Classic strawberry shortcake has three basic components: a cake base, strawberries and whipped cream. The assembly instructions are simple as well: Ladle sliced strawberries in syrup over the cake, and top with whipped cream. The very simplicity of strawberry shortcake, however, has given rise to many regional and individual variations. Play with the ingredients to create your own classic — or not-so-classic — strawberry shortcake.

The Strawberries

While every element of your strawberry shortcake is important, the classic dessert is really all about the berries. Ripe, fresh strawberries have the most natural sugar and need very little sweetening. Frozen whole berries are a close second in flavor. Slice or quarter washed, hulled berries into a bowl. A sprinkle of sugar — a teaspoon or so per cup of strawberries — encourages the berries to release their juice. Toss the berries to make sure they’re completely coated with sugar, and put them in the refrigerator for half an hour or longer. If you like them extra juicy, mash some of the berries into pulp and stir it into the sliced strawberries and sugar. Alternatively, thaw frozen, sliced strawberries in the refrigerator.

The Cake Base

Berries and whipped cream only allow a few variations, but the cake provides numerous opportunities to make strawberry shortcake your own. Classic old-fashioned strawberry shortcake uses slightly sweetened shortening biscuits, but you can use any cake that soaks up the strawberry juices. Those who are more concerned with convenience than taste may opt for dessert shells, shaped sponge cake cups designed to hold a scoop full of sliced berries. Other alternative cake bases include slices of angel food cake, pound cake or sponge cake. The basic requirement for a good strawberry shortcake base is that it absorbs and holds the strawberry juice without turning into mush.

The Cream

Strawberry shortcake connoisseurs often insist that freshly whipped cream is the only appropriate topping for berries and cake, but it’s not a hard and fast rule. If convenience is important — or if you like it better — you can top shortcake with whipped cream from a pressurized can. If you’re making it for someone who avoids dairy products, choose a non-dairy whipped topping. If you decide to whip your own cream, try it without added sugar and let the sweetness of the strawberries carry the flavor.

Variations and Tips

While most restaurants serve strawberry shortcake as individual portions, at-home cooks sometimes sandwich strawberries and cream between two cake layers and top with whipped cream and more berries. Some recipes call for a scoop of vanilla ice cream between the cake and the berries. If you like your cake drenched in strawberry syrup, spoon some onto the plate before placing the cake on it, and over the top of the slice before spooning on the strawberries and whipped cream.