Genius Recipe: James Beard's Strawberry Shortcakes

Every week, at Food52.com, we're digging up Genius Recipes -- the ones that make us rethink cooking myths, get us talking, and change the way we cook.

Today: The perfect strawberry shortcake for all berry season long -- thanks to an odd secret ingredient.

strawberry shortcake

- Kristen Miglore, Senior Editor, Food52.com

Sweet, ripe summer strawberries deserve lots of whipped cream and the perfect shortcake. And the secret to the perfect shortcake? It's sitting in your fridge right now, and it's going to surprise you.

>>RELATED: See 7 Sweet Strawberry Recipes on FOOD52.


strawberries

The late cookbook author James Beard -- often called the father of American cuisine -- learned this trick for a tender, airy cake from his mother: Egg yolks.

Not so strange, right? But here's the kicker: they're from hard-boiled eggs.

sifting dry ingredients

It might sound like one of the last things you want stirred in with your dry ingredients, but crumbly cooked yolk adds just enough richness without weighing down or gumming up the dough.

>>RELATED: See 10 Desserts with 5 Ingredients or Less on FOOD52.

This also means it's more forgiving. You needn't be on edge, worrying you'll overwork the pastry. No tough cakes here: you've got insurance.

egg yolks

James Beard is no longer around for us to quiz about this method, but it's become a popular technique among other chefs who love their shortcakes, so we can ask them.

>>RELATED: See another genius strawberry recipe on FOOD52, this time a sorbet.

In The Pie and Pastry Bible, Rose Levy Beranbaum relies on hard-cooked yolk for her biscuit dough. In an email, Beranbaum explained, "It adds a beautiful golden color and velvety tender texture." And, she adds, "unlike raw egg yolk, it does not get absorbed into the flour" -- a plus for keeping it light.

shortcake dough

Because the fluffy yolk floats freely in the dough, food scientist Harold McGee theorizes, "I imagine that it would give you a shorter, crumblier texture than you'd get by spreading the yolk proteins and fats evenly through the dough." And it does indeed -- the crumb is fine and delicate.

shortcakes

It's likely that the technique was around before even Beard's mother's time. But the Beards' version is a very good one, and has since been handed down from chef to chef, even popping up in recent years in the pastry curriculum at the French Culinary Institute -- an impressive pedigree for what was once just a clever home cook's trick.

>>RELATED: See 10 Summer Pies and Tarts on FOOD52.


strawberries

In other words, yes, there's one tiny extra step: you have to boil a few eggs. But it's worth it. This recipe reliably converts anyone who tastes its charms.

whipped cream

Beard's strawberry shortcake became the signature dessert at the iconic New York restaurant An American Place in the 1980s. As the story goes, when Beard tasted his mother's dessert there -- in the setting of a fine New American dining room -- he said: "There can be no dessert better, only fancier." And he was right.

shortcakes

James Beard's Strawberry Shortcakes

From The James Beard Foundation, adapted from An American Place by Larry Forgione (Morrow, 1996)

Serves 6

For the shortcakes:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled, cut into small cubes
2 hard-boiled egg yolks, pushed through a small mesh sieve
(see our favorite way to hard-cook eggs)
3/4 cup heavy cream, chilled
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted


For the strawberry filling:

3 pints fresh strawberries, washed, hulled, and halved or quartered, depending on size
2 tablespoons sugar


For the whipped cream:

1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon sugar

1. Sift together the flour, 1/4 cup of the sugar, and the baking powder into a bowl. Add 6 tablespoons of the chilled butter pieces and, using your fingertips, work the butter into the flour mix until it has the consistency of coarse crumbs. Add the sieved hard-boiled egg yolks and the cream; gently mix until it the dough just comes together.

2. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured board and gently knead to make a smooth dough (about two or three turns). Pat down the dough to make a 1-inch-thick round. Using a lightly floured 2 1/2-inch-round cookie cutter, cut out 6 shortcakes. Brush the tops with the melted butter and sprinkle with the reserved tablespoon of sugar. Place the shortcakes on a plate lined with waxed paper or plastic wrap and refrigerate for an hour.

3. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Transfer the chilled shortcakes to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake on the center rack of the oven for 12 to 15 minutes, until golden and firm to the touch. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly. Ask a question about this step

4. While the shortcakes cool, prepare the fruit filling and whipped cream: place the strawberries in a glass bowl and add the sugar. Gently stir and let sit for 1 to 2 minutes.

5. Whip the cream and sugar together in a medium bowl until the cream just begins to thicken.

6. Using a fork or serrated knife, cut the shortcakes in half lengthwise. Place the bottom halves on 6 plates and generously spoon the macerated fruit and juices over them. Top with a heaping dollop of lightly whipped sweetened cream. Top with the top halves of the shortcakes.

Save, print, and see a slideshow of this recipe here.

Want more genius? Check out Barbara Kafka's Simplest Roast Chicken, Anne Dimock's Straight-Up Rhubarb Pie, and Daniel Patterson's Poached Scrambled Eggs.

Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at kristen@food52.com.

strawberry shortcake

Photos by James Ransom