Strawberry Shortcake – A Short History

Sorry I’ve been so out of touch. Quite frankly, I’ve had no time to cook as I get the museum ready for opening day. But two weeks ago, while in the grocery store I spied a huge basket of strawberries and couldn’t resist picking them up. Sure, they weren’t local. Our strawberries won’t be ready until July. But they still looked good, and I decided to make Strawberry Shortcake.

Turns out Strawberry Shortcake is a quintessential American dish “invented” around the 1850s. Shortcakes have a much earlier history. A European recipe book from 1594 has a recipe for Short Cakes and Shakespeare mentions Short Cake in one of his plays.

These early cakes resembled scones, but eventually were rounded. The term shortcake refers to the shortening or butter in the dough which makes it tender. “To shorten” is a 15th century cooking term which means that the cake crumbles easily. Which is exactly what your shortcake biscuit should do.

Around the 1850s Americans got the bright idea of combining strawberries with shortcake for dessert. This was the time when the railroads first crossed the nation and strawberries could be shipped on ice from coast to coast. Several Victorian cook books had recipes and later advertisements and articles about strawberry short cake created more and more demand.

The earliest printed recipe is from The Lady’s Receipt-Book by Miss Leslie from 1847. Unlike today, the shortcake is covered with icing, rather than whipped cream. But other than that, it is very similar to today’s strawberry shortcake.

For me, I used a much more recent recipe from The New Hood Cook Book, 1941. It was super easy to make and very light and fresh tasting. Here’s the recipe: 

  • 2 cups sifted flour
  • 3 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/3 cup shortening (I used softened butter)
  • 3/4 cup cream
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 quart ripe strawberries

Sift flour, baking powder and salt.

Cut in shortening until mixture resembles fine cornmeal.

Combine cream and sugar.

Stir until sugar is dissolved.

Add to flour mixture, stirring quickly to form a very soft dough.

Drop in rather large, flat circles on an ungreased baking sheet.

Bake in a hot 450 degree oven for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile wash and hull the berries.

Cut or crush them and sweeten lightly with sugar.

Split the biscuits while still warm and flaky.

Spread the berries on top and serve.

Notice there is no mention of whipped cream. You really don’t need it as the lovely shortcake biscuits combined with the strawberries make a delightful dessert.


One Response to “Strawberry Shortcake – A Short History”

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  1. Vicki says:

    These sound great! Although I love making scones, my shortcake biscuits have never come out as anything other than hockey pucks! I’ll have to try this recipe!

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