The word “sugar” often becomes “sugah” in the South. The dropping of the r, really pretty unnecessary letter it seems to many. Sugah isn’t just sugar, it’s “Sugah Bear” to a loved one. I recently called my sister that and she questioned my sanity. “Sugah, how ’bout some more coffee” from the waitress with the closer the hair the closer to G*d hairdo. “Come give me some Sugah” meaning a not so favorite smoochy kiss from and aunt or uncle. “Sugah Bowl” is the SEC football game held at the Superdome, and of course, as a graduate from the University of Georgia, aka UGA, “You can’t spell Sugah without UGA” is still a popular bumpersticker.
Sugah and the Southern sweet tooth is a powerful force. It is more than an ingredient in the South. It falls somewhere between condiment and food group. We have desserts at birthday parties, holidays, and special occasions. Mamas calm crying babies with sugar. (Mama dipped my sister’s pacifier in yes, Karo syrup; she finally put a stop to it when Jona was old enough to reach the bottle on the dresser herself.) We drink tea so sweet it will make your teeth hurt, slather jam and jelly on biscuits, eat ham cured in sugar and salt, often put a pinch of sugar in slow-cooked greens, and finish up the meal with a sweet wedge of pie.
Some food historians claim that the Southern fascination with sugar is a practical one. In the hot, humid South, sugar was originally a means of preservation. That’s why we have sugar-cured ham and bacon, sweet pickles, and boiled icing to protect cakes.
Another reason for sugar’s importance is that the crop was tied to slavery. Sugar production is undeniably backbreaking work and very labor intensive. Sugar cane followed the movement of African slaves through the islands of Caribbean and into the plantations of the South where it was grown. The mothers and sisters of the men working hard in the fields were in the kitchen, making the food that eventually evolved into Southern cuisine.
When transportation of goods depended upon horses and wagons on iffy roads, it could take months for sugar to travel from the sugar growing state of Louisiana to hill and mountain country. Sugar was a precious commodity then, kept under lock and key, and Southern craftsmen created a specialized piece of furniture known as the “sugar chest”. These strong and decorative boxes were built throughout the South, most notably in Kentucky and Tennessee. Finally, with the advent of steamboats and improved shipping, sugar prices fell in the 19th century and sugar became more widely available throughout the region.
Forget fancy gènoise or sponge cake; in the South, a shortcake is really just a sweet biscuit. Granted, this recipe is a step above, flavored with orange zest and sprinkled with raw sugar that sparkles like amber on the golden tops. At Martha Stewart Living Television, we served miniature versions of these buttery brown sugar shortcakes filled with peaches, strawberries, and blueberries at a luncheon attended by President Clinton.
In the past, brown sugar was semirefined white sugar with some of the molasses left in. Two popular types of raw sugar are the coarse-textured dry Demerara sugar from the Demerara area of Guyana, and the moist, fine-textured Barbados sugar. Turbinado sugar is raw sugar that has been steam-cleaned. The coarse turbinado crystals are blond colored and have a delicate molasses flavor. Now, for the most part, regular brown sugar is white sugar to which molasses has been added. The color, light or dark, depends on the amount of molasses added. Dark brown is slightly stronger in flavor than light brown, but otherwise interchangeable. When brown sugar comes into contact with air, the moisture evaporates and causes the sugar to lump together and become hard. Prevent this by storing brown sugar in a sealable plastic bag or in an airtight container. Also, storing brown sugar in the refrigerator will help keep it fresh and soft.
Sugah, hope you enjoy these shortcakes!
Bon Appétit, Y’all!
Brown Sugar Shortcakes
- 3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour plus more for dusting
- 1/3 cup granulated sugar
- 4 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 3/4 cup 11/2 sticks unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
- Grated zest of 1 orange or 2 tablespoons Grand Marnier
- 1 cup heavy cream plus more for brushing
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- Turbinado Demerara, or raw brown sugar, for sprinkling
Berries and Garnish
- 2 pints strawberries hulled and quartered lengthwise
- Juice of 1 orange
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- Whipped cream for accompaniment
- Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking sheet or parchment paper.
- To prepare the shortcakes, in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the paddle, combine the flour, granulated sugar, baking powder, and salt on low speed. Add the butter and zest, and mix on low until the mixture resembles coarse meal, about 2 minutes. Add the cream and milk and increase the speed to medium; mix until the dough comes together. Remove the dough to a lightly floured surface, lightly knead a few times, and shape into a rectangle about 3/4 inch thick.
- Cut out dough circles using a 3-inch round cutter. Place the circles on the prepared baking sheet. Brush the tops lightly with cream and sprinkle with the turbinado sugar. Bake until the shortcakes are golden brown, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool.
- Meanwhile, to prepare the berries, place the strawberries in a bowl. Add the orange juice and granulated sugar. Set aside.
- To serve, halve the shortcakes horizontally with a serrated knife. Place the bottom halves on individual serving plates, top each with a dollop of whipped cream, then some berries, and another dollop of whipped cream. Cover with the tops of the shortcakes and serve.
The shortcakes can be stored in an airtight container for up to 2 days.
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