Friday, May 16, 2014

Almond Shortcakes

There is absolutely no arguing against the desire for shortcake at this time of the year.  But instead of buying pre-made shortcakes in cellophane wrap, take just a few minutes for a light romp in some flour, butter and sugar to make your own.  Once you try this, you'll never go back.

Homemade shortcake presents you with an ultimate pleasure: soft, tender, every-so-slightly-sweet biscuit type bites that would make anyone swoon with love and devotion.  I've had lots of fun making various versions of shortcake over the years.  I've added pecans to serve with peaches, oatmeal to pair with plums, buckwheat to enjoy with blueberries and plums, sour cream to enhance tenderness and cornmeal to add a slight bit of texture.

This iteration makes good use of almond paste to infuse with a subtle flavor that goes perfectly with the season's fresh fruit. Berries are in great abundance at the moment and stone fruit and figs are right around the corner.  This shortcake would be a perfect partner with all of them.  Add a good dollop of freshly whipped cream and there's really nothing like it.  Fresh, easy and truly a phenomenal pleasure.

Bench notes:
- Almond paste is not the same as marzipan, which has a lot more sugar added to the almond paste.  I like Odense brand, which comes in a box containing a 7 oz log wrapped in foil.  This recipe calls for 3 1/2 oz or half a log.  You can wrap the other half tightly in plastic, place in a zipped plastic bag and store in the refrigerator for quite a while.  Bring it to room temperature to let it soften before using.  Another great use for 3 1/2 oz of almond paste: Brown Butter Almond Cake and Chocolate Almond Cake.
- For the best shortcake texture, process the almond paste with the sugar until it's very finely ground and looks fairly homogeneous with the sugar.
- The secret to great shortcake is a very light touch when mixing and forming the dough.  This recipe requires very little handling for maximum tenderness.  There are just a few things to remember: 1) Both the butter and the cream must be very cold.  2) Work fast to incorporate the butter so it doesn't warm up.  3)  Use a fork to stir in the cream with only about 10 - 12 rounds of stirring.  The dough will look lumpy.  4)  Place the dough on a very lightly dusted work surface and pull it together with 3 - 4 very light kneads.  You don't want to overwork it but you also don't want a pile of clumps.  5) Using a floured biscuit or cookie cutter, press down to form the shortcakes and lift straight up when you're done.  To prevent sealing the edges, no twisting or turning the cutter.
- For some reason, you'll get more loft and height to your shortcakes, biscuits and scones if, after cutting them out, you turn them upside down and then place them on the baking sheet.  Strange but true.
- I use a serrated knife and a sawing motion to cut the shortcakes in half.
- Shortcakes are best when served immediately after they've cooled.

Almond Shortcakes
Makes 6 shortcakes

3 1/2 oz almond paste
1/4 cup (1 3/4 oz) sugar
2 cups (10 oz) flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 oz (4 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter
1 cup (8 oz) cold heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 oz (1 tablespoon) unsalted butter, melted for brushing the tops
sliced almonds, for garnish
sugar, for garnish

6 oz fresh raspberries
6 oz fresh blueberries
2 tablespoons (26 grams) sugar, to taste

1 cup (8 oz) heavy cream
1 tablespoon (13 grams) sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment or a silpat.  If your oven runs hot, double stack 2 baking sheets to prevent the bottoms from browning too much.

Finely chop the almond paste and place in a food processor with the sugar.  Process until the paste is broken into fine granules and blended with the sugar.  Add the flour, baking powder and salt and process to combine.  Pour into a bowl.

Cut the cold butter into small pieces and add to the flour mixture.  Using your fingers or a pastry blender, press the butter into flattened pieces the size of oatmeal flakes, tossing and coating the butter with flour as you go.  Make a well in the center.

Combine the cream and vanilla and pour into the well.  Stir with a fork, making just about 10 - 12 rotations.  Stop mixing when it starts to come together and the cream seems fairly absorbed.  Gather the loose and lumpy dough with your hands and press it together very gently 2 or 3 times.

Place the dough on a work surface lightly dusted with flour.  Pat and shape into a round about 1" thick.   Using a round 2 1/2 cutter dipped in flour and a straight up and down motion, cut out 6 shortcakes.  Place them upside down on the prepared baking sheet.  Brush with melted butter and garnish with sliced almonds.  Sprinkle lightly with sugar.

Bake until golden brown, about 12 - 14 minutes.   Place on a wire rack to cool.

Combine the berries with the sugar and set aside for about 15 minutes, stirring a couple of times to distribute the juices.

When ready to assemble, whisk the heavy cream, sugar and vanilla until soft peaks form.  Cut the shortcakes in half and place the bottom halves on serving plates.  Dollop with whipped cream and berries.  Top with remaining halves.

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