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For strawberry shortcake, this is the cream of the crop

Go ahead. Eat the corn dogs and caramel apples, but save room for dessert.

At the Florida Strawberry Festival, the red fruit reigns — and shortcake is the most popular way to indulge.

Whether it's on a biscuit or sponge cake, fresh Plant City strawberries and mountains of whipped cream have been dished up for decades.

If you're hitting the festival's final weekend, here's a breakdown of shortcake options:

St. Clement

Catholic Church

Their self-serve strawberry center is the most popular in the festival, and for a good reason. The berries are juicy and the whipped cream is thick.

Volunteers at the booth inside the Parke Building are decked out in aprons, hats and strawberry earrings. There's even someone who manages the line, which can stretch outside the building.

Rita Clavenna, 82, drove from Tampa just for St. Clement's shortcake. On a biscuit, of course. That's the way her mother made it when she was growing up in Michigan.

She agrees with volunteer Janet Custer: The mark of a good shortcake is that the strawberry juice turns the biscuit or cake into mush. Custer recommends the biscuits.

East Hillsborough Historical Society

Head to their blue wooden stand and you'll find a friendly bunch of people who are quick to serve up a big bowl of shortcake.

Volunteer Jimmie Wise, 71, prefers the sponge cake, which is sweet and fluffy — perfect for absorbing the strawberry juice. The whipped cream is pressurized, so it's light and airy.

On a busy day, they'll go through 45 5-gallon buckets of strawberries — enough for about 2,000 shortcakes, Wise said.

Turkey Creek Assembly of God

This church has a shortcake stand inside the Expo Building. They're especially generous with the strawberries, which volunteers wash and stem each day of the fair.

About 3 miles south of the festival, 20 volunteers remove stems from berries at small wooden tables in a warehouse behind the church. The rest of the berries are waiting to be washed in a machine and stored in a walk-in refrigerator bought specifically for the annual festival. They've been offering shortcake at the fair for 30 years, Pam Rodriguez said.

Volunteers start working two days before the festival opens, and they go through almost 400 flats a day.

Jessica Vander Velde's strawberry shortcake palate was refined growing up in Lutz with her father, who would pick, wash, stem and chop Plant City strawberries each spring. He taught her the art of stacking the shortcake as high as possible.

She can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

.IF YOU GO

Plant City Strawberry Festival wrap-up

Today: Gates open at 10 a.m. $20 ride "Moonlight Madness" passes from 11 p.m.-3 a.m. Featured performers: Gene Watson (3:30 p.m.) and Trace Adkins (7:30 p.m.)

Saturday: Gates open at 10 a.m. Featured performers: Billy Ray Cyrus (3:30 p.m.) and Neal McCoy (7:30 p.m.)

Sunday: Gates open at 10 a.m. Featured performers: Sugarland (3:30 p.m.) and Jason Aldean (7:30 p.m.)

Information: www.flstrawberryfestival.com or (813) 752-9194. The fairgrounds are at 2202 W Reynolds St., Plant City.

For strawberry shortcake, this is the cream of the crop 03/07/08 [Last modified: Friday, March 7, 2008 9:29am]

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