Every spring when I was a young woman living alone in Manhattan, I would buy strawberries to slice into my breakfast cereal in the mornings. It felt almost scandalously indulgent to add something as sublime as fresh strawberries to something as prosaic as Total with milk.
After the cereal was finished, I’d lift the bowl to my lips and drink the fragrant pink dregs. The sense that I was living a fine life would carry me through the morning, as I selected a padded-shoulder suit from my tiny closet, descended the stairs of my fifth-floor walk-up and rode the crammed subway to my editorial assistant job, where I spent the day photocopying.
But that’s part of the magic of strawberries: Not merely their knack for elevating plain foods, but the way they actually shine brightest against a plain background, including the background of a plain life.
As I write this, it is very nearly strawberry season here in the Highlands. Local strawberries are still a couple weeks away, but in far-off California, where upwards of 80 percent of our country’s strawberries are grown, peak harvest runs from March through June. If all goes well, the price of supermarket strawberries should soon be less than half of what it was in winter. (Not that price is the point when it comes to strawberries. The flavor of a cottony winter one is hardly worth a nickel in my book.)
“If all goes well” is a strange phrase to be writing under present circumstances. All is not going terribly well on so many levels. Even for the luckiest among us, life has been made much plainer by the shutdown. We are not gathering with friends to cheer on the lax bros or sip rosé beneath the lilacs, etc. A certain awkward cautiousness has descended on even the most casual attempt to invite a neighbor to join us for an afternoon walk. Our social muscles are atrophying just as surely as the ones we used to polish at the gym.
All of which is to say, we have never been in such dire need of — yes, that’s right — strawberries. Back on Mother’s Day, I got a head start conveying this urgency to my family, who, having slept through breakfast, had been guilted into making me dinner. Around noon, George, my oldest, wanted to walk me through his proposed menu, which included brownies for dessert.
“How about strawberry shortcakes?” I said.
“We could do brownies with strawberries.”
“How about strawberry shortcakes?” I repeated more slowly, as troubled by his slipping filial deference as I should have been at my lack of maternal gratitude.
Lucky me, I sat down that evening to a delicious dinner topped off by the most perfect strawberry shortcakes I’ve ever eaten.
I’ve developed a simpler recipe for this column. The biscuits take about half an hour, start to finish, and include oat flour, both because I love the gentle, nutty flavor of oats and because all-purpose flour is so scarce right now. Do not skip the step of macerating the strawberries ahead of time, so you can drizzle the shortcakes with the juices that accumulate in the bowl. And do not say the word macerate at the dinner table if you have kids of any age, including, as it happens, 20.
You may, however, take a moment to appreciate that, if all goes well, your snarky kids will soon have apartments of their own with their own prosaic breakfasts to deal with. For now, simply call attention to the fact that shortcakes are a glammed-up version of cereal with milk: plain carbohydrates and plain dairy, made marvelous by springtime strawberries.
Oaty Strawberry Shortcakes
Don’t forgo the sugar on the strawberries; it intensifies their flavor and brings out juices. The amount of it and the lemon will depend on the fruit’s ripeness. If you can’t find oat flour, you can make it by grinding quick (not instant) oats in a blender.
For the strawberries
2 to 3 teaspoons lemon juice, to taste
2 tablespoons butter, optional
2 to 4 teaspoons agave or maple syrup or sugar, or to taste
1. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone liner.
2. Prepare strawberries: Hull and slice berries. In a small bowl, combine with the sugar and lemon juice. Set aside until ready to serve (but no more than two hours or they’ll get soggy), mixing every 30 minutes to distribute juices.
3. Make biscuits: In a medium bowl, thoroughly whisk together the first five (dry) ingredients. Pour in the cream (don’t clean the cup measure) and, using a rubber spatula, gently fold it into the dry ingredients just until combined. Do not overmix.
4. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Pat it into a 4-by-6-inch rectangle (the size of a large postcard). Using a long, sharp knife dipped into the flour, cut the dough into six equal pieces, using a swift motion so as not to compress the dough.
5. Transfer each piece onto the prepared pan, brush the tops with a little of the cream in the cup measure, and bake until golden, 12 to 15 minutes. Allow to cool slightly,then slice open horizontally and spread each cut half with butter.
6. Make the whipped cream: In a small bowl, whip the heavy cream until soft peaks form. Add the vanilla and sweetener, and continue mixing just until fluffy.
7. To serve, spoon strawberries over the bottom half of each shortcake. Drizzle with accumulated juices, allowing some to saturate the biscuit. Dollop with whipped cream and top with other biscuit halves.