My “Once a Year Day” treat: Strawberry Shortcake, the way my mother made it

By TINKY WEISBLAT

For the Recorder

Published: 06-27-2023 3:09 PM

The musical comedy “Pajama Game” always appeals to me. As far as I know, it is the only musical that revolves around a labor dispute.

Adapted from the novel “7 ½ 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.

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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 best 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, when 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 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 every June – 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.)

Feel free to write to me (Tinky@tinkycooks.com) to share your own culinary “Once a Year” indulgences. Perhaps we can include them in a future column.

Once a Year Strawberry Shortcake

Ingredients:

for the filling:

1 ½ 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 ½ teaspoons baking powder and ¼ 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

½ teaspoon vanilla

Instructions:

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 ½ inch thick.

Using a sharp biscuit cutter cut the dough into rounds, about 2 to 2 ¼ 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.

Tinky Weisblat is an award-winning author and singer. Her most recent book is “Pot Luck: Random Acts of Cooking.” Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.

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