Tender, whole-grain shortcakes are the perfect match for sweet ripe fruit and a creamy cashew topping.

Nothing says summer like strawberry shortcake. A crumbly, buttery biscuit filled with sweet, juicy berries nestled under mounds of fresh whipped cream. No wonder it’s summer’s signature dessert.

But this seemingly innocent dish spells trouble in nutritional terms. Heavy in dairy products and refined flour and sugar, this classic needed a complete makeover before it became one of my wholesome vegan favorites: I took out the butter and the buttermilk, worked in some whole grain flour for added fiber, and developed a sweet and creamy topping without cream or white sugar. The results will delight even classic shortcake aficionados.

The Long and Short of It

The shortcake (also called a biscuit) makes or breaks this dessert – if it’s tough or dry, the dessert loses its appeal. A good shortcake should have a fine, crumbly texture, somewhere between a scone and a slice of cake. The interior should be soft and moist, while the exterior should be lightly crisp and golden. Conventional recipes call for butter, buttermilk white sugar, and white flour. The butter is worked into the dry ingredients (often by hand) and then the butte” is added to bind the dough.

The crumbly texture is usually achieved by a high butter content. The butter softens the crumb by shortening (or breaking apart) the proteins in the flour that link up into strands. These proteins, called gluten, get longer the more the flour is blended with the liquid. Long gluten strands, like those found in a bread dough, make baked goods strong but tough. Short strands lead to a tender, crumbly pastry, also known as shortcake.

For my vegan version. I replaced the butter with Spectrum Spread, a solid, nonhydrogenated butter substitute made from canola oil (available in most natural food stores). Although not quite as rich-tasting as butter, I found it produced the overall lightness and crumbly texture I wanted. Spectrum Spread, like butter, contains both fat and enough water for creaminess and spreadability. When the dough is placed in the oven, the water in the solid fat evaporates, leaving the small spaces that keep shortcakes from becoming too dense. (oils, on the other hand, produce tough, leaden-textured biscuits.)

Buttermilk, the acidic liquid by-product of churned cream, is another gluten inhibitor that further tenderizes a shortcake. It can easily be replaced with soured or “clabbered” soymilk. To make it, I simply add a little acid (lemon juice or vinegar) to full-fat soymilk and set it aside for five minutes to curdle.

For the sweetener. I used the evaporated cane juice found in natural food stores. Like white sugar, it’s pale in color, fine in texture, and mild in flavor. The benefit is that it’s not bleached.

For the flour, I used a combination of whole wheat pastry flour and unbleached all-purpose flour. I tried using whole wheat flour but found that it made the biscuits tough and dry. Whole wheat pastry flour has a much lower protein content, which inhibits the formation of gluten strands and helps ensure softer, more crumbly texture. I found that 50-50 ratio of whole wheat pastry flour and unbleached all-purpose flour delivered the best results. I then went on to try mixing cornmeal and oatmeal with the all-purpose flour. Both made delicious shortcakes.

Modifying the Technique

With my ingredients in place, I started experimenting with mixing and baking techniques. Because Spectrum Spread is so soft, it’s easy to work into the dry ingredients with either a pastry blender (a D-shaped device with curved wires and a wooden handle) or a fork. When the mixture resembles coarse meal, the fat has been broken down into small enough pieces and the liquid can be added.

Most shortcake recipes call for rolling the dough into a circle and then cutting out individual rounds; the scraps are rolled again and more biscuits are punched out until all the dough has been used. Because my shortcake dough is fairly lean, it’s susceptible to toughening, especially, if overworked. (Working any dough too much causes the formation of the long glutens that toughen the results.) Rather than rolling and rerolling, which might overwork the dough. I patted it into a circle with my hands and then cut the circle into six wedges.

To keep the shortcakes from sticking to the pan. I placed them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. A hot oven helped them to rise quickly: 425 degrees worked best. Once the biscuits turned fight golden brown, I cooled them on a rack. I liked them either slightly warm (the contrast between the cool filling and the warm biscuit was nice) or completely cooled. They grow stale quickly. though, so use them the day they are made.

