it must be the sunlight. or something in the air. or somewhere deep inside of me where there is the trigger. the little cord that yanks when i walk into the grocery store these days and see a peach.
not just any peach. a peach nearly garnet red, and just soft enough so when i pick it up to give a gentle squeeze, the evidence is left behind. little indents that match precisely the tips of my fat fingers. little indents that would mark me guilty, should the produce man ever haul me in a line-up to determine who’s been doing all the groping of the soft-fleshed summer fruit.
or better yet, weeks ago, when i sauntered by the stand at the farmer’s market, and eyed the little balsa-wood baskets of field-picked ruby berries. strawberries. lined up all in a row, offering their very seeds and souls to the cause.
the cause, of course, is shortcake. ‘tis the season for the shortest cakes i know.
those bumpy golden squats of cloud-like dough. cumulus, a whole sky full, lined up on baking sheet, if i’ve been lazy and not used a biscuit cutter. or scalloped round, and uniform, the effervescence coming in the puffy tops, if i’ve not been lazy, if i followed shortcake etiquette and unearthed the cutter from the bottom of the baking drawer.
i learned these things, the easy way, the proper way, to form a shortcake, at the sturdy elbow of lucille.
lucille we call her now, now that she is gone, and her name alone captures just a glint of who she was, her not-lucy, no-nickname, just-lucille-thank-you solid german spirit.
but, then, when she was here and would have boxed us in the ears for such informality, she was grandma, or oma, my mother’s mother and the only one i ever got to cook beside in the steamy cincinnati kitchen where she was undisputed queen, down there in what the locals call the queen city.
i was merely sous, pure underling. i was, probably, just in the way. but she never really said so, so i learned a thing or two.
cutout “basic cookies” would be one (she called them basic; we call them classic, what with their stick of butter and inter-racial sugars, dark brown and white). pineapple upside down cake, in cast-iron skillet, again with stick (or two) of butter, would be two. and, doing the arithmetic, i suppose the shortcake that my papa loved (and, thus, she loved him back) would be no. 3 in the baking department. cooking, well that’s a whole ‘nother thing, for a whole ‘nother day.
and so it was, when just the other afternoon that peach called out to me, so perfect with the little leaf still attached to the quarter-inch of stem, i beckoned lucille.
i marched straight to where i hold what might as well be her ashes, it is so much the essence of her being, only instead it is the banged-up, slightly rusty tin marked, simply, straight-forwardly, “recipes.”
as i cracked the lid and tiptoed my finger tops through the alphabet of “what’s cookin’?” index cards, one after another a whole parade of the best of lucille–baked alaska pie, bourbon balls, gooey bars (not to be confused with gooey butter cake), right on to yumyum cookies–i heard her whispering over my shoulder. at the start, that is. but then i swear she might as well have pulled up a stool and perched beside me, she was so clearly there.
it was as if the search for shortcake was some sort of seance that brought her to me, and suddenly i was muttering, “darn it, lucille, where are those shortcakes? they must be in here. you made them every blessed steamy cincinnati night. which, by the way, would be the entire summer.”
hmm. no shortcakes. not scribbled in her proud secretarial shorthand, the one that forever marked her as a woman with a career under her belt, a schoolgirl smart enough to have moved on to learn to type and take dictation in what now might be dismissed as vocational school, but then, when few were chosen, set her apart, made her a girl with smarts to match her aspirations.
on my second futile spin through my grandma’s alphabet, where i noticed a marked expansion at the Ds–dessert, her downfall, her pride and joy, her way of heaping love onto a plate–it dawned on me that there was no shortcake scribble because this one she could do in her sleep.
i can see her now, sifting flour, cutting butter, making pea-sized grains of flour-butter doughbits. but, darn it, i cannot see closely enough to know if it’s one stick or two of butter, and a cup or a cup and a half of sifted flour. i have no clue what else might be in her mix, her magic potion.
so there i was, fully hearing the call of the shortcake, but having no clear route to get there.
i thought about winging it, but, nah, that might just lead to leaden clouds. a cirrus when what i want, surely, is cumulus.
so i did the next best thing. i left lucille and her tin of well-worn, butter-smeared, “what’s cookin’?” cards, and i wandered over to where the silver palate girls were waiting, twiddling their buttered thumbs, wondering why i’d not come calling sooner.
heck, they’ve been on my shelf for 25 years, a whole quarter century i spell out for elongated emphasis. heck, they’re the ones who taught me much, much, much about how to cook and how to, simply, abundantly, take it up a notch.
sure enough, they do not leave me without a path to puffy clouds. right there, spilling across pages 276 and 277, complete with signature black-on-white line drawing, they told me just what i needed to do to catch me a shortcake cloud, on short notice.
lest i leave you high and dry, i’ll be sure to leave instructions just down below. in case, you too, are looking skyward, and you need some clouds to go with all your celestial summer fruit.
fear not, lucille, i’ll be back for something soon. perhaps my boys would love a little morsel from your gooey-gooey repertoire. why don’t you give some thought to what might set them to drooling, just the way i used to do?
strawberry shortcake, ala silver palate cookbook
makes 6 shortcakes
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
4 tablespoons sweet butter, chilled
1/2 cup light cream
6 cups strawberries, sliced and sugared to taste (here, lucille would slice her peaches and bathe them in a brown sugar bath. just so you know; it’s what i did)
1 1/2 cups heavy cream, chilled
12 perfect (their descriptive, not mine) strawberries (the garnish, thank you)
1. preheat oven to 450 degrees.
2. sift flour, sugar, salt and baking powder together in a mixing bowl.
3. cut in 4 tablespoons butter until mixture resembles oats. pour in cream and mix gently until just blended.
4. roll dough onto floured work surface to a thickness of 5/8
inch. (for heaven’s sake, they expect a ruler, here.) cut into 3-inch circles with cookie cutter (or upside-down juice glass, if you are lucille). gather scraps, roll again and cut more rounds; you should have 6 rounds.
5. bake shortcakes on greased baking sheet for about 10 minutes, or until puffed and lightly browned.
6. cool the biscuits slightly, split them, and spread softened butter lightly over the cut surfaces. set the bottoms on dessert plates; spoon on sliced strawberries, and crown with the tops of the biscuits. whip chilled cream, and spoon a dollop onto each shortcake, then garnish with a single perfect strawberry. serve immediately.
note: to make drop (or lazy) biscuits, use an additional 1/4 cup cream and drop the dough by large spoonfuls onto the baking sheet. bake as directed.
please, step right up, if you can top the shortcakes up above. do tell your secrets. or the story of the summer sweet that brings someone you loved back into the holy communion of the cookstove, where the two of you, joined by numbered steps, once again heat up the kitchen together.