Blackberry Shortcake with Basil Syrup
When most people think of shortcake, they think of strawberry shortcake of course. But most cakes sold as shortcakes are actually just plain old vanilla sheet or sponge cake. This is because those cakes have oil in them and have a much longer shelf life. Real shortcake is much closer to the texture and flavor of a scone or buttermilk biscuit and that’s because they are all made very similarly to each other, with just a few differences in their ingredients. Real shortcake is crumbly, creamy and not too sweet and takes less than half the time to make and decorate than a regular cake, which makes it a favorite of mine as I prefer eating to decorating cake. What I also like is that you can make shortcake to your liking when it comes to size, shape and even how much milk to use without greatly affecting the end product. You can bake in a pan as I did, go freeform and drop by large spoonful’s onto a sheet or make them a bit drier and cut them into shapes, biscuit style. Make this shortcake your own creation.
As I said earlier, everyone thinks of strawberries when it comes to shortcake and I don’t have anything against strawberries, but shortcake is not so limited as to only be made with one filling. I chose blackberries for my filling, but I have used strawberries, blueberries or mixed fruits for it as well. Chantilly cream, which is a fancy term for sweetened whipped cream, is the classic choice for a frosting and I don’t think this is one to be messed with. It’s one of those perfect combinations that I feel would be hard for anyone to improve upon, just do it. Almost every cake gets brushed with a syrup as it’s getting put together and usually shortcake does not get one. Because shortcake is very lightly sweet I think a syrup is a nice touch, and in this case I made a basil syrup which adds a nice balance to the slightly tart blackberries. This creamy, crumbly cake with whipped cream, fresh berries and a sweet herbal syrup means you won’t have to think twice about that short shelf life.
2-1/2 Cups AP Flour (plus more for pan)
1-1/2 Tbs Baking Powder
2 Tbs Sugar
3oz (6 Tbs) Cold Butter (plus more for pan)
1 Cup Milk
1/2 Cup Heavy Cream
18oz Black Berries
Chantilly Cream (Sweetened Whipped Cream):
2 Cups Heavy Cream
1 Tbs Cointreau or Grand Mariner
1/4 Cup Sugar
1/4 Cup Sour Cream (optional)
1/2 Cup Sugar
2/3 Cup Water
4-5 Basil Leaves Torn
The first thing I always do when getting ready to bake a cake is prep the pan. It’s the worst when you have your batter all together, or dough in this case, and then have to quickly prep the pan while your batter is slightly deflating or butter is softening. Take a small piece of butter, maybe a tablespoon worth, and use you fingers to rub it all over the bottom and sides of the pan. Once your pan is nice and greased, take about 2-3 tablespoons of flour, toss it in the pan and roll the pan around until the flour is sticking to all of the butter. Remove the excess flour, by tapping it upside down on your work surface. You don’t need to be gentle.
Preheat the oven to 375º.
If you haven’t already, cut the butter into cubes and put them in the fridge. You want them to be as cold as possible. Next mix the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt together and whisk it to combine. You can sift it all together, I find that this only makes a real difference with sponge cakes and with shortcake the only result is one more thing to wash. Put the cold butter into the flour and cut the butter in with either your hands, a pastry blender or a food processor. I prefer my hands as I feel I have better control over the size and shapes of the flakes. It’s done when there are no more large butter pieces and the flour looks crumbly. Finally, make a well in the center and pour in the milk and cream. The exact proportions of milk to cream are not too important, if you want more cream than milk, go for it or if you want no cream, no problem. As long as it’s 1-1/2 cups of liquid it will turn out fine. Gently fold all of the flour mixture with the milk and cream. Try not to overwork the dough otherwise you will compromise the texture. This is a fairly sticky dough and should come together easily. Take the dough, press it into the prepared pan and place in the oven for about 25-30 minutes.
The syrup is best made ahead of time and since the cake will need to cool for a few hours before you can put any Chantilly cream on, it’s best to get it out of the way now. Syrup is just about the easiest thing to make. It’s just sugar, water and flavorings. Usually syrup is 1:1 ratio of water and sugar by volume, but I used a bit more water so I could reduce it down further and really extract that basil flavor without making it too thick. Syrup for cakes is on the thinner side. Think real maple syrup vs “pancake” syrup (which is just corn syrup with caramel coloring) for consistency. Put the sugar and water together and bring to a simmer, stir to make sure there’s no sugar sitting on the bottom that can burn. Once simmering, add the torn basil leaves and cook for about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and let it cool for awhile before transferring to a container and then to the fridge.
When the cake is done, let it cool on a wire rack for about 2 hours before cutting it. I find the best way to get an even cut is to take a serrated knife, always serrated by the way, and cut about an inch into the cake. Once you have your position, spin the cake by placing one hand on top and with the other pull the knife along the edge, making a shallow cut completely around the cake. Once you get to your original mark, keep spinning and cutting deeper with back and forth strokes of the knife. You should be all the way through when you get to the center of the cake. This is much easier with a cake spinner, but still possible without one. Check the very center of the cake. If it’s completely cool, make the Chantilly, if it’s still slightly warm, put the cake back together and let it cool longer. The Chantilly is very temperature sensitive and will melt before you can even the blackberries in place if it’s too warm.
There are two tricks to making good whipped cream. One, chill everything as much as possible. This means the bowl, the beater, the whisk, the cream, everything. Two, DO NOT over whip the mixture. If it begins looking chunky, you are beginning to make butter and will look like cottage cheese on your cake… not too appealing. I implore you to make this though. It’s so much better than what you can buy in a store and only takes minutes to make. In your chilled bowl, beat everything together on a high speed until it begins to thicken, but doesn’t hold any peaks. At this point, I switch to a hand whisk to finish it as I can pull it together in about 20 seconds with the consistency I want. Feel free to continue using the beaters. It will take a few minutes longer, but because it’s a slower process it is harder to over whip the cream.
You can either brush the cake’s inside layers with the basil syrup or just pour some on the slices after it’s all together. When putting the cake together, there’s only one piece of advice I can offer and that’s to put a bit of Chantilly cream on both sides of the inside layer. This will help the cake hold together better as the top layer is otherwise just sitting on top of the berries, and when you are traveling to your friend’s bbq with your perfect looking cake in it’s holder on the floor of your car and you make the first turn at the end of your street, the top half of the cake will come sliding off and smash against the side of your cake holder… and you will be sad at that bbq. Please decorate responsibly.