Saturday, March 5, 2011

Recipe: Scones

Scones fresh from the oven, still on the baking sheet.
As I noted at the beginning of the week, I have long held the scones at the Victoria and Albert Museum Cafe in London to be the gold standard of sconedom.  In January 2010, when I was snowed in at my apartment in the Fogle Flats at Salem College (I was there as a visiting professor during a sabbatical from ASU; scroll down on the link for a description and photo--mine was the one farthest from you in the photo), I began to mess around with scone recipes to see if I could come close to the ones I had at the V & A some years ago.

I tried several methods.  I used self-rising flour, since lots of traditional English recipes call for that.  I used baking powder, and I used a combination of baking soda and cream of tartar (baking powder is essentially a combination of those two ingredients), I used eggs in some and not in others.  I got recipes from all over the place, including a couple from some online English friends.  I even tried to get one from the V & A, but as I said on Monday, they never answered the email.

Finally, this week, I made some that really seemed to have the qualities I admired from the museum.  They were light and flaky inside, but crispy and sturdy outside.  The secret?  Yogurt.  Yogurt?!?  Obviously, no traditional English cook ever used yogurt; they might have used buttermilk.  Buttermilk and yogurt are pretty much interchangeable.  Yogurt, in my experience, gives a bit moister result, so I like using it.  But if you don't have yogurt, you can use buttermilk if you have some on hand, or you can even make a good, quick substitute:  just put a tablespoon or so of fresh lemon juice or distilled white vinegar into a measuring cup, then add enough fresh milk to make a cup.  Let it stand on the counter for a few minutes to clabber, which is a polite way of saying sour, curdle, etc.  Then just use it as you would the buttermilk or yogurt.  Scones made with yogurt or other sour milk seem lighter, moister, and just sconier than those made with plain milk.  It's probably got something to do with the acid giving more oomph to the leavening.

Here's how I made the scones.

(Click on the title to open the recipe in a printer-friendly version.  When the new window opens, hit Control-P on your keyboard to print.)

1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour (8 ounces by weight) (don't use self-rising flour)
2 teaspoons baking powder (be sure it's fresh; baking powder loses potency fairly quickly)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons sugar

1 stick (4 oz., 8 tablespoons) good unsalted butter
3/4 cup yogurt (or buttermilk or milk you have soured using the instructions above)
a little extra milk as needed
about 2 tablespoons heavy cream

1.  Preheat the oven to 400* F.

2.  Measure the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar and put it in a large mixing bowl.  Give it a stir with a fork to combine.  (Or you could sift it together if you want, but I find mixing it with a fork works just fine.)

A good pastry blender. Rock it, don't mash with it.
3.  Cut the butter into cubes and add it to the dry ingredients.  Using two knives or a pastry blender like the one pictured at the right, roughly blend it into the flour mixture.  The mixture will resemble a very coarse meal.

4.  Add the yogurt and stir rapidly with the fork to combine.  Add a little milk, about a tablespoon at a time, until the mixture just comes together to form a soft dough that pulls away from the side of the bowl.  (I'm guessing you might use about 2 - 4 tablespoons of milk here, but to be honest, I didn't measure it.)

The dough after forming.  Click on the photo to enlarge it and see the texture.
5.  Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and, with floured hands, gather it into a ball.  Do not knead it; handle it as gently and as little as possible.  Divide the dough into two smaller balls, then pat those out into two disks roughly 3/4 of an inch thick.  They will look quite rough, like the picture at the right.  This is good:  the big clots of butter will melt, leaving flaky dough behind.

Brushing the top with cream.
6.  Place the disks of dough on an ungreased baking sheet.  (A non-stick sheet is best; failing that, line the sheet with parchment paper.)  Brush the tops of the disks with cream, as I'm doing in the photo. Then, using a knife or bench knife, cut each disk into four or six equal pieces.  (The number depends on the size scones you like.  I personally prefer making eight scones from this recipe, but this morning I made 12, because Sue was bringing them to a meeting where there were about nine people.)  Separate the pieces to allow heat to circulate between them.

Cutting and separating the dough.
7.  Place the sheet into the preheated oven and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the scones are well-risen and browned on the top.  Serve fresh from the oven with hot tea and plenty of butter, jam, and marmalade to slather on them.  Or try clotted cream or Devon cream:  veddy British, veddy decadent.  But hey, this isn't diet food.  And trust me, you're not going to get fat on the occasional scone.  Have them as a treat, not as a steady diet, and you'll be fine.

