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The History of Strawberry Shortcake


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Food: A Culinary History (European Perspectives)  

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These are the little pre made sponge cakes that are often sold in grocery stores for strawberry shortcake


What is a true Strawberry Shortcake?


When I talk about shortcake I am talking about the biscuit or scone like pastry and not the sponge cake little cups that you can buy in the grocery store next to the fresh strawberries. It is a tender pastry made from flour, butter or shortening, milk, sometimes eggs, baking powder and sugar.



What is "Short" about Shortcake?

Shortcake gets it's name from the adding of shortening or butter to a dough which makes it tender. Calling a baking lard or fat shortening comes from the term "to shorten" a 15th century term which meant, "easily crumbled". Probably because it's fibers were short unlike bread.

Here is a short cake that has short crumbly fibers

This bread holds together and does not crumble

Where did it first get started?

We don't know exactly when the first strawberry shortcake was made. We know it goes back as far as 1850.
Shortcake however is a European invention that goes back at least to the late 1500's.
Strawberries have been around more than 2000 years, we have records that show that ancient Rome, enjoyed them, but putting strawberries and shortcake together seems to be more of a United States tradition.
As with many classic dishes, when the timing is right, the dish becomes a national favorite.

We know that shortcake has been around at least since Shakespeare. It was mentioned in his play, The Merry Wives of Windsor.

. A European recipe book in 1594 had a recipe for Short Cakes. The crumbly shortcake which first resembled the texture and shape of a scone, became round when the typical triangular shaped pastries kept having the point break off. It was thought that the round shape became more practical.

Strawberry shortcake parties became popular in the United States around 1850, as a celebration of the coming of summer .Probably the most popular berry back then, people talked of strawberry fever. The railroads became transcontinental and strawberries could be shipped from coast to coast surrounded with ice to keep them fresh. Advertisements and articles about strawberry shortcake, caused more and more demand.
An often quoted line from Harpers Magazine in 1893 said, "They give you good eating, strawberries and short-cake- Ohh My!"

One of the early colonists remarked, "Doubtless the almighty COULD make a better berry, but doubtless he never did".

The earliest recipe that we have found for this dessert was in 1847.

It is called Strawberry Cake, but its very similar to what we call shortcake.

Strawberry Cake Recipe
from "The Lady's Receipt-Book"
by Miss Leslie,

published in 1847


Even during the Depression, the flour millers of Minneapolis still needed to sell their flour. The Betty Crocker cookbooks in the MHS collection show how General Mills encouraged women to use their products in baking and other cooking: the key words here are Bisquick and celebrities. Bisquick combined flour and fat to speed the baking and cooking process; movie stars helped struggling Americans to escape temporarily from their difficult lives. And movie stars using Bisquick - well, the combination must have seemed irresistible to the advertising folks at General Mills. The cookbooks emphasized the glamour of the stars, both men and women, with alluring portraits of the celebrities and their chosen dishes like Mary Pickford’s strawberry shortcake.

From the Minnesota Historical Society

What is the difference between Shortcake and Shortbread?

Short-bread is different than Shortcake and is a Scottish Specialty

Shortbread is more like the texture of a cookie. Shortcake is more like the texture of a scone.


So what is the history of Strawberries?

Strawberries have been around since early Roman times in Italy in the 200's BC.

Wild strawberries were around in the United states when the first colonists arrived. The Native indians made a bread from strawberries mixed with corn meal. Strawberries were so abundant that one wrote " You can't put your foot down without stepping on one".

Strawberry plants were not always big berries. Certain strawberry plants have been cross bred to create the large berries that we see today.

The origin of the name strawberry is a bit uncertain. Here some of the popular beliefs

The name may have been derived from the Anglo-Saxon verb to strew (spread) because strawberries spread out when they grow, and the fruit came to be known first as streabergen.

Berries on a straw?

Children use to thread the strawberries as they gathered them on a dried straw of wheat. They would even sell these on the roadside. perhaps they got their name from this practice.

If you saw a farmer's strawberry patch you would likely see straw mulched around all the berry plants. This is another possible way strawberries could have got their name.

The Future of Strawberry Shortcake

The traditional shortcake has really stood the test of time, and it is not overly calorie laden, and
so user friendly to most , I feel it will always be around.

Because many folks are looking to cut fat calories, lighter versions are sprouting up in healthy eating and weight
conscious recipe magazines. Angel food cake is a good substitute because there are no fat calories, and egg whites
are less calories than egg yolks. Strawberries are sweetened with a low calorie sweetener including Stevia.

Substituting white whole wheat pastry flour is a good option because the whole grain fiber, yet it is not
heavy like regular whole wheat flour, being pastry flour it is also gives a lighter texture dough and doesn't
have as much gluten.

Shortcake made with white whole wheat pastry crust.
courtesy of Completely edible blog

Tips on making the great strawberry shortcake

The most interesting technique I have seen is using hard boiled egg yolks in the shortcake dough.
It makes the dough have a richer and more crumbly texture. My grandmother use to make a cookie
that used hard boiled eggs yolks in it. You will find this in James Beard's favorite shortcake recipe below.

Cooks Illustrated suggests grating butter with a hand held grater into the dough. It incorporates better, to
and gives a flakier texture.

One of the problems with strawberry shortcake is that fresh strawberries won't stay on the shortcake but just fall on the plate when you are eating. Mashing 1/3 of the berries up a bit and adding them to the sliced berries gives them a bit of 'glue' so they cling to the shortcake.

Adding orange juice, or Grand Mariner to the strawberries adds a new layer of flavor.


Recipes and Links

Classic Strawberry Shortcake

James Beard's Favorite Strawberry Shortcake


Links and acknowledgements

Feeding America, historical cookbooks

Online Etymology dictionary

The Penguin Companion to Food
Alan Davidson


Other Recommended Books


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The History of Strawberry Shortcake