Pumpkins and Halloween

October 26th, 2023

Courtesy of Hicks Family Farm

Halloween may be my favorite holiday. It’s certainly the holiday for which I have the most decorations. My Halloween bins are even more numerous than my Christmas bins.

Some of this has to do with Halloween’s traditional spookiness, which gives the day (and night) a little excitement. The eve of All Saint’s Day, it’s supposed to be a time at which the dead can visit the world once more.

Our tradition of dressing up for the day originated from the thought that dead people and evil spirits would be frightened by our costumes or would fail to recognize us.

My usual witch attire, which involves a hat with a boatload of sequins and a feather boa, wouldn’t fool any ghost or spirit, but I still enjoy putting it on at this time of year. It makes me feel glamorous and just a tad wicked.

Mostly, I love Halloween because the orange lights, illuminated ceramic houses, and jack-o-lanterns around my house represent my way of raging against the dying of the light. By the time we get to the end of October, it’s impossible to delude ourselves that the days are not becoming shorter and colder.

Filling the house with decorations and dressing up help us insulate ourselves against the lowering temperatures and sun.

Pumpkins are associated with Halloween for a number of reasons. My favorite one is seasonality. It takes a long time for pumpkins to mature so they tend to ripen at this time of year. Their bright orange hue also mimics a fire and cheers people up.

These gourds are grounded in our continent and its history. Pumpkins have been grown in North America for 9000 years, according to the University of California.

Pumpkins are popular in my immediate neighborhood—and not just with humans.

My neighbor Ruth festoons her patio with them. Ruth is here only on weekends. On weekdays I frequently call her and say “Guess who’s coming to dinner!” as I spy a family of deer lounging on her patio and snacking on her decorations.

I wish I had a picture of them to show off here; they are very sweet and grateful looking. Unfortunately, if I get close enough to the deer to snap a photo, my dog Cocoa barks like crazy, and they run away. (The deer, like ghosts and spirits, aren’t scared of me, but Cocoa gives them pause.)

I must admit that I am still learning what to do with pumpkin beyond pie, bread, and soup. I was hoping to invent some kind of chewy pumpkin blondie to share with readers.

To date I haven’t quite figured out how to compensate for the wetness of the pumpkin, however. I recently learned that pumpkins are 92 percent water. Since baking is basically chemistry (never my best subject in school), one must compensate for that extra liquid somehow.

My initial blondie experiment literally dampened my enthusiasm for this project. So I cheated. What appears below is a recipe lightly adapted from The New York Times for pumpkin blondies with chocolate chips.

I took them to an event at my church, where people enjoyed the combination of pumpkin and chocolate. Another time I think I might amp up the spices and try substituting toasted pecans for the chocolate chips.

The thing that makes this recipe special is browning the butter. This technique for melting butter entails cooking the butter past the melting point. You need to stir constantly to keep the butter solids from burning; ideally, you just toast them lightly. They are ready when the butter foams and develops a nutty aroma.

In the past, I saw brown butter only in recipes for elegant sauces, but cooks around the country are increasingly using it in baked goods that require melted butter. The technique gives the treats’ flavor extra dimension.

Having used it in these bars, I’m ready to try browning the butter in my standard, non-pumpkin butterscotch brownies. Those are one of my favorite desserts to bake and share. I have a feeling they’ll be even more delectable with brown butter. Expect to see them in a future column.

Before I go, I’d love to inform anyone in Massachusetts that I’ll be helping to celebrate Cider Days here in Franklin County on November 4-5 at Headwater Cider right here in Hawley. I THINK the hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. I’ll update this information as I learn more.

Meanwhile, happy Halloween from a not very scary witch!

Pumpkin Chocolate-Chip Bars


3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) sweet butter
1-3/4 cups packed brown sugar
3/4 cup pumpkin puree
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ginger
2-1/2 cups flour
1-1/2 cups chocolate chips


In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, until the butter foams and darkens to a light amber color and begins to smell amazing.

