Tablespoons of sugar together until soft peaks form. Add the vanilla and continue to beat until the peaks are stiff.

Split each shortcake in half crosswise and place the bottom half on its own plate. Distribute 1/2 the strawberries and their juices over the bottom half of shortcakes, add generous dollops of whipped cream, more berries and top with reserved shortcake tops. OR make your shortcakes open faced and just use one half, top with berries and then whipped cream. Either way, yum.

Yield: 6 Strawberry Shortcakes with tops or 12 opened face.

While Ina Garten has you pat out and cut the dough I should say that it is a bit challenging. (Hence why I didn't take any photos, my hands were covered in shortcake.) If your dough is super sticky I don't see why you can't use a big spoon to pull 6 large pieces away from the mound OR use your hands and pat lightly. You want to handle the dough as little as possible because there is so much liquid in it and too much playing with it will really activate the gluten in the flour and give you a tough shortcake.


Saturday Make Your Own Sundae Sauces

In the past month I have been to three Bar Mitzvahs, thus doubling the number I have attended in my life time. For someone who grew up in New York City, is Jewish, and is in her 40’s that is a pretty pitiful record. When I revealed my lack of experience in the coming-of-age ceremony of my people to my fellow celebrants, they were shocked. I actually don’t find it that surprising. Being a Jewish teenager in the single-sex, private school world I was a part of was an entirely different experience in the 1970’s than I believe it is now—it was something about your identity that just kind of existed but wasn’t something you purposely drew attention to. I’m not really sure why. And, it was in stark contrast to the kids in the suburbs with whom I spent my summers at camp. Those girls had Bat Mitzvahs, practiced Hebrew on portable tape decks in the bunk, received Cross pens and personalized Lucite clip boards as gifts, and talked about their Torah portions. And it was a totally secular camp. Oddly, I felt like I wasn’t Jewish enough during those eight weeks in Maine and felt conspicuously Jewish the rest of the year.
What I was so struck by, at the services I attended in the last month, was how joyful and celebratory they were. The boys’ friends seemed so comfortable and full of pride. I was envious. There didn’t seem to be any ambivalence when they all leapt to their feet and followed the Bar Mitzvah boys (it was a double whammy, they were twin brothers) around the sanctuary in a rousing dance, they sang along to the Hebrew songs and followed enthusiastically in the prayer books. And, despite having gone to “Wednesday school” at our Reform synagogue through ninth grade, the year we were “confirmed,” I don’t remember any Hebrew and know no songs. I felt totally out of it.
According to my co-guests, the parties were relatively low-key (but lovely) in comparison to some of the over-the-top shindigs you hear about parents giving their 13 year old kids. One friend told me of a family that transformed an enormous, trendy venue into a Moroccan fantasia dubbed “Callie’s Casbah”, complete with live camels! Yet, even in their calmer states, the celebrations were far and above what my siblings had experienced. Yes, I was not a Bat Mitzvah but my younger sister was, because she is a classicist and wanted to study ancient Hebrew. We celebrated her efforts with a family luncheon. And it was always expected that my brother would be a Bar Mitzvah (sexist? Maybe) but even his party consisted of a group of friends and a caricaturist chez Mom and Dad.
So, there was no “Look at us! We’re Jews!!!” when I was a kid. But then again, there are a lot of things that weren’t going on when I was young. Like the get-ups some of these 7th grade girls thought were appropriate. Let’s remember that it was lunchtime; I don’t know about you but I usually wait until dark to break out the gold sequins. I’m also more comfortable when my skirt actually covers my rear. Thank goodness no one dropped anything because none of these girls was in any condition to bend over and retrieve it. The comments coming from my friends missed the point, “Can you believe their mothers let them walk out of the house like that?!” Hello? Who do you think bought the outfit in the first place?!
Everyone talks about how kid-focused our culture is today: from strollers that look like (and cost as much as) an SUV to tutors for anything and everything starting at six months. One thing that I am actively jealous of is the “Kids’ Menu.” Recently, a restaurant opened in Park Slope to much fan fare. Until the patrons realized there was nothing child friendly for their children to eat and made a big stink. And the restaurant responded! I don’t remember any special menu when I was a kid! The thinking was if I was too young to enjoy what the grown-ups ate I was too young to go to a restaurant.
Anyway, not knowing about the prevalence of the Kids’ Menu I completely mis-ate at the Bar Mitzvah parties. Who knew the kids had their own dining room and I could have been eating mac n’ cheese instead of salmon? What a treat! And it wasn’t until I had polished off a piece of chocolate cake (shaped like the open scrolls of the Torah!), a chocolate chip cookie, and a mini-brownie that I learned of the make-your-own-sundae bar. What?! I love making my own sundaes! But even I couldn’t justify a fourth dessert.
I figure I have about three years until my next Bar Mitzvah invitation so I won’t have to confront my religious demons again until then. But next time I’ll be armed with the knowledge that with a little snooping I might be able to nab a chicken finger or two. In the meantime, I can practice my sundae making skills—along with my Hebrew.Note: Obviously, this is my ideal sundae and you should do what makes you happiest. What I chose is a scoop of mint ice cream, topped with the fudge sauce, whipped cream, and sliced almonds AND a scoop of coffee ice cream, topped with the caramel sauce, whipped cream, and chopped hazelnuts. Don't give me hard time about buying cream in a can--there is something about spraying whipped cream which is so much more satisfying than plopping it from a bowl. And it looks prettier. (At least I didn't buy Reddi-Wip! This stuff is all-natural.) I'm also a big fan of fruit and chocolate so my next sundae will be strawberry ice cream and hot fudge!
Saturday Make Your Own Sundae Sauces
from Martha Stewart Everyday Food, June 2010
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Fudge Sauce
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
4 Tablespoons sweet butter, cut into small pieces
3 ounces (1/2 cup) semi sweet chocolate chips
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate (I used one square of Baker's)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch of coarse salt

