In the late 1960s, when the editors at Time-Life Books developed their classic "Foods of the World" series and chose an image for the cover of the volume on American Cooking, they did not select a photo of apple pie. They picked strawberry shortcake.

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In the late 1960s, when the editors at Time-Life Books developed their classic “Foods of the World” series and chose an image for the cover of the volume on American Cooking, they did not select a photo of apple pie. They picked strawberry shortcake.

This seems fitting. It would be hard to think of a dessert with a more American pedigree than this layering of cake and berries that used to go by the name Strawberry Bread or Strawberry Cake.

Of course, strawberries were known and loved in Europe long before Europeans encountered the American continent, but the original European berries were much smaller, and their season was so short that recipes involving the berries were superfluous. Most often the berries were eaten as soon as they were gathered. But in the early 18th century, the French officer Amédée-François Frézier found large Chilean berries growing at the base of the Andes and took plants home to cross with European berries. That prompted an international strawberry-development campaign that led to hybrids of berries from Britain, North America, continental Europe and South America, and eventually to Fragaria x ananassa. The species includes all the dozens of cultivated varieties, both June-bearing and ever-bearing grown here in the Northwest.

Fragile, June-bearing favorites like Shuksan, Totem and Hood seem to grow as well or better here than anywhere else in the world. Farmers like Skagit Valley’s Don Kruse will harvest something in the neighborhood of 10,000 pounds of June-bearing strawberries in coming weeks. And for almost as long as he’s been growing berries, he has been active in “Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland,” an organization dedicated to ensuring that farming remains an integral part of the valley’s cultural and economic identity.

“We have a worldwide reputation here for growing the best strawberries,” says Kruse. “This is where Häagen Dazs comes to get berries for their premium ice cream.” But some Skagit growers have recently been turning their fields over to ever-bearing, day-neutral varieties more typically associated with California growers. “We have to be careful not to lose our distinction over California,” says Kruse.

The day-neutral varieties offer some distinct advantages to growers: They’re more disease resistant, less likely to perish on the way to market after picking, and ripen over a longer period of time. But to the consumer, the day-neutrals can be a major disappointment. These varieties lack the deep-red sweetness that characterizes a classic Northwest berry. The tradeoff presents a challenge for farmers like Kruse.

“Because of their high sugar content,” he says, “the older varieties have a relatively short shelf life. That’s why we never carry berries over to the next day at our stands. Fresh every day is the secret to top quality with our kind of strawberries.”

Since the June-bearing strawberries are so fragile, most of them end up in processing plants where they’re frozen or turned into jam. But growers are happiest — and get the best price — when the berries are marketed fresh. Aficionados of local strawberries who wait all year for the soft, red berries to come to the market will tell you they’re worth the wait.

Greg Atkinson is author of “West Coast Cooking.” He can be reached at greg@northwestessentials.com.

Strawberry Shortcakes

Serves 4

Traditional American shortcake depends as much on soft, June-bearing strawberry varieties as it does on the cake.

2 pints ripe local, organic strawberries

1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice

¼ cup organic sugar

1 cup organic whipping cream

¼ cup organic powdered sugar

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

4 homemade biscuits or squares of pound cake or sponge cake

1. Set aside four of the best-looking strawberries for garnish. Put the lemon juice and sugar in a serving bowl. Use a sharp paring knife to trim the crowns off the rest of the berries, removing as little fruit as possible. Cut the strawberries in half lengthwise, allowing the berries to fall into the bowl as they are cut. If the berries are large, slice them thinner.

2. Toss the sliced berries with the lemon juice and sugar to lightly coat and allow them to stand in the syrup while you whip the cream with the powdered sugar and vanilla extract.

3. Cut each biscuit or cake square in half. Put the bottom half of each biscuit or cake on a plate. Distribute half the strawberries evenly between the cake-halves and add a dollop of the whipped cream. Plant the tops of the cakes over the whipped cream at a jaunty angle and top each serving with the remaining berries and whipped cream; serve at once.

Shortcakes

Makes 8 large biscuits

2 cups flour

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

½ teaspoon kosher salt

1 stick cold butter, cut into bits

¾ cup milk

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

2. In a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add the butter and pulse the motor on and off until the mixture is uniformly crumbly. Add milk all at once and stir or process briefly to form soft dough.

3. Turn dough out onto a well-floured surface, and knead very lightly; do not overwork dough or shortcakes will be tough. Roll dough to ½ inch thick and with a sharp knife, cut the dough into 8 squares. Arrange the cakes a few inches apart on a baking sheet lined with baker’s parchment and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until tops are lightly browned.

— Greg Atkinson, 2008