Serves: Makes 8 shortcakes
- ½ cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter
- ¾ cup milk
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- ¼ cup plus 5 tablespoons sugar
- 2½ teaspoons baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 6 cups (2½ pounds) fresh ripe strawberries
- 1½ cups heavy whipping cream
Cut the cold butter into small cubes and refrigerate for 10 minutes. Put the milk in a cup, add 1 tablespoon of vanilla to it, and refrigerate it as well. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Put the flour, ¼ cup sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl and whisk until blended. Scatter the cold butter pieces over the dry ingredients and toss them with your hands until they are coated. With a pastry blender, cut the butter into smaller and smaller pieces. If chunks of cold butter get stuck in the wires of the pastry blender, use a table knife to push them off, then continue cutting. You are done when the biggest butter pieces are not larger than green peas. Some will be much smaller, and that's fine.
Pour the chilled vanilla milk into the flour and butter, then stir with the fork 12 to 15 times, until it holds together in big, shaggy clumps. Sprinkle your work surface with a little flour. Turn the clumpy mass out onto the floury surface and knead it gently 4 to 8 times, until it comes together into a dough. Don't knead too long or the shortbread will be tough.
Pat the dough into an 8 by 4-inch rectangle. Be sure it is the same thickness everywhere. Cut the rectangle in half lengthwise, and then into quarters crosswise. You should have 8 pieces, each about 2 inches square. Brush off any extra flour from the top and bottom of the shortcakes and place them several inches apart on the prepared baking sheet. Refrigerate for 20 minutes. Just after you slip the shortcakes into the refrigerator, position an oven rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 425°F.
Bake for 14 to 16 minutes, until golden brown on top and firm to the touch. Transfer the pan to a cooling rack. Let the shortcakes cool completely.
Place the berries in a sieve or colander under cool running water. Look through them and discard any moldy berries. Drain well and pat dry with paper towels. Remove the leafy green tops from the strawberries. Cut the strawberries into ¼-inch-thick slices. Put the berries in a medium bowl, sprinkle with 3 tablespoons of sugar, and toss. Stir every few minutes. As the berries sit, the sugar will draw out some of their juices and make a tasty syrup in the bottom of the bowl.
Put the cream, the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar, and the remaining 1 teaspoon vanilla in a medium bowl. Whip the cream until it holds medium-firm peaks when the whisk or beaters are lifted. It should look silky. If you whip the cream too long and it looks grainy, lumpy, or curdled, pour in 3 or 4 more tablespoons cream and stir in gently (no more whipping). It should smooth out nicely. Cover until needed.
Cut each shortcake in half. Put one of the bottoms, cut side up, on each plate. Spoon the strawberries and syrup over the bottoms, dividing evenly. Place a large spoonful of whipped cream on top of each mound of strawberries. Set the biscuit tops, cut sides down, on the cream. Serve right away.