Doing a cooking demonstration for strangers is part Food Network, part Comedy Central. The first time I tossed a salad in front of an audience, at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market back in 2001, I was very nervous. Would my knife skills be sneered at? Would I forget to add some crucial ingredient, or go blank in the middle of an explanation of whisking or macerating?
Former Bay Area pastry chef David Lebovitz set my mind at ease. “Make them laugh! They just want to be entertained; no one’s going to be watching what you do,” he said, just before going out in front of the crowd and doing just that. Yes, on that day, if you watched carefully, you could learn how David made his truly excellent brownies, plus a dried-fruit compote with which to dress them up. But mostly, David made the crowd laugh. They had a good time with him, and what could make a brownie taste better?
So that’s what I try to do, make ‘em laugh–in between pleading with them to buy fresh baking powder, use a microplane for grating orange rind, and stop storing the spices over the stove (where they dry out and turn to dust so tasteless than no one could pick the rubbed sage from the smoked paprika).
But man, sometimes you guys are a tough crowd, clutching your xeroxed recipe sheets, staring up at the counter with all the enthusiasm of an after-lunch trigonometry class on the last day before summer vacation. Are you simply in it for the samples? Or do all my attempts to squeeze a little Liz Lemon into the soup just fall flat?
Be that as it may, I was booked as the talent yesterday at CUESA‘s Berry Celebration, down at the Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market. So, a joyful reason to cook with berries was in order.
Now, in my house, “cooking with berries” rarely happens. Why? Because the berries go fast from carton to mouth. Sometimes they make it into the cereal bowl or the pancake batter; once a summer there is blueberry pie. In my opinion, cream is the only embellishment a perfect raspberry needs, and the best blackberry is the winey, sun-warmed one you pick yourself from a dusty tangle at the side of the road.
However, topping a bowl of Grape-Nuts with blueberries, or mashing them down into a bowl of vanilla ice cream, is a little short on the show biz a cooking demo requires. No, what I needed here was a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants…or in this case, a sassy how-to for Double Berry Shortcake, with warm orange-scented biscuits layered with triple-berry jam, honey whipped cream, and fresh berries.
Now, the first thing to know about making biscuits is that they die young. A warm biscuit fresh from the oven is a heavenly thing. A few hours later, meh. Starch and butter, never a bad thing, but nothing for which to thank your mama and the good Lord for bringing you into the world and giving you a mouth. So, for best results, bake your biscuits not more than an hour or two before serving. If you can get them to the table still slightly warm, all the better. (Blazing-hot biscuits will melt the whipped cream, however, so do let them cool for at least 15 minutes or so before using.)
The second thing is that baking powder, too, has a shelf life, and if you bought it three boyfriends ago, you need to splash out and spend the buck and a half to get a new container. There’s an expiration date on the bottom of the can. Heed it.
Finally, the box grater. Mostly these are useless, except to grate carrots for carrot cake or potatoes for latkes. But they have one more use, as I remembered just minutes before Saturday’s little show-and-tell. Rub your cold, firm stick of butter through the big holes into your bowl of flour, and you’ll get a near-instant, pastry-perfect mix. Keep your hands gentle and your touch light, and stamp out your biscuits with a wavy-edged biscuit cutter for the cutest final product.
As for the berry filling, you can make it with any mixture of raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, ollalieberries, or marionberries. The secret? Quick-cooking tapioca. It thickens the berries up without any tell-tale lumps or bumps, giving it the texture of perfectly gelled pie filling. If you have any extra berry filling, spoon it into a clean jar, refrigerate and use within a couple of weeks. Because of the tapioca thickener, it should not be sealed in canning jars for room-temperature storage like regular homemade jam. If you’ve never used tapioca before, look for the little red box of Minute brand next to the boxes of Jell-O.
(And then save the rest to make Heidi Swanson’s creamy tapioca pudding, on a night when nothing but sweet eggy custard will soothe your battered soul.)
As for the cream, you’d be surprised what goes into the average carton of supermarket cream, from mono- and di-glycerides to carrageenan. Instead, look for the Clover organic or Straus organic heavy cream, both made of fresh, dairy-sweet local cream and nothing but.
And finally, when it comes to the berries, be as generous as you can. Blueberries for Sal! Tayberries for You! Berries, berries everywhere! You cannot have too many.
Double Berry Shortcake with Honey Cream
Light, fluffy biscuits get layered with a jammy berry filling, drenched with honey-sweetened whipped cream, and topped with more fresh berries.
Serves 6 to 8, depending on size of biscuits
For Shortcake Biscuits:
2 cups all-purpose white flour, preferably unbleached
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
grated rind of 1 orange
8 TB (1 stick or 1/2 cup) butter, chilled
1/2 cup milk plus 1 TB (you may need slightly more or less)
For Berry Filling:
2 TB water
1 TB quick-cooking tapioca, such as Minute brand
juice of half a lemon
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups mixed berries, such as blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries
2 tsp Chambord or cassis liqueur, optional
For Honey Cream:
1/2 pint heavy (whipping) cream
1 TB honey, or to taste
a few drops of orange extract or orange liqueur (such as Grand Marnier), or 1/4 tsp grated orange rind, optional
2 to 3 cups mixed fresh berries
1. To make shortcake biscuits: Preheat oven to 400°F. Lightly grease a round cake pan.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, and salt.
3. Using a box grater, grate chilled butter into flour mixture. (You can also pulse ingredients together in a food processor until just pebbly.) Toss buttter-flour mixture together lightly, until butter is covered with flour and evenly mixed throughout.
3. Measure 1/2 cup milk in a glass measuring cup, then break in egg and beat together. Drizzle over flour mixture and mix gently into a soft dough. If dough seems dry, add additional milk as needed.
4. Turn out onto a floured countertop or cutting board. Pat into an even 1-inch-thick round. Using a floured biscuit cutter or the rim of a small drinking glass, cut out 6 to 8 biscuits (number may vary depending on the size of your cutter). Fit biscuits into cake pan, sides touching.
5. Bake 15-20 minutes, until tops are pale gold. Remove from baking sheet and let cool on a rack.
6. To make quick berry filling: In a small, heavy-bottomed pot, mix water, tapioca, lemon juice, sugar, and berries together. Over medium-low heat, bring to a simmer. Simmer, stirring frequently, until berries have collapsed and mixture is deep purple and jammy, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Let cool (it will thicken as it cools) and refrigerate until needed. Stir in liqueur before serving, if desired.
7. To make honey cream: Pour cream into a chilled bowl and whip with a whisk or hand-held electric mixer until beater begins to leave traces on the surface of the cream. Add honey and extract or rind if desired. Continue beating until cream is thick enough to mound up on a spoon.
8. To assemble shortcakes: Using a small sharp knife, split biscuit. Put bottom half on biscuit in a shallow bowl. Spread with a generous spoonful of preserves. Top with some fresh berries and a spoonful of cream. Top with top half of biscuit, more cream and fresh berries. Repeat with remaining biscuits.