Notes:  You could probably do this in a food processor, but it's pretty quick by hand, and it's low tech.  I like using a pastry blender, but here's a word of caution:  be sure you use a rocking, cutting motion with it; don't push down on it like you would a potato masher.  The trick with all short doughs (pie crust, biscuits, etc.) is to handle them as little as possible to avoid developing the gluten in the dough.  I like brushing the tops with cream before cutting up the dough:  the tops get more evenly coated with the cream, and you're less likely to dribble any down the sides, which would prevent a good rise.  If you want, you could sprinkle some sugar on the tops of the scones just before you put them in the oven.  If you have leftover scones, what's wrong with you?  Just kidding.  Put them in an airtight container and reheat them at 350* for 3 or 4 minutes.  Or freeze them, thaw them, and reheat them.  But they're really best when they're fresh.

As with bagels, I'm a scone purist:  I don't much care for chunks of things in them.  A traditional addition to scones is dried currants.  If you want, you could quickly stir in 1/2 cup of dried currants with the yogurt and milk.  (I will try some currants in my next batch.)*  Americans have a penchant for putting bits of things in stuff, and if that's what you like, knock yourself out.  Try dried cranberries, dried blueberries, raisins, dried cherries, or even chocolate chips.  About 1/2 cup of any of these is likely to be right, but to be honest, I haven't tried it!

Final note:  this is all a whole lot easier to do with two hands, as opposed to one hand with a camera in the other.  Just sayin'.

*ADDENDUM (3/16/11):  I've made two batches of these in the last couple of days using 1/2 cup of dried currants.  I stirred them into the dough just before adding the yogurt and milk.  I don't think I'll ever skip them:  they're delicious!  I've also taken to sprinkling just a bit of sugar on the top of the scones before they go into the oven.  I may spring for some coarse white sugar (you can get it from King Arthur Flour), because I think that would add a nice--if somewhat American--touch.  When we get to Maine and can get dried wild blueberries, I will add some of those in place of the currants.  Another Americanism, but it should be delicious.

Now, here's the crucial question:  what's the difference between scones made this way and buttermilk biscuits?  Good question.  To me, they are similar but don't taste much alike.  Scones seem heavier, flakier, and crisper.  Near as I can determine, the ratio of butter to flour is much higher for scones--scones have somewhere between 50% and 100% more butter than biscuits do.  Biscuits don't usually have sugar in them.  This small amount of sugar changes the flavor of the scones but doesn't actually make them sweet.  The method of mixing the dough is virtually the same for both scones and biscuits, so if you already make decent biscuits, you'll do just fine with scones.  Scones and biscuits have different traditional shapes, but if you want, you could certainly cut scones the way you do biscuits.  (Although with the softer dough, I think cutting them with a knife is much easier than using a biscuit cutter.  Also faster, and you're not re-rolling the scraps, so you don't risk toughening any of the scones.)

I hope you try this; it's much quicker and simpler than it sounds.  You can be eating delicious scones in 30 - 40 minutes.  And while it probably won't evoke a trip to the V & A Museum for you (a truly wild and quirky place--utterly wonderful), you'll make your own memories.  Memories are almost as good as food, and you can have them any time you want.


  1. I am so excited to try this recipe! I have been wanting to try making scones for awhile now, but I hadn't found a recipe I felt confident or comfortable making. This doesn't sound too hard at all- and it sounds delicious! Thank you!

  2. I'm glad, Megan! Do let us know how yours turn out.

    I should say that all of my efforts with scones turned out quite acceptable: what made it more difficult was that I had a very particular outcome in mind. Some of the recipes produced scones that were more cakey than I wanted, or that somehow just didn't have the texture I was looking for. These do.

    But you're right: they are not difficult, and there's nothing especially definitive about this recipe. You can find lots of others on the web, so hunt around until you find one that you like!

  3. I require scones when I come home for break. One wants one's scones. (note: the preceding comment should be said in a pompous British accent.)

  4. Elizabeth, your wish is my command. Compile the rest of the list, too! (I'm thinking Bolognese, maybe?)

    And I know exactly the accent you mean: One wants one's BBC!

  5. PS, Elizabeth: with or without currants? I bought some today...

  6. I am inviting some neighborhood girlfriends over to watch "the Royal Wedding" on April 29 and will serve these. I have to do something to encourage them to show up at my house at 5 am! Am also going to get a lesson from M.Marritt on cucumber sandwiches - she is the queen of those! If you and Sue want to fly in, you are most welcome. PJs, white gloves and an outlandish hat are the only requirements!!

  7. It's a tempting offer, though I look like crap in white gloves.

    I made some with currants in them yesterday morning: they were fabulous and completely English-tasting to me. (I don't know if Marie will agree!) I highly recommend that you do that. Those would taste best with Devon cream or clotted cream; adding jam seems too sweet to me.

  8. When I visit London my first stop off is always at the V and A
    First activity there is a scone in one of the gorgeous cafe rooms
    Often have a great visit with someone at a shared table

    Can't wait to try your recipe
    thank you !

    1. Let me know how they turn out. It's been some time since I was at the V&A, so I'm not sure how close these really are!