Strawberry shortcake was a Christmas dish around Charles Ealy’s house growing up.
Ealy is the books and movies editor here at the Statesman, and if you mention strawberry shortcake, his ears will perk up from across the department. His grandmother, Elizabeth Ealy, was a dairy farmer in Hazel Green, Alabama, who made a from-scratch shortcake in a skillet and layered it with strawberries and whipped cream. It was a family treat every July 4, but especially on Christmas, when it was the centerpiece dessert.
Ealy makes the shortcake to this day and has the method down. Clean two pounds of strawberries, and slice half of them. Chop and mash the other half with sugar. Bake the shortcake in a skillet, but unlike with cornbread, you don’t have to heat it before baking. (Ealy puts a piece of wax paper in the bottom of the pan to help it lift out of the pan.) Let the cake cool and then remove from pan and slice it in half.
Separate the top and bottom half and poke holes in the bottom with a fork. Pour over half of the mashed strawberries and spread a layer of whipped cream on top. Replace the top half of the shortcake and cover with remaining mashed berries and juice, or “until it’s oozing off,” Ealy reports. Cover the cake with whipped cream and artfully place the sliced strawberries all around the cake, pressing the berries gently into the cream.
Ealy uses a potato masher for the strawberries and has to bake the shortcake about 10 minutes longer than the recipe says. You can assemble the cake a day before you plan to serve it and store it in the fridge overnight. That really gives the juices time to soak in, he says, with a palpable glee.
2 cups flour
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup shortening
1 tsp. vanilla
2/3 cup milk
2 lb. strawberries
Sugar, to taste
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Sift together flour and baking powder in a bowl. In another bowl, cream together the sugar and shortening with a handheld mixer. Add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add vanilla and mix again.
Alternating between flour and milk, add some of each to the creamed sugar and shortening, ending with flour. The batter should be smooth and light. Pour into a cast iron skillet. Bake for 30 minutes and let cool.
Slice half of the strawberries and mash the other half with sugar, to taste. Start with a tablespoon and add more, depending on the sweetness of the berries.
Assemble cake with the strawberries and whipped cream on top of the cake or in layers. You could also slice the cake and serve the berries and cream on the side. Serves 8-10.
— Adapted from a recipe by Charles Ealy