Remove the pan from the heat, and continue stirring for a couple of minutes to keep the butter from burning. (It’s okay to have a tiny bit of black at the bottom of the pan, but avoid blackening as much as possible.) Set the butter aside, and let it cool for 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line a 9-by-13-inch pan with foil (nonstick is best), and grease the foil with a neutral oil or shortening.

When the butter has cooled, stir in the brown sugar, the pumpkin, and the vanilla. Add the baking powder, the baking soda, the salt, and the spices; then stir in the flour. Make sure the flour is mixed in, but try not to overmix the dough.

Add 1-1/4 cups of the chocolate chips, again stirring them in gently but thoroughly.

Transfer the dough to the prepared pan, and smooth it out as well as you can with a knife or spatula. (You may have to grease the knife or spatula.) It will be messy; be patient. Sprinkle the remaining chocolate chips on top, pressing them into the dough lightly.

Bake the dough until the top turns light brown and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out with only a few crumbs, about 30 to 40 minutes.

Let the bars cool in the pan on a rack for at least an hour. Use the foil to pull the whole thing out of the pan, remove the foil gently, and cut the baked dough into 24 bars.

A Centennial Celebration

September 21st, 2023

Arnold Black

Food does much more than nourish us. It connects us to other people, in the present in the past. This week I’m using it to remember Arnold Black (1923-2000) of Charlemont, Massachusetts, and New York City. Arnie was a composer, a violinist, and the founder of our local chamber-music series, Mohawk Trail Concerts. He was also an utter charmer.

Arnie would have turned 100 this year. MTC will honor this special anniversary this Saturday, September 23, at 3 p.m. at the Charlemont Federated Church with a celebration of Arnie Black.

This fundraiser will begin with a concert featuring works composed by, or about Arnie. Those gathered will then move into the church social rooms to share refreshments and anecdotes about him.

The Federated Church is an appropriate location for this tribute. It was there in 1969 that Arnie came up with the idea for the concert series. He and his family were spending the summer at Singing Brook Farm here in Hawley in a cabin called Pudding Hollow.

Our neighbor, composer Alice Parker, asked him to play his violin at the church one Sunday.

Arnie Black lifted his bow that morning to begin a Haydn concerto and quickly discovered what members of the Federated Church had known for more than a century: the sanctuary had magnificent acoustics. (The first time I sang a solo there, I was so impressed with my suddenly fabulous voice that I vowed never to sing in another venue. I’ve broken that vow since, but I never sound quite as good elsewhere as I do in the Federated Church.)

Arnie and his wife Ruth decided that those acoustics warranted a concert series, and in the summer of 1970 Mohawk Trail Concerts was born.

From its first concert, MTC threw musicians and community members together. Folks from the church and the surrounding hills raised money, built stage platforms, and occasionally even performed themselves. They showed that, for them as well as for the professionals, music was something you made and not just something you listened to.

Arnie and Ruth both had outgoing personalities and wonderful senses of humor. They encouraged musicians to linger after the concerts to get to know audience members. That interaction was perhaps MTC’s greatest strength, one that continues to this day.

Returning musicians seem to look forward to the fellowship almost as much as the audience does. In particular, Bolcom and Morris, the duo made up of composer/pianist William Bolcom and mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, have made many friends in our community.

Here I am with Joan and Bill a few years back.

Bill Bolcom always appears a little surprised that I am now grown up. He met me first when I came to the concerts as a child. My parents took me to the very first MTC performance. I have been a loyal audience member ever since, and I have volunteered frequently.

When Arnie died in 2000, Ruth Black took over the concerts. She retired nine years ago and handed the directorship to Mark Fraser. A cellist who lives in Montague, Mark continues the concerts’ traditions of excellent music, humor, and accessibility.

