Scones in England invoke the same sentiments as Grandma's biscuits on this side of the pond. British students learn sconemaking in the first days of their home economics classes, practicing the art of blending ingredients mostly by hand.
Scones are not as flaky as biscuits. But good ones aren't supposed to be dry either. They are a robust, cakelike treat, sturdy enough to support toppings from butter to clotted cream to jam. And they must be crumbly.
I asked my British friend Janet Peterson for help in making a variety of scones suitable to serve my British mom on Mother's Day this Sunday. Scones make for a solid Mother's Day treat, the interactive process of making them something any member of the family can help with. Plus, they can be made in many different variations, from savory to sweet.
While visiting England, my birthplace as well, I have enjoyed numerous scones and afternoon teas. But I rarely bake them at home. We decided to make five varieties, three sweet and two savory options. Our primary recipes came from Peterson's 40-year-old copy of The Good Housekeeping Step-by-Step Cook Book. We also used a couple of recipes clipped from Food & Wine magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle.
I picked up some valuable scone tips.
First, flour is a thing. Some recipes call for all-purpose flour and added baking powder to make the scones rise in the oven. Others call for self-rising flour.
In England, Peterson uses self-raising flour, which is not widely available in the United States. Self-raising flour has the baking powder in it already. The self-rising flour sold in the United States has added salt, which can change the taste and texture of the scone.
Peterson used to bring back self-raising flour from her trips home to England, but airport security measures make it difficult these days. We used self-rising flour, although we did find a couple of options of self-raising flour available to purchase online.
I also learned that how you mix the ingredients is critical. If you over-knead the dough, the scones become tough. If you add too much liquid, they don't rise as well. It's a careful balance; the goal is to end up with a shaggy dough.
"People always make the mistake of just adding more liquid, but if you keep working with it, the dough will come together," Peterson said. "If you do add more liquid it's just going to be too mushy."
It's best to mix the ingredients by hand. We used pastry cutters to blend the butter into the flour. And when a recipe called for cold butter, we put it in the freezer for a bit beforehand.
Traditional scones are round. While most of the scones we see in local bakeries are triangle-shaped, scones served at high tea in England are small and round. We made round scones with fluted edges, triangle scones and square scones.
Fruit scones in England have currants. We used a bag of Whitworths mini Zante currants that Peterson had brought from her hometown in West Yorkshire.
The Zante currants are really raisins often called currants. Real black currants are a separate, tart berry. Authentic currants were banned in much of the United States until around 2003 because they were thought to contain a fungus dangerous to pine trees. Today, black currants are grown in several states including New York and also in areas of the Pacific Northwest. London Pride British Store in Largo sells a few types of currants imported from England.
Finally, scones should be removed from baking sheets to cooling racks as soon as they come out of the oven. Peterson stores her extra scones in foil and reheats them the next day for about 5 minutes in a 375-degree oven.
They also can be frozen in airtight containers for about six months. After thawing, she reheats them the same way.
We started with the Butter Maple and Thyme Scones, the most complicated of our recipes. But the thyme scones are a favorite of Peterson's, so she knew the recipe by heart. The night before, she made the maple glaze.
"I make a maple-thyme infusion by placing sprigs of thyme in warmed maple syrup overnight," she said.
When the scones were ready for the oven, she brushed off any excess flour and then lightly brushed the infused syrup on the tops.
"I've learned not to put on too much syrup," she said.
For a final touch, we sprinkled each scone with a pinch of coarse, Hawaiian sea salt. We garnished the plate of finished scones with thyme.
These are perfect alongside a salad for lunch as well as with a hot cup of tea in the afternoon. The evening we made them, Peterson served them with summer corn chowder for dinner.
Buttery Maple and Thyme Scones
Handful of thyme sprigs
¼ cup pure maple syrup
2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon coarsely chopped thyme
6 ounces (1 ½ sticks) cold, unsalted butter cut into ½-inch pieces
¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon milk
Coarse sea salt
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In a small saucepan, cover the thyme sprigs with the maple syrup and simmer over moderate heat for 1 minute. Set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk the flour with the baking powder, table salt and chopped thyme. Cut in the butter until it's pea-sized. Make a well in the center of the mixture and pour in the milk. (We used 2 percent milk.) Stir with a fork until the dough is evenly moistened. Turn out on a lightly floured surface and form into a ball.
Roll out the dough to ¾ inch thickness. Use a cookie cutter (we used a fluted, round cutter) to stamp out the dough into seven large scones.
Place the scones on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush with the maple liquid and sprinkle with the sea salt. Bake 20 minutes or until golden brown.
Source: Food & Wine
Basic Scone Recipe
8 ounces self-raising flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 to 2 ounces butter or margarine
¼ pint milk
1 beaten egg, or milk, for glaze
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place a baking sheet in the oven to heat it up.
Sift the flour, salt and baking powder into a large bowl. Cut in the butter until the mixture resembles fine bread crumbs.
Make a well in the center of the mixture and add milk.
Turn the dough on a floured surface and knead quickly and lightly to remove any cracks.
Roll out dough until it is ¾ inch thick. Using a floured, 2-inch round cutter, cut the dough into rounds as close to each other as possible.
Carefully remove hot baking sheet from oven, transfer scones to sheet, then brush with beaten egg or milk.
Bake 8 to 10 minutes.
Source: Adapted from The Good Housekeeping Step-by-Step Cook Book
Preheat oven to 425 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Follow Basic Scone Recipe, but add 2 ounces finely grated cheddar cheese and 1 teaspoon dry mustard to the dry ingredients.
Glaze scones with beaten egg or milk and top with another 2 ounces grated cheese.
Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until golden brown and well-risen.
2 cups all-purpose flour
⅓ cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 ¼ teaspoons freshly grated whole nutmeg or ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons (¾ stick) chilled, unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 cup sour cream
1 egg white beaten with 2 teaspoons water, for glaze
2 teaspoons sugar
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Combine flour, brown sugar, baking powder, 1 teaspoon nutmeg, baking soda and salt in food processor and blend 10 seconds. Add butter, then pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal.
Add sour cream and pulse until moist clumps form.
Turn dough out onto floured surface and knead four turns to form a ball. Roll out dough to an 8-inch square (about ¾ inches thick).
Cut square into 8 wedges and brush with egg-white glaze. Sprinkle with 2 teaspoons sugar and remaining ¼ teaspoon nutmeg.
Transfer to baking sheet and bake about 20 minutes until golden brown.
Source: Food & Wine
Blueberry Pecan Scones
7 ounces cold, unsalted butter
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
⅓ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking soda
⅓ cup chopped toasted pecans
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup fresh or frozen blueberries
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or grease with butter. (We used silicone baking mats.)
Chop butter into ¼-inch pieces. Spread on a plate and freeze 30 minutes or overnight.
Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and baking soda in a large bowl. Add butter and chop with pastry cutter until well blended and butter is crumbly. Mix in pecans.
Gradually add buttermilk, ⅓ cup at a time, until all ingredients are incorporated but not completely blended.
Dough should be a shaggy mass and may not require all of the liquid.
Sprinkle blueberries on top of the dough and fold into the mixture to just evenly distribute the berries.
Form dough into ⅓-cup balls and place on baking sheet.
Bake 24 to 26 minutes or until golden brown.
Source: Adapted from the San Francisco Chronicle