Among the many things that make life worth living, I would count “afternoon tea,” that break in the afternoon between lunch and supper when you come in from mucking out stalls and tossing hay bales for a quick cuppa and a sweet treat. That’s where I first encountered scones — British style — while working at a stable in Devon in my teens.
Round like a biscuit but crisp outside and soft and crumbly inside, split in half and topped with butter or homemade cream and strawberry jam, they gave you the strength to finish those evening chores. Just as the somewhat more upscale version — slathered in clotted cream and topped with ripe strawberries — helped me through the late matches when I got to attend the Wimbledon Championships while in high school south of London.
Later in life I started experimenting with what many would consider American style scones — slightly more dense, often shaped in wedges and with a higher butter content, and often with flavors and add-ins that enhanced their sweet or savory characteristics. They were great with an afternoon cup of tea, but also with salads and soups.
If you read through the columns and blogs about scones you will find that there are as many different ideas about what a scone is and how to make them as there are ways to pronounce the final product. All-purpose versus pastry flour, butter versus shortening or lard, cutting in the fat by hand versus food processor techniques, milk versus cream or buttermilk, sweet versus savory, plain or with add ins, round, wedged or square … well, you get the picture.
Personally, I think you can find good recipes from all schools of thought and that what you choose to bake will depend on what you’re looking for — which is a scone that is buttery and flaky, moist and soft inside with crispy edges and is tempting plain or provides a tasty base for a topping or filling. But no matter whether you pronounce it scone as in spoon, scone as in own, or scone as in gone, there are some basic concepts and precepts for success:
- Measuring your flour properly is important. Too much flour leads to a crumbly dough and a dry scone; this is one place where weighing your dry ingredients really makes sense.
- Leaveners: Make sure your baking powder is fresh, no more than 6 months old, and most recipes use what you might think is a hefty amount to get a good rise.
- Whether you cut in your fat with your fingers, two forks or a food processor, don’t overwork the dough. In his article “The Secret of the Irish Scone” in The Atlantic (September 2007) Corby Kummer writes that the trick to making good scones is to work the fat into your flour “until it forms cornmeal-like crumbs and then to knead the dough practically by stealth. The best bakers have cold, nimble fingers and what Shirley Corriher, an Atlanta cooking teacher and writer, calls a ‘touch of grace.’” Fold in your additives, if any, gently. Knead minimally to avoid gluten formation and roll or pat your dough into shape with a light hand.
- Keep your ingredients cold and your dough on the moist side; this will make the lightest, fluffiest scones. Freezing the prepared dough for 10-30 minutes prior to baking helps gluten to relax and chills the fat to make for a better rise, reduces spreading and creates a flakier scone.
- Don’t use overly moist add-ins that can bleed into your scones and cause uneven baking, Blotting fruits dry or freezing them prior to mixing them into the dough can prevent problems.
- When cutting out your scones use a swift downward action and don’t twist the knife or cutter, which can inhibit rise and result in a shape that Paul Hollywood refers to as “squiffy.” Reshape leftovers with minimal handling — one tipster recommended making square scones to avoid having to reshape leftover dough.
- Don’t over-bake.
- Scones freeze well both before and after baking to help you eat them while they’re fresh. Scones that are a bit beyond their peak can easily be revived to their former freshness by putting them into a hot oven for a few minutes until they have warmed through.
It may all look complicated, but it really is not. Scones come together and bake quickly and can come with endless options for flavorings, mix-ins and toppings for variety. Even better, keep some in the freezer as an ideal option when unexpected guests drop in for afternoon or when you want a quick something to accompany lunch or dinner. Here are a few recipes that have worked well for me in the past:
Bacon, Cheddar, Chive (or green onion) Scones are savory and salty and perfect with a soup or salad. You can skip the bacon and experiment with other cheeses and herbs to your heart’s content. I’ve found they’re a great way to keep up with my type-A personality patch of chives.
Maple Parsnip Scones are a cross between savory and sweet with the maple syrup and slightly sweet parsnips complementing each other. They’re also a good choice for fall and winter, when fruits aren’t as fresh and available.
And finally the Honey Scones with Rhubarb Compote are British-style scones, perfect for an afternoon tea. With just a touch of honey overtones, they’re wonderful hot out of the oven topped with tangy cream (I found both double cream and clotted cream at Goods for Cooks) and the tart rhubarb compote. Or try them with whipped cream and fresh fruit or with salty butter and jam.
So find your own favorite recipe and stick with it or experiment and mix it up. In her “Master Scones Recipe” blog Sally McKenney says “scones are sweet or savory, perfect with coffee and tea, welcome at baby showers, bridal showers, brunch, snack time, bake sales, Mother’s Day, and wherever muffins or coffee are appropriate. (All the time!).” Once you get started, you won’t be able to stop.
Bacon Cheddar Chive Scones
Source: King Arthur Baking Co.
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour or 2 cups pastry flour blend
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons sugar
4 tablespoons cold butter
1 cup very coarsely grated or diced cheddar cheese
1/3 cup snipped fresh chives or 1/3 cup finely diced scallion tops (the green part)
1/2 pound bacon, cooked, cooled and crumbled (about 1 cup)
3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons heavy cream or whipping cream, or enough to make the dough cohesive
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees with a rack in the middle to upper third. Lightly grease a baking sheet or line it with parchment.
2. Whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder and sugar. Work the butter into the flour until the mixture is unevenly crumbly, with some of the butter remaining in larger pieces.
3. Mix in the cheese, chives and bacon until evenly distributed.
4. Add 3/4 cup of the cream, stirring to combine. Try squeezing the dough together; if it’s crumbly and won’t hang together, or if there are crumbs remaining in the bottom of the bowl, add cream until the dough comes together. Transfer the shaggy dough to a well-floured work surface.
5. Pat the dough into a smooth 7-inch disk about 3/4-inch thick. Transfer the disk to the prepared baking sheet. Use a knife or bench knife to cut the disk into