When I was writing my first cookbook, I asked Arnie for a recipe. He gave me his formula for Squash Latkes. I made the latkes last week in preparation for the MTC anniversary party. Being me, I also adapted them into my own version.

Interestingly, the squash disappears in both versions but leaves a little flavor as well as nutritional value. Two people who had known Arnie attended the party at which I served the latkes: composer Alice Parker and violinist Masako Yanagita.

Masako told me she remembered eating them with Arnie many times. For her and Alice, as for me, they represented a taste of a dear, talented man.

Anyone interested in attending the MTC event on the Sept. 23 is encouraged to email info@mohawktrailconcerts.org to reserve a place. The suggested donation is $75, but the public is welcome with a contribution of any amount.

And … just in case you were wondering, I will be singing a couple of songs on the program!

Arnie’s Squash Latkes by Way of “The Steppes of Central Asia”
(to be eaten to Alexander Borodin’s Music of the Same Name)

“My mother was from Russia,” Arnie told me. “She was a great cook, and many of her specialties were derived from the Russian cuisine. Borscht (Hot: tomatoes, cabbage, beef; Cold: beets, sour cream, potatoes), Blini, Blintzes, Stuffed Cabbage, Stroganoffs up and down the Don.

“A vegetable dish which as a child in Philadelphia I found particularly delectable was ‘Squash Latkes,’ or ‘Squash Pancakes.’ She would serve them with a dollop of sour cream. Years later, living alone in New York and cooking for myself, I fondly remembered those wonderful Latkes.

“Thinking they might be within my modest ability, I called my mother for the recipe.”

To make things simpler, I used Bisquick for both recipes because Arnie’s recipe called for it. If you don’t have that mix, use 1 cup flour, 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder, and 1/4 teaspoon salt for each cup of Bisquick. Add a tablespoon of oil to the wet ingredients.


2 good-sized summer squash
1 egg
2 tablespoons cooking oil
1 cup milk
2 cups Bisquick, plus a bit more if needed
sour cream as garnish


Grate the squash; place it in a dish towel inside a colander to drain for 15 minutes or so. Place the grated squash in a in a mixing bowl and add the egg. Add the oil, the milk, and then the Bisquick, stirring but not beating. Add a bit more flour or Bisquick if the batter seems runny.

Spoon the batter into pancakes on a very hot, buttered griddle. Turn when bubbles start to appear. Serve with sour cream or maple syrup or both. This recipe serves 4 but can be doubled easily. I made tiny pancakes as an appetizer; I ended up with about 25 little cakes.

Tinky’s Squash Latkes by Way of the Steps of West Hawley
(to be eaten to “The Hawley Song”)


2 good-sized summer squash
2 eggs, beaten
a handful of dill, broken up into small leaves
1/4 cup finely minced onion (I used red onion for color)
1 cup grated store cheese (aged Cheddar)
1 cup Bisquick
butter or extra-virgin olive oil as needed for frying


Grate the squash; place it in a dish towel inside a colander to drain it for 15 minutes or so.In a bowl, combine the eggs, the dill, the onion pieces, and the cheese. Stir in the squash, followed by the Bisquick.

Spoon the batter into small pancakes on a hot griddle greased with butter or olive oil. Cook until they brown on one side; then flip them over. Makes about 20 little cakes.

Alice samples the latkes.

A Tomato Legend and a Quick Tomato Recipe

August 23rd, 2023

The days are beginning to get shorter, but I won’t worry about that yet … because mid-summer is tomato season. I wait for this season all year long.

I simply can’t bring myself to eat fresh tomatoes in the winter. (I do still consume salsa and dishes that employ canned tomatoes.) I find them anemic and tasteless. In contrast, at this time of year, they glow with color and flavor. I eat August tomatoes as often as I can.

Tomatoes originated in small, wild form in the South America Andes region and made their way north to Mexico, getting bigger along the way as they became a cultivated crop.