Preparing the Fruit

Soft summer fruits are ideal for shortcakes because they don’t need to be cooked. In most cases the fruit is simply, sprinkled with sugar and then set aside until it softens slightly and juices form. Fleshy fruits, like peaches, nectarines, and mangoes, should be tossed with a little lemon or lime juice to prevent discoloration. Adding fruit, liqueurs will intensify the flavor.

The one exception to the no-cooking rule are blueberries, which are usually too firm to mash. I cook half of them with sugar to make a sauce and then add the remaining whole berries to form a chunky puree.

Blueberries are also not as sweet as other fruits and will require a little more sugar In contrast, mangoes often need no sweetener at all, particular the Kent variety, which is available in summer months. These mangoes are quite juicy and have a superior texture without the stringy, fibrous strands found in the flesh of other varieties.

The “Cream” Topping

The final component of the perfect fruit shortcake is the whipped cream. Steering away from cream and white sugar. I turned to raw, cashews whipped with water, maple syrup, and vanilla to make an outstanding creamy topping. It doesn’t taste like whipped cream, but has a rich mouthfree with a subtle nut flavor and an attractive ecru color. I prefer cashew whip to nondairy toppings made with tofu, which often have a slight grittiness. The texture is smoother and denser, much more like whipped cream than tofu toppings are. And it has fewer than 10 grams of fat per serving. A good blender is essential for an absolutely smooth consistency, and you will need to blend the mixture for a good five minutes for best results.

The various shortcakes and fruit fillings in this collection are interchangeable. However, there are certain pairings that are particularly good. I usually serve the orange-scented shortcakes with strawberries, which I spike with the optional Grand Marnier. Both the ginger and oatmeal shortcakes taste terrific with mangoes, peaches, and nectarines; the lemon-cornmeal shortcakes are best with blueberries, blackberries, or raspberries.

BASIC VEGAN SHORTCAKES

Serves 6

This basic shortcake contains a hint of nutmeg and pairs well with any fruit filling. For more unusual flavor combinations, try one of the variations that follow. Be careful not to overmix the dough or you’ll end UP with tough shortcakes.

  • 1/3 cup full-fat soymilk
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice or cider vinegar
  • 3/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • 3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 3 tablespoons unrefined sugar, such as Florida Crystals, plus 1 teaspoon to sprinkle on dough
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons aluminum-free baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/3 cup Spectrum Spread
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  1. Set rack in middle of oven and preheat oven to 42-5 degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
  2. Combine soymilk and lemon juice or vinegar in measuring cup. Set aside for at least 5 minutes to curdle.
  3. Combine flours, 3 tablespoons unrefined sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and nutmeg in large bowl. Stir well with wire whisk to aerate and combine.
  4. Use small spoon to drop tiny bits of Spectrum Spread evenly over flour mixture. With pastry blender or fork, work in Spectrum Spread until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
  5. Add vanilla to soymilk mixture and drizzle over dry ingredients. Stir with fork just until mixture forms soft dough.
  6. Place dough on lightly floured board or work surface. With floured hands, pat dough into a 6-inch round that is slightly less than 1-inch thick. Sprinkle remaining 1 teaspoon of unrefined sugar over dough. Use knife dipped in flour to cut dough into 6 equal wedges. Use spatula to transfer wedges to prepared baking sheet.
  7. Bake until tops have hint of color and bottoms are lightly browned, about 12 minutes. Transfer shortcakes to wire rack to cool.
  8. To assemble shortcakes, use serrated knife to split wedges horizontally. Place bottom pieces on individual plates. Spoon prepared fruit (see box) over bottoms and top each with 2 tablespoons of cashew whip (see recipe). Place top halves of shortcakes at an angle over fillings; and serve immediately.

PER SHORTCAKE: 203 calories, 4g protein, 9g fat, 28g carbohydrates, 2g fiber, 372 mg sodium, 9% calcium

ORANGE SPICE SHORTCAKES

Follow Basic Vegan Shortcakes recipe, omitting nutmeg and stirring 1 1/2 tablespoons minced orange zest into dough after cutting in Spectrum Spread. Best served with strawberries.

