The Murky Origins Of Strawberry Shortcake

One of the most iconic entries in the American dessert lexicon, strawberry shortcake is a simple go-to for a relatively light, sweet-but-not-too-sweet, dependable dessert that always does the trick. At its core, it's a pretty simple dish: cakes or biscuits, fresh strawberries, and whipped cream. It's rarely gussied up and doesn't need much beyond its simplest components to be a wonderful treat. But how did it come about? Are there other variations? 

According to KCET, Native Americans made an iteration of shortcake in pre-colonial North America, mixing berries and cornmeal and baking them into a bread-like dessert. Global Kitchen Travels claims that later in 1588, an English cookbook boasted of a strawberry shortcake recipe that uses more of a scone-like base rather than a shortcake or cake. Another early-on encounter is outlined by Alan Davidson in "The Oxford Companion to Food" where he explains Shakespeare actually brought attention to a progenitor of the desserts in "The Merry Wives of Windsor" with a character named Alice Shortcake.

The earliest references and adaptations of shortcake

Despite those earlier references, the origins of this sweet treat are still debated and have evolved over time. For instance, strawberry shortcake is said to have originated in the mid-1800s, per LoveToKnow, and was mentioned in the 1847 cookbook "Miss Leslie's Ladies New Receipt Book", when it was called merely "strawberry cake." The Chicago Tribune also details an occurrence of the term in Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," published in 1820 where he writes about "sweet cakes and short cakes." While some modern versions use more of a cake-y element, traditional ones were made with flaky, crumbly shortcakes, which are more akin to biscuits. 

Originally, the dish was a sweet sandwich, with shortbread replacing the bread and mashed strawberries as the filling. It can also contain icing, frosting, whipped cream, or powdered sugar. Some other variated terms of the shortcake are "sponge cake, angel food, or even puff pastry" (via LovetoKnow). Often enjoyed in warmer climates, the light dessert is a standby that has ended many meals on a sweet note.

The sweet tradition of strawberry shortcake

The Chicago Tribune highlights that while other fruit-centric shortcake recipes were attempted, nothing seemed to catch on with the same ferocity as the strawberry. While some may like to dispute whether it should be made with a biscuit or cake, the lines are blurred — and that's okay. The shortcake aspect is very much a matter of taste, and sometimes there's a geographic connection. For example, it's stated that Northern American cooks typically use sweetened biscuits, while Southerners create more cake-forward recipes.

There is nothing froufrou or hoity-toity about strawberry shortcakes, and that simplicity is one reason for its long-running popularity. While full-size cakes can be called a "strawberry shortcake" just as you would call a classic, single serving, the flavor and approach remains the same. You probably have the bulk of what you need in your pantry as we speak, especially with this recipe that calls for only five ingredients. Strawberries, biscuits, sugar, vanilla extract, and a mountain of whipped cream — it's hard to beat.