They came to us in the United States through a complicated route in what the late scholar Alfred Crosby a beloved professor of mine, called The Columbian Exchange. His 1972 book of that title explored the ways in which crops, diseases, and animals were swapped between the Old World and the New.

When Spaniards arrived in Mexico in the 1500s they discovered people eating these lovely fruits (technically, tomatoes are a fruit, but we treat them as a vegetable). They brought them to Europe, where they eventually caught on first as ornamental plants and eventually as the food staple they are today.

Their adoption was a bit of a rocky road. They were in fact called “poison apples” at one point because when they were served on pewter plates the acid in the tomatoes pulled lead out of the plates, resulting in deaths from lead poisoning. Eventually, Europeans realized that the problem was the plates, not the fruits.

Tomatoes came to North America from Europe in the 1700s, again first as an ornamental plant and later as an edible. In the 1940s, historians circulated a dramatic apocryphal story that attributed their adoption as a food here to Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, an agricultural enthusiast who lived in Salem County, N.J.

Colonel Johnson

According to the legend, Johnson bravely defied the tomato sceptics in 1820 by carrying a bushel basket of tomatoes to the Salem Courthouse steps with the intention of gorging himself. Bystanders were convinced that he would be made ill by the supposedly poisonous red orbs.

When he emerged unscathed from this red snack, New Jersey and the rest of the United States were supposedly convinced to adopt tomatoes.

“From that day the tomato took off in the United States, and soon became a staple of American cuisine. Thanks to the brave Colonel Johnson, our lives are enriched by pizza, spaghetti sauce, ketchup, Bloody Marys, and B.L.T.’s,” wrote Marc Mappen in The New York Times.

The story was further spread and enhanced in 1949 when the CBS radio program You Are There reenacted Colonel Johnson’s dramatic snack on the courthouse steps.

Unfortunately for those of us who like a nice juicy (pun intended) myth, the story isn’t true. It was debunked in 1990 in an article in the journal New Jersey History.

Most tomato lovers don’t care, particularly in Salem County, N.J., where Colonel Johnson’s defiant consumption of tomatoes was idolized and recreated for many years on the third Sunday in August at the Salem Tomato Festival.

A plague in front of Johnson’s house continues to laud him as a “champion of New Jersey tomatoes.”

I like to emulate Colonel Johnson frequently at this time of year, when I bite happily into tomatoes day after day. Generally, I eat them raw and sliced—but I recently came across a fun, quick fresh-tomato recipe in The New York Times.

My adapted version of that recipe (even the Gray Lady of American journalism isn’t safe from my culinary experimentation) appears below. It BARELY cooks the tomatoes into a sauce, preserving their fresh flavor and color.

Very Quick Tomato Sauce on Pasta
(adapted from The New York Times)


12 to 16 ounces thick spaghetti (depending on appetite)
4 large tomatoes
1 generous splash extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 large pinch salt
1/2 to 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 to 4 ears leftover corn, cut off the cobs
1 cup grated Parmesan
1 handful basil leaves, torn at the last minute


Cook the pasta in salted water to the al dente stage, according to the package instructions. You can use rock salt or iodized salt.

While the pasta is cooking, core the tomatoes and trim off the bottoms. Use a box grater to grate the tomatoes into a large bowl until nothing but skins remain. (The skins should protect your hands from the grater.)

The New York Times advises the reader to discard the skins. I just eat them; I love tomato skins.

When the pasta is ready, drain it in a colander. Pour the oil into the still warm pasta pot, add the garlic, and cook the combination over medium-high heat until the garlic becomes fragrant (about a minute).

Add the tomatoes, the large pinch of salt, and the red pepper, followed by the corn kernels. Cook until the tomatoes simmer (only a couple of minutes, really).

Turn off the heat, and stir in the pasta and the cheese. Serve garnished with basil. Serves 4.

