Genius Recipes

This Genius Strawberry Not-So-Short Cake is the Most Spectacular Summer Dessert

May 23, 2018

The next time a summer party presents itself, you could play it safe and offer to buy the beer, or make the dip—there’s no shame in contributing what you can muster, and no wrong party-starter to share. Roll in with a tub of vanilla ice cream and some root beer and I will put you on the short list of people who I’d tell all my most embarrassing stories. (Look out.)

But if you want to bring something that will make you a legend—the stuff of gauzy Instagrams and next-day tall tales (without a whole lot of trouble or stress)—Erin McDowell’s Strawberry Not-So-Short Cake is the summer dessert you want in your corner.

Not only is this the grandest and most eye-popping way to make strawberry shortcake for a crowd, it’s also the easiest way to make a tall, proud layer cake (1), period. Because you’re not really baking a cake at all—you’re making three giant drop biscuits and piling on whipped cream and strawberries in imprecise amounts. It’s altogether a lot more like building a Jenga tower than baking anything in the pastry case.

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Except unlike a Jenga tower, it won’t let you down, thanks to a secret weapon: a mystically sturdy "cheater's whipped cream." It will hold strong for hours, with a generous half-pound of softly whipped cream cheese shoring it up. Go ahead—make it the night before! It won’t weep on you, and stays deliciously light and swoopable.

None of this brilliance will surprise you if you’re familiar with the work of Erin McDowell—the author of The Fearless Baker and our longtime Baking Basics columnist (and Food52 contest winner back in 2009, too—her roots at Food52 run very deep!). She also oversaw the baking crew for the photo shoots for my own forthcoming child, Genius Desserts, so I was very lucky to see her genius in action for weeks at a time when I needed it most.

You know this recipe as Erin’s firstly because it’s constructed to be very smart and ease your fears—it's really no more complicated than the simple drop biscuit recipe she learned from her mom (2). But it's also trademark Erin because she is a mad genius: constantly inventing, never falling back on the same sure thing (recent madness: flower pies, mini layer cakes, Beet Wellingtons).

In fact, by the time I’d planned to feature this not-so-short cake from her book, I learned she’d already taken the same biscuit dough and contorted it into a slab shortcake covered with roasted rhubarb for an easier-slicing sort of party. When I asked about other ways she uses the biscuit dough, she rattled off half a dozen.

“I bake these as individual biscuits—you can make them savory by adding some grated cheese and some scallions (great for mini ham sandwiches, too!) and also reduce the buttermilk a little and use it as a biscuity streusel situation on top of cobblers. I've also baked them into like way-too-big biscuits (think like heaping cup sized) and used it as a ‘bun’ for sandwiches (namely for BBQ).”

Even within this recipe, you can freestyle. Erin knows not all bakers will have three 9-inch cake pans on hand—I didn’t, on the recent night I was baking this to bring to a dinner party. I went with Erin’s freeform variation, patting the dough into disks to bake right on parchment-lined baking sheets. When I realized I had only two petite jelly roll pans and needed to go to bed rather than wait for one of them to be cool again, I tried to channel Erin. Fearlessly, I grabbed a stainless steel skillet—it seemed close enough in heft that the lonely third cake might bake evenly with the others.

It worked. But best of all, I got to feel fearless, too—like I was the type of person who brings spectacular treats wherever she goes, never letting life or nerves get in the way.

(1) My brother calls these “Pollyanna cakes.”

(2) Also the biscuits Erin brought the first time we hired her to bake for a very early Food52 Shop photo shoot, for which she made approximately 6 pies and 5 cakes. She told me, “I never go anywhere for the first time without a baked good, obviously.”

Photos by Julia Gartland

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

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I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."