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Today: The perfect strawberry shortcake for Memorial Day (and all berry season long) -- thanks to an odd secret ingredient.
Sweet, ripe summer strawberries deserve lots of whipped cream and the perfect shortcake. And the secret to the perfect shortcake? It's sitting in your fridge right now, and it's going to surprise you.
The late cookbook author James Beard -- you know, the father of American cooking -- learned this trick for a tender, airy cake from his mother: Egg yolks.
Not so strange, right? But here's the kicker: they're from hard-boiled eggs.
It might sound like one of the last things you want stirred in with your dry ingredients, but crumbly cooked yolk adds just enough richness without weighing down or gumming up the dough.
This also means it's more forgiving. You needn't be on edge, worrying you'll overwork the pastry. No tough cakes here: you've got insurance. And it looks like this:
James Beard is no longer around for us to quiz about this method, but it's become a popular technique among other cooks who love their shortcakes, so we can ask them.
In The Pie and Pastry Bible, Rose Levy Beranbaum relies on hard-cooked yolk for her biscuit dough. In an email, Beranbaum explained, "It adds a beautiful golden color and velvety tender texture." And, she adds, "unlike raw egg yolk, it does not get absorbed into the flour" -- a plus for keeping it light.
Because the fluffy yolk floats freely in the dough, food scientist Harold McGee wagers, "I imagine that it would give you a shorter, crumblier texture than you'd get by spreading the yolk proteins and fats evenly through the dough." And it does indeed -- the crumb is fine and delicate.
Knowing how old recipes work, it's likely that the technique was around before even Beard's mother's time. But the Beards' version is a very good one, and has since been handed down from chef to chef.
Pastry chef Claudia Fleming swears by it -- she picked up the trick from the first chef she ever worked for, but Fleming says "She wasn't much for sharing info, so I don't know where she learned it from." Russ Parsons -- L.A. Times Food Editor and shortcake buff -- is a fan too.
In recent years, it's even popped up in the pastry curriculum at the French Culinary Institute -- an impressive pedigree for what was once just a clever home cook's trick.
In other words, yes, there's one extra step: you have to boil a few eggs. But it's worth it. Plus you get a healthy pre-shortcake snack out of it. (What else are you going to do with those leftover cooked egg whites? Make a tiny egg salad? No, just eat them.)
For some reason, in his twenty-plus cookbooks, James Beard never published his mother's shortcake recipe himself. Lucky for us, he saw fit to share it with his friend Larry Forgione one night as the two were relaxing and talking food at Beard's townhouse.
Forgione put the recipe on the menu at his iconic New York restaurant An American Place, brought it back every strawberry season, and later published it in his cookbook of the same name.
As Forgione tells it, Beard believed "there can be no dessert better, only fancier." Taste his version, yolks secretly threaded through, and you're likely to feel the same.
James Beard's Strawberry Shortcakes
For the shortcakes:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled, cut into small cubes
2 hard-boiled egg yolks, pushed through a small mesh sieve (see our favorite way to hard-cook eggs)
3/4 cup heavy cream, chilled
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
For the strawberry filling:
3 pints fresh strawberries, washed, hulled, and halved or quartered, depending on size
2 tablespoons sugar
For the whipped cream:
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon sugar
See a slideshow and the full recipe (and save and print it) here.
Photos by James Ransom