A Vintage Recipe for a Vintage Concert

July 26th, 2023

I’m immersed this week in the 1920s. Pianist Jerry Noble and I are getting ready for a concert on Saturday called “Fascinating Rhythm: Songs in the Air a Century Ago.” We’re trying to recreate some of the sounds of that fascinating decade.

Part of my job in this collaboration is to select and learn music that was popular during the 1920s, and leading up to that decade as well; musical taste doesn’t necessarily divide neatly itself by decades.

Jerry and I will actually start in the 1840s with Stephen Foster, the first American composer of popular songs to make a name for himself with still remembered hits like “Beautiful Dreamer,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Hard Times Come Again No More.”

We’ll segue through Vaudeville and early Broadway hits before singing our way into the 1920s with such songs as “I’ll See You in C-U-B-A,’ a number about Prohibition, when people had to seek out alcohol overseas; “My Buddy,” a delightfully sentimental tune; and “Makin’ Whoopee,” a song about … well … sex.

Between numbers, I’ll do my best to place the music in context and to talk about the culture of the 1920s.

I enjoy talking about culture almost as much as I enjoy singing. The 1920s were a significant decade because in many ways they represented the first truly modern era in the United States. Much of what defines us now flourished in the so-called Roaring Twenties.

Like the present—like much of American history, in fact—this decade revealed a lot of cultural contradictions. For the first time the 1920 census listed more Americans as living in urban than in rural areas.

Americans were conflicted about this trend. On the one hand, they loved the fast, jazzy pace of life in cities. On the other hand, they longed for the life many of them had left behind and remembered as simpler.

It was also in the 1920s that a majority of Americans came to own automobiles. This revolutionized not just transportation but relationships between people, dating in particular.

Before widespread use of the automobile, couples had to court in homes or at social events. Once they could travel freely together in the privacy of cars, they found more opportunities for intimacy.

The decade also saw a huge expansion of American consumer culture in general, as advertising grew and manufacturers came to believe that in order to keep the economy going they had to increase demand for more and more material goods.

And convenience foods developed with a vengeance. Canned goods had been around for more than a century. They were increasingly produced in the ‘20s, and they were joined by a number of new processed food products that endure to this day, including Kool-Aid, Popsicles, Velveeta, and Wonder Bread.

This week I decided to re-create some food item from the decade. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to make. Should it be a favorite recipe of my grandmother, a busy homemaker in the 1920s? Should it be something I had seen in a silent film?

In the end I decided upon a recipe that has always fascinated me because of its improbability: Tomato Soup Cake.

(Campbell Soup Company)

This concoction was known originally as Mystery Cake, probably because bakers then were, like me, a tad reluctant to admit that their spice cake included a can of tomato-soup concentrate, a strange and mysterious ingredient. I made it with THE classic American canned tomato soup, Campbell’s.

The Campbell Company was founded as Anderson and Campbell in 1869. Joseph Campbell, who sold fruits and vegetables, and Abraham Anderson, a canner, decided to combine their resources and skills. Anderson left the company within its first decade so Campbell is the name Americans now know.

In 1894, the company produced its first soup, a ready-to-eat tomato. In 1897, it took advantage of the newly invented condensing process to produce condensed tomato soup, which was soon followed by other condensed soup flavors.

According to the Food Timeline, the first mention of Tomato Soup Cake in print came in 1928. It was referred to as Mystery Cake.

The soup gives this spice cake a lot of moisture (there is very little fat in the recipe) and imbues it with a slightly orangey color.

A version of this recipe was the very first to appear on the label of a Campbell’s soup can, although that appearance came quite a few years after the cake entered popular cooking.

When I tasted the cake, I had the feeling I could taste the tomato soup—or could at least taste something vaguely processed—but perhaps that feeling was imagined. In general, Mystery Cake comes across like a normal spice cake.

Here is the recipe, adapted from King Arthur Baking. As you can see from the photograph, I used my half-size Bundt pan for the cake. This is an anachronism; the first Bundt pan in the United States wasn’t manufactured until 1950. If you want to bake a true 1920s cake, use a 9-inch-square pan.

