I was well aware of Strawberry Shortcake Bars from an early age. Their picture was plastered to the side of the ice cream truck, and I used to find the individually wrapped bars in the local gas station novelty bin. In my memory, they were as crisp on the outside as a frozen Crunch bar, but fruity and soft within.
My adulthood experience of them, however, has fallen a little short. The topping is soft, stale, and scant—a mere scattering of crumbs—while the filling itself tastes like a chemical approximation of berries and cream.
But, fresh from my adventures with homemade Klondike Bars, and armed with popsicle molds from my time spent making DIY Pudding Pops, I knew a homemade solution was close at hand—one with an intense (and all-natural) strawberry flavor and the creamy, crunchy contrast I longed for.
I knew from my success with fruity whipped cream that freeze-dried strawberries would be potent enough (in both flavor and color) to make a strawberry filling, and crunchy enough for the topping as well. And, per my childhood recollection of the original bars, if not reality, I coated the whole thing in puffed rice to give it that frozen-Crunch-bar vibe.
Aside from the essential gear I recommend for any baker, Strawberry Shortcake Bars require a few special pieces of equipment, namely popsicle molds and sticks.
Of course, the recipe will work with any mold, but the yield will vary depending on capacity, and smaller or skinnier pops will have a higher proportion of coating relative to the ice cream, which can affect the overall sense of balance. Not exactly a world-ending problem; just something to be aware of.
If you don't have (or want to buy) popsicle molds, these Strawberry Shortcake Bars can also be prepared just like my Homemade Klondike Bars, in an eight-inch-square cake pan, but with two flavors swirled together rather than just one. Freeze and cut as directed in that recipe, but dip and coat as directed here.
The "Ice Cream" Filling
Although the assembly method is quite different, the "ice cream" base itself comes together in exactly the same way as the filling for my homemade Klondike Bars.
I've covered the technique in depth already, but in short: No homemade ice cream can compare with the pure and fluffy ice cream found in frozen novelties. So, instead of compromising with a true ice cream—delicious, but relatively dense and custardy—I start with a super-airy Swiss meringue. Combined with a splash of milk and cream, it freezes with an ice cream–like flavor and texture.
To create the dueling flavors of strawberries and cream for my homemade ice cream bars, I divide the meringue mixture roughly in half.
One portion is folded with vanilla extract, then transferred to a disposable pastry bag.
The remainder gets color and flavor from freeze-dried-strawberry powder (plus a few drops of rose water, for an aromatic boost).
After bagging up the fillings, I like to pause and tidy my work area; a sense of clutter inevitably leaves me feeling overwhelmed, at which point my work gets a little sloppy. The same applies if you rush to pipe the fillings—the meringue is quite stable, so there's no harm in pausing to regroup.
To form the bars, I fill each mold about halfway with the vanilla cream. (The exact amount will vary depending on the specific size of your molds.) Because the filling is fluffy rather than fluid, it won't settle down on its own into the corners of the mold, so I use a knife or popsicle stick to release the air and help the filling settle.
Next, I divide the strawberry filling evenly between the molds, aiming to pipe it as close to the center of each mold as possible, then top it off with the remaining vanilla cream.
After leveling the bars with an offset spatula, I cover them with a sheet of foil. Aluminum foil's sturdy construction seems to better protect the bars from absorbing odors in the fridge, as plastic doesn't stick well to cold surfaces and may come loose. Plus, it's easy to poke a popsicle stick through the rigid foil.
To help the bars release cleanly later on, it's important to make sure each popsicle stick reaches down to within just a half inch of the bottom. If not, the bottom edge of the ice cream bar may tear away when the popsicle is pulled free.
Pop the molds into the freezer until the ice cream bars have chilled down to 0°F (-18°C); the exact amount of time required will vary depending on the size and shape of the molds, but 12 hours is a safe bet.
Meanwhile, line two large plates or quarter-sheet pans with parchment and place them in the freezer as well. (When you're unmolding the bars, splitting them up between two plates or pans will make it easy to keep them cold, allowing you to work in stages during the dipping process later on.)
Unmolding the Bars
Once the bars are fully frozen, gently warm the molds under running water, working to make sure it flows over all the molds' surfaces. Slide a small offset spatula into the mold to confirm that a thin layer of ice cream has melted. If the spatula can't slide in, the ice cream is still frozen against the mold.
Carefully wiggle the popsicle stick, then lift each bar from the mold and place it on one of the frozen plates or quarter-sheet pans. It takes practice to perfectly unmold all of the popsicles, but working gently will go a long way toward ensuring success.
After unmolding all the bars, cover the trays or plates of bars with plastic and freeze them until needed, or up to three days. The longer the uncoated bars stay in the freezer, the greater the risk of freezer burn, so be sure to wrap them tightly if you plan on leaving them in for a while.
The Shortcake Coating
White chocolate may not be an official ingredient in real Strawberry Shortcake Bars, but it plays an important role in the homemade version by creating a sticky, low-moisture surface to capture the crumb coating.
This twofold role helps ensure maximum coverage for each bar, so it can be loaded up with crispy freeze-dried strawberries and crunchy cereal bits, while simultaneously keeping those very bits from softening against the cream.
As with the chocolate coating for homemade Klondike Bars, mixing in a generous portion of refined coconut oil ensures the shell itself is ultra thin and crisp. The coconut oil also serves to dilute the flavor of the white chocolate, so what's left tastes like little more than milk and vanilla.
To make the coating, simply melt the two ingredients together, then cool to about 80°F (27°C) on a digital thermometer. Pour the mixture into a small jar for dipping, and reserve the rest until needed. For the molds I have, a pint jar is the perfect size, but a small drinking glass will work just as well.
While the white chocolate is cooling, prepare the crumb topping by grinding some freeze-dried strawberries in a food processor. When they're powdery and fine, add a few cups of puffed-rice cereal and pulse just enough to break up some of the pieces.
This gives the coating a mix of big, chunky pieces and fine but crispy crumbs to fill in the cracks, for maximum coverage and crunch. If you don't have a food processor, a blender will work well, too. Or, put everything in a zip-top bag and have at it with a rolling pin.
Time to Dip!
Set up a dipping station with a tray of frozen ice cream bars on one side and the white chocolate coating in the middle, followed by the crumbs. Since I'm right-handed, I like to work right to left; lefties may want to set things up in reverse.
Dip each bar as far as you can into the white chocolate, then let the excess drip off before laying it in the tray of crumbs. Roll the bar around to ensure it's evenly coated, and grab a spoon if you need to touch up any particular spots.
Return each bar to the chilled plate or tray, using a fresh sheet of parchment to keep things tidy.
Along the way, top off the jar of white chocolate as needed, and stir the crumbs around to maintain an even layer.
Return the bars to the freezer until the coating has fully hardened, about 30 minutes, then transfer to an airtight container (I like to use a gallon-sized zipper-lock bag) and continue freezing for another hour or so. Though that last step isn't strictly necessary; there is an undeniable allure to ice cream bars that are still a little soft and melty.
With proper storage, these DIY Strawberry Shortcake Bars will keep at least a month in the freezer. Thanks to the thin white chocolate shell, the crunchy coating will stay crispy and fresh around the layers of berries 'n cream filling.