Combine sugar and cream in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
When mixture boils stir often until sugar dissolves, about 2 minutes.
Add butter and chocolates
and stir until chocolate melts and is smooth, 2 minutes.
Stir in vanilla and salt.
Yield: 1 cup

Caramel Sauce
1/2 cup light-brown sugar
1/4 cup heavy cream
4 Tablespoons sweet butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch of coarse salt

Combine sugar, cream and butter in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat
Cook, stirring until butter melts and mixture is smooth.
Reduce to a simmer and stir occasionally for 5 minutes.
Stir in vanilla extract and salt.
Yield: 2/3 cup


Please Stop Talking Foodie Pineapple Upside-Down Cake

I have the worst restaurant seating karma. Without fail, I wind up at the least desirable table at any given eatery. And what’s worse is it’s often my own fault. I once arrived for dinner at a place that was super crowded. I was already nervous that my friend, who had warned me he was cranky and hungry but had yet to show up, would be irritated if we had to wait too long for a table given his self-diagnosed low blood sugar issue. A table for two had just opened up so I said “Yes!” when the maitre d’ asked if I’d take it. I knew I was in for it the minute I sat down. I was led waaayyy in the back, wedged between two loud parties of four, and equi-distant from both the swinging kitchen door and the less than fresh smelling bathrooms. I immediately cursed myself for letting my anxiety get in the way of my patience. For, a lovely table by the window in front became available just three minutes later as my friend walked through the door with a “What were you thinking?” roll of the eyes and a furrowed brow. But it was too late. I was half-way through my first glass of Chenin Blanc and we resigned ourselves to an evening of “pardon-me-scuse-me” and yelling across the table to each other to be heard over the din of the Carrie Bradshaw wannabes sitting to my right.
The other night Rich and I got out of a late movie and were excited to find a pleasant looking table ready for us at a restaurant which is normally hard to penetrate. Company, a high-end pizza place in Chelsea created by bread baking guru Jim Lahey, serves charred, crusty pies with inventive toppings and I’ve been wanting to try it since it opened. So, we took a table along a long wall, I sat inside (as the lady or the mobster always should) and my heart sank. Sitting to my left were two young guys vying for the Most Annoying Jackass Foodie Award of 2010. Jerk #1: “Dude, I bought amazing ricotta fresca from the yadda-yadda creamery when I hit the Hudson Valley this weekend. It was sick!” Jerk #2: “No, dude. I just picked up like the most incredible ramps at Union Square. I’m totally making Floyd Cardoz’ sautéed spinach and ramps, he uses lentils too. It’s gonna be sick.” And blah, blah, blah.
It was all I could do to keep from letting out a primal scream. What I wanted to yell was, “Shut the Hell up! I don’t care about your precious ricotta, or your ramps, or the Union Square Greenmarket! And stop saying sick when you’re talking about food! You’re making me sick!”
Yes, I sound like an angry, crazy lady because I really hate foodies. First of all, I hate the word. What does it even mean? They care about food more than someone else does? And who decides who cares most? People care about food in their own way. But second of all, there is nothing worse than the one up-manship of the foodie; it is so New York. The constant competition of who knows their butcher’s first name, who travels (by subway of course—you need to be green) to the outer-most borough to source the best buffalo mozzarella or roof cultivated honey or rice noodles and who wins?
Look, if the care and feeding of your food before it comes to your restaurant or kitchen table is meaningful to you, great. That is a good thing. But it’s the ad nauseum soliloquies of so many cooks and diners that sends my blood pressure skyward and threatens a stroke. Why can’t we just enjoy our meals and not talk them to death? It’s like what my parents say about my generation’s habit of analyzing the minutiae of every fragile relationship…”too much talk!” (So true, and a lesson I have yet to learn.)