I happen to be a Bundt-cake fan because this shape ensures that every eater gets an outside slice, my favorite piece of any cake. I promise not to indulge in any anachronisms at my concert, however.

I made the cake on Mass Appeal last week; you may see the video here.  I also sang a song from 1927 that will be included in our program, but that could not be put on the internet due to Canadian copyright law. (It was perfectly air-able in the United States, but the world-wide web includes the whole world, alas.)

1920s Mystery Cake (a.k.a. Tomato Soup Cake)


1 large egg, at room temperature (You can achieve this temperature easily by taking the egg out of the refrigerator and placing it in warm water for a few minutes.)
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 cup sugar
1 can (10-3/4 ounces) condensed tomato soup
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1-1/2 cups flour
1 cup raisins


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-inch-square cake pan or a 6-cup Bundt pan.

In a bowl, combine the egg, the oil, and the sugar. Blend in the tomato soup, followed by the baking soda, the salt, and the spices. On low speed, mix in the flour, followed by the raisins.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 35 to 40 minutes. Eat the cake plain or (my preference) with cream-cheese frosting. Serves 6.

My Once a Year Day

June 30th, 2023

Doris Day and John Raitt in the film version of The Pajama Game

The musical comedy The Pajama Game always appeals to me. As far as I know, it is the only musical that revolves around a labor dispute. Jean-Luc Godard is said to have called the 1957 film version “the first left-wing operetta.”

Adapted from the novel “7-1/2 Cents” by Richard Bissell, this 1954 show revolves around the fight for an hourly pay raise on the part of the union members at a sleepwear-manufacturing company, the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory. The fight is complicated when the head of the union finds herself falling in love with a new member of management.

I enjoy the show because it features strong dramatic conflict (and of course a happy resolution) as well as terrific songs, including “Hernando’s Hideaway” and “There Once Was a Man (Who Loved a Woman).”

I was reminded of one of the songs, “Once a Year Day,” recently. Sung by the two romantic leads, it takes place at the company’s annual picnic. Work is suspended for 24 hours, and the time in nature makes the heroine and hero feel freer. They bond despite their workplace adversity.

“Everyone’s entitled to be wild, be a child, be a goof, raise the roof,” the lyrics assert, “once a year.”

I thought of this song because I recently experienced one of my own Once a Year Days. These are days on which I depart from my normal routine and just have fun.

The fun doesn’t always involve food. Once a year, for example, I decide (usually on a Sunday) that I am allowed to watch television all day long.

I have a standing policy of never watching television during daylight hours. My small amount of Puritan ancestry makes me view daytime viewing as the first step toward complete and utter moral decay.

Once a year, however, I relax those rules. I binge-watch a new show for hours on end or spend the day with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Many of my Once a Year Days do involve food, of course.

Every year on my birthday—and only on my birthday—I eat ice cream for breakfast. My birthday falls in December so the appropriate flavor as far as I’m concerned is peppermint stick.

Ideally, my family scours the stores in the days leading up to the big day to make sure peppermint-stick ice cream is in the freezer. It can be hard to find at that time of year.

If the flavor is unavailable, I try to be gracious. I know intellectually that I am not the center of the world. It is hard to know this in my heart, however, and I have been known to be a little short tempered on non-ice-cream birthday mornings.

Another of my traditions falls annually on one mid-summer evening, I like to host a BLT party on my porch.

This classic sandwich leaves me cold when made with non-full-season tomatoes. When we finally get the juicy red real thing, however, I haul out homemade bread, the best available local bacon, and crisp farm-fresh lettuce. I treat myself and my guests to the perfect sandwich.

That evening, and that sandwich, symbolize this warm season for my guests and me. The tomatoes burst with flavor created by the summer sun.

