I’m quitting my job, retiring from urban life, and setting my watch to Central Standard Time. In just a few weeks, my husband and I are leaving Boston for Springfield, Illinois. Most people are temporarily dumbfounded when I tell them about the move. I don’t blame them. It’s a radical change and my head has been whirling with random thoughts about the transition. In between choosing movers and memorizing a new zip code, I wonder how it will feel to see for miles across the open plains. I worry about living even farther from my East Coast relatives and friends. I dream of front-row spaces in sprawling grocery store parking lots. I contemplate what New England sights we’ll see in our remaining weeks.
On the topic of must-see sights, the coast has been on my mind. Flipping through the May Bon Appétit, I lingered over the photographs from the Martha’s Vineyard article. The feature focused on the Beach Plum Inn & Restaurant, Chef Chris Fischer, and his Beetlebung Farm. Seaside hills, unusual beans, and lots of seafood could be part of a perfect pre-move getaway. Sadly, I know my fantasies of a farmy New England farewell are in vain. We don’t really have any free weekends left for a road trip to Martha’s Vineyard. We do have plenty of time for homemade desserts, though, so I figured I could at least recreate the article’s strawberry-basil shortcakes.
Strawberry shortcake and I go way back. It’s been my birthday dessert of choice for decades and my love for that buttery platform stacked with berries smothered in cream has never wavered. The components are simple: a tender biscuit, strawberries mixed with sugar, and unlimited quantities of whipped cream. My mom is expert at all components, even after bottomless birthday margaritas at Cactus Cantina. Through the years, I’ve enjoyed the dessert in many variations: boozed-up with Grand Marnier, charmingly southern with pecans, and even the unhip, anti-foodie Bisquick with Reddi-Wip version.
The Bon Appétit recipe includes a ladylike shortcake with a grown-up crème fraîche whipped cream and two strawberry preparations: a compote (strawberries cooked with sugar) and slices enhanced with basil. The sliced, uncooked strawberries sit with a tablespoon of sugar and two sprigs of basil for about twenty minutes or until the sugar dissolves and the strawberries release their juice. The basil is then discarded, having left its flavor on the berries and in the liquid. The herbal note is very subtle, but makes the dessert taste farm fresh, even if your strawberries were most recently on a truck driving across the country (like mine). The compote soaks into the bottom half of the biscuit and provides a jammy counterpoint to the brightness of the basil-spiked strawberries. To finish, an unabashed heap of heavy cream whipped with crème fraîche magically makes the dessert feel light. The assembled stack is spring incarnate: delicate, slightly grassy, and gently sweet.
Of all the strawberry shortcakes I’ve tasted, this one is the most evocative. The basil brings to mind a green, natural, warm weather place—the exact place captured in Bon Appétit’s Martha’s Vineyard. I won’t get a chance this year to see how my taste-association compares to the real thing, but I’m taking this recipe with me to Illinois and checking Martha’s Vineyard off the list, for now.
You can find the recipe here or on page 128 of the May 2014 Bon Appétit.