GINGER SHORTCAKES

Follow Basic Vegan Shortcakes recipe, omitting nutmeg and stirring 2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger into dough after cutting in Spectrum Spread. Best served with mangoes, peaches, or nectarines.

LEMON-CORNMEAL SHORTCAKES

Follow Basic Vegan Shortcakes recipe, reducing soymilk to 1/4 cup. Replace whole wheat pastry flour with 3/4 cup high-lysine cornmeal. Omit nutmeg and vanilla. Stir 1 1/2 tablespoons minced lemon zest into dough after cutting in Spectrum Spread. Best served with blueberries, raspberries, or blackberries.

OLD-FASHIONED OATMEAL SHORTCAKES

Follow Basic Vegan Shortcakes recipe, reducing soymilk to 1/4 cup. Replace whole wheat pastry flour with 1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats, ground to coarse meal in food processor. Omit vanilla. Serve with mangoes, peaches, or nectarines.

CASHEW WHIP

Makes about 3/4 cup

This topping does not taste like whipped cream, but it has the dense texture and luscious mouthfeel of dairy. The flavor is slightly nutty, with a hint of maple and vanilla.

  • 3/4 cup raw cashews
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons maple syrup
  • 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Scant 1/8 teaspoon salt

Place all ingredients in blender. Blend at high speed until mixture is completely smooth, about 5 minutes, stopping once to scrape down sides of container. Adjust sweetness if desired. Refrigerate until ready to use, up to 3 days.

PER 2 TABLESPOONS: 114 calories 3g protein, 9g fat. 8g carbohyrates, 1g fiber. 48 sodium

PREPARING FRUIT FILLINGS FOR SHORTCAKE

Using this box as a guide, you can experiment with various fruit combinations. For instance, peaches and blackberries make a nicely balanced combination, as do strawberries and mangoes. Just keep in mind that you will need 3 to 4 cups of fruit for 6 shortcakes. Fruit is the star in this dessert, so you don’t want to skimp.

STRAWBERRY FILLING

  • 4 cups sliced strawberries (about 2 pints)
  • 2 tablespoons unrefined sugar
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons Grand Marnier or orange juice (optional)

Place 2 cups strawberries in bowl. Sprinkle with sugar and crush lightly with fork. Stir in remaining berries along with Grand Marnier or orange juice, if using. Set aside for 20 to 30 minutes.

PEACH OR NECTARINE FILLING

  • 4 cups sliced peaches or nectarines(about 6 medium)
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons unrefined sugar

Toss fruit and lemon juice in bowl. Stir in sugar. Set aside for 5 minutes.

MANGO FILLING

  • 3 cups peeled ripe mangoes(about 3 large) cut into thin slices about
  • 2 inches long
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons lime juice
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons unrefined sugar (optional)

Toss mangoes and lime juice in bowl. Stir in sugar if desired. Set aside for 5 minutes

BLUEBERRY FILLING

  • 4 cups stemmed blueberries(about 2 pints)
  • 1/3 cup unrefined sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon

Place 2 cups berries with sugar, water, and cinnamon in small saucepan. Bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer until berries soften into sauce, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in remaining berries. Cool to room temperature, transfer to covered container, and refrigerate until ready to use up to 1 day.

RASPBERRY OR BLACKBERRY FILLING

  • 3 cups raspberries and/or blackberries
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons unrefined sugar
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons Chambord or creme de cassis(optional)

Place 1 1/2 cups berries in bowl. Sprinkle with sugar and crush lightly with fork. Stir in remaining berries along with liqueur, if desired. Set aside for 10 to 15 minutes.

THE AVERAGE NUTRITIONAL PROFILE OF FRUIT FILINGS PER 2/3 CUP: 68 calories, 1g protein, < 1g fat, 15 g carbohydrates, 3g fiber, 2mg sodium, 8% vitamin A, 40% vitamin C