The Once a Year Day I just experienced was inspired by my mother, Jan. Her own mother studied cooking with Fannie Farmer. My grandmother learned well from Miss Farmer and insisted that every evening meal be perfectly balanced, with at least two vegetables, a salad, a starch, and a protein.

Having been raised in that environment, my mother always, ALWAYS ate a carefully constructed evening meal. When alone, I often dine on an omelet or a salad or a bowl of soup. She would not have approved. She believed that dinner—even supper—deserved more planning and more formality than that.

She made two exceptions. Once a year, usually at the end of a long and tiring day, she would serve Welsh Rarebit (pronounced “Rabbit”), a delectable and easy supper of cheese sauce on toast.

And once a year in the early summer—here I’m finally getting to the point of this story—she enjoyed an evening meal that consisted solely of strawberry shortcake.

She was generally not a dessert eater, and shortcake can feel a little heavy at the end of a normal meal. When it constitutes the entire meal, however, it is a delightful indulgence on which one can gorge oneself.

I would sometimes suggest engaging in a second shortcake supper on a subsequent evening, but Jan was adamant about serving this treat only once a year. Twice a year, she maintained, felt a bit unhealthy and might lead to bad habits. Once was satisfying and sufficient. End of discussion.

Here in honor of my mother is a simple shortcake recipe. If you want to be even lazier than I am, feel free to purchase your shortcake or to use any available neutral cake. Angel food works, and so does pound cake.

These little biscuits are not hard to make, however, and even if mine never look professional (I’m not a natural pastry person) they make a flavorful base for the strawberries.

Besides, no one really looks at the biscuits once they are piled high with vivid red berries and lightly sweetened whipped cream à la vanille. (That’s French for flavored with vanilla. Food always tastes better in French.)

Once a Year Strawberry Shortcake


for the filling:
1-1/2 quarts strawberries, washed, hulled, and gently dried
sugar as needed for the berries

for the biscuits:
2 cups self-rising flour (or 2 cups regular flour plus 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon salt)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 to 2 tablespoons milk (if needed)
a small amount of melted butter (optional)
coarse white sugar (optional)

for assembly:
1 cup heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla


A couple of hours before you want to begin working, choose 6 attractive berries. Set them aside. Chop the remaining berries, and toss them in a little sugar. Let the chopped berries sit to juice up.

When you are ready to bake your biscuits, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Whisk together the self-rising flour (or the flour plus leavening and salt) and the sugar. In a separate bowl (or a measuring cup) combine the cream and the vanilla.

Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients. Pour the cream mixture into the well, and gently stir until the mixture is combined, adding a little milk if needed to incorporate all the ingredients into the liquid.

Turn the dough onto a floured work surface, and sprinkle a little more flour on top. Fold the dough over several times; then pat it into a circle or rectangle that is about 1/2 inch thick.

Using a sharp biscuit cutter cut the dough into rounds, about 2 to 2-1/4 inches wide (or however wide you want them!). You may also cut them gently into squares or rectangles with a serrated knife.

Place the biscuits on an ungreased cookie sheet. (You may line the sheet with parchment or silicone if you’re paranoid about sticking.) If you like, brush the tops of your biscuits with melted butter and sprinkle a little coarse sugar on top.

Bake the biscuits until they are golden brown (12 to 16 minutes).

When you are ready to assemble your shortcakes, whip the cream until it forms soft peaks, adding the sugar early in the process and the vanilla near the end.

Cut the biscuits in half horizontally. You then have two options. Some people decorate the bottom half of each biscuit with the chopped strawberries, then dollop on whipped cream and top all this with the other biscuit half. One of the reserved strawberries goes on the top of each serving.

My mother (who loved the berries and cream above all and wanted just a hint of biscuit) placed both halves of her biscuit on a plate, then topped them with chopped strawberries, whipped cream, and the extra berry.

Serves 6 (or more), depending on the size of your biscuits. (If you want to serve more people, set aside a couple of additional strawberries for the garnish.)