When did all of this food fetishizing start? Do we blame Top Iron Chef? Alice Waters? Gordon Ramsay and his Hell’s Kitchen Kitchen Nightmares? Which came first? The foodie or the (local, organic) egg?
When our dining neighbors readied themselves to leave they noticed our pondering of the menu, leaned over and said, “Get the ramp pizza. It’s killer.” We did and it was. But I refuse to talk about it.
As a reaction to my foodie rage I embarked on the least foodie-ish dessert I could think of that I would actually still want to eat. How about something with an ingredient that comes out of a can and has the (optional) addition of maraschino cherries? The top of this cake is so moist it is almost juicy and really has a tarte tatin vibe to it with sticky, caramelized pineapple. Try it with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream or or Greek yogurt or crème fraiche. It’s sick.
Please Stop Talking Foodie Pineapple Upside-Down Cake
From Heirloom Baking with the Brass Sisters, Marilyn Brass & Sheila Brass, 2006
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½ cup butter, melted
1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
7 slices/rings of canned pineapple in juice (not 'heavy syrup') from 20 oz can, and 5 Tablespoons reserved juice
1 cup cake flour (not self rising)
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
3 eggs, separated
1 cup white granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
7 Maraschino cherries (optional)

Preheat oven to 350. Rack should be in middle position.
Sift together cake flour, baking powder and salt into a medium bowl and set aside.
In 9 inch cake pan, swirl butter to coat the bottom and sides of pan. (Do it over the sink in case of drips) Most will settle to the bottom.
Sprinkle brown sugar over the bottom of the pan.
Using a paper towel pat pineapple slices dry on both sides and arrange in a decorative pattern on the bottom of the pan.
In a large bowl stir egg yolks just to break them up and add sugar, vanilla and 5 Tablespoons of reserved pineapple juice. Mix well and stir in flour mixture until combined. Set aside.
Place egg whites in bowl of electric mixer fitted with whisk attachment and beat until just stiff but not dry.
Fold egg whites into the batter already in the large bowl until fully combined.
Pour batter into cake pan.
Bake 45-55 minutes until tester inserted into middle comes out clean.
Cook pan on rack 2-3 minutes then invert onto another cooling rack. It will still be quite warm and very moist. Scrape any remaining bits of sugar or fruit from pan onto top of cake and, if using, place maraschino cherries in center of each pineapple ring.
The cake is lovely served warm.

Yield: 8 slices.


Happy Mother's Day Just Like Nana's Fudge

So, this weekend is Mother’s Day and as always, I will not be celebrating my mother nor will I be celebrated. As I’ve mentioned before, my family of origin does not celebrate “Hallmark Holidays” but even if we did I would still be brunch-free this Sunday because my parents just boarded a plane bound for Asia. I know, lucky them. Since I don’t have my own kids I will not be awakened by the pitter patter of little feet presenting me with Bisquick pancakes at 6am, and for that I am quite grateful. I actually hate the idea of breakfast in bed. I’ve never understood why it is considered a fabulous luxury to literally wake up to food. I need some time in the morning. Don’t get me wrong, I love breakfast but can I please wash my face, brush my teeth and have a cup of coffee first? Plus, I get the hiccups if I eat semi-prone.
The whole Mother’s Day thing is another example of wanting what you don’t have. For some I think it feels like a burden to honor Mom on the second Sunday in May. What if there are tensions with spouses? Or you are unfortunate enough to have a mother who is historically hard to please? I’m sorry for you if you do because I don’t and I know that I’m lucky; I’d be happy to pat my mother on the back with a special treat if she wasn’t headed to the airport. I’ve already told the story of the awkward moment during my last Mother’s Day, 30 years ago, when my younger, maternal grandmother deferred to my older, paternal grandmother as we were passing them their gifts, by saying, “Age before beauty.” However, they are both on my mind this week.

Speaking of age, among the too many cookbooks on my shelves is my paternal grandmother’s tattered 1949 copy of “The Settlement Cookbook” which I nabbed from her before she died. (Don’t be sad, she was 95.) To look at it one would think I had a loving, warm Grandma who spent her days toiling in the kitchen. It’s held together with packing tape and crammed with makeshift bookmarks: shopping lists on bits of paper, a coupon for Dial deodorant that expired on 6/71, the 1967-68 schedule of Arts & Crafts classes at Riverside Church. Actually, I can only think of one dish (two, if you count the “toasted cheese” sandwiches she made in her toaster oven) my grandmother ever cooked and it was disgusting—she called it Maryland Chicken but it bore no resemblance to what Maryland Chicken is supposed to be. Her version was a baked, breaded, boneless chicken breast that had an unintended surprise when you cut into it: it was only halfway cooked! The sight of that beige, rubbery cutlet sitting on a plate next to a pile of grey, boiled string beans is burned on my brain. Have you lost your appetite yet? No wonder my father weighed 135 pounds when he left for college. Oh, and he’s six feet tall.

Regardless, I will never give the cookbook away because of its ironic meaning and also, I like old cookbooks. The thing about Grandma, my father’s mother, was that she always looked like a grandmother. She was 4’11”, had naturally white hair, and needed to lose 10 pounds or so. And she once picked me up at the airport in a peach and brown plaid rain coat and striped polyester slacks. So, she really should have been turning out comforting, Jewish grandmother-y food.
Nana, my mother’s mother, didn’t really look like a grandma. She had some pizazz. She was 5’7”, manicured nails, pack of Viceroys in a Vuitton case, and designer (wholesale, of course) duds. I’d like to think I inherited my “blond” hair from her. So, the fact that she didn’t have a signature dish would come as no surprise to anyone who met her. She literally never cooked a single meal for me ever. That drudgery was left to the housekeeper or the restaurant.
So, imagine my surprise when a few weeks ago my mother called excitedly to tell me that in an article on condensed milk the New York Times had printed a recipe for what seemed like Nana’s fudge, a treat I’ve heard about (but never really believed) over the years and which I think Mom attempted with us when we were kids. I thought it was so nice that she had memories of making fudge with my grandmother since Nana never cooked for her either. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that her olde timey family recipe was essentially the one that Eagle Brand and Carnation used to print on their can's label. We all have family myths we need to hang onto for whatever reason.
In fact, authentic, old-fashioned fudge is pretty hard to make well. I won’t go into the chemistry behind it but if you care, click here and learn some more. “Nana’s” recipe uses sweetened condensed milk rather than fresh milk (or cream) and sugar. It is a way to avoid the graininess that old school fudge can fall prey to, again, boring chemistry involving crystallization but just know this easy fudge is supremely good.

This Sunday I will help my nieces pay homage to their own mother since my brother-in-law is out of town and no one will be around to "cue the pancakes." And despite my devotion, I have no intention of getting to their house at the crack of dawn. But I will make “Nana’s” fudge and let the girls present it to one of the best mothers I know, my sister. And if I can resist temptation, I’ll set a few pieces aside to wait patiently for my own cute mother’s return. Happy Mother’s Day!
Happy Mother's Day Just Like Nana’s Fudge
Adapted from the New York Times, adapted from Michael Chu's Cooking for Engineers
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4 tablespoons butter, plus extra for greasing the pan
1 pound (3 cups) good quality semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips (I used Guittard Extra Semisweet Chocolate for a change. Ghiradelli 60% Cacao would be good too.)
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1/8 teaspoon salt (optional)
1/2 cup chopped, toasted nuts or dried fruit of your choice. (optional)


Grease an 8x8-inch square baking pan and line with two overlapping pieces of parchment or waxed paper. Paper should at least come up to the top of pan to later serve as handles.
Combine butter, chocolate, milk and salt in double boiler or pan set over simmering water OR place all ingredients in microwave safe bowl and nuke on medium for 20 second intervals, stirring between nukes. Either technique, heat just until completely melted. You don’t want the mixture to get too hot.
Scrape mixture into prepared pan and smooth with spatula. Refrigerate until set. At least 4 hours or overnight.Using wax paper, lift fudge on paper out of pan and use a large knife (a ruler is helpful too) to cut into one inch squares. If fudge is too stiff to cut, let it sit on the counter for a bit to soften.Yield: 49 one inch squares

: Fudge tastes even better when left to ripen a day or so in an airtight container.
NOTE 2: If you are someone who likes to shake-up your fudge with nuts or dried fruit, stir in ½ cup of your favorite to the mixture after melting but before scraping into prepared pan. My sister is a purist so there were no add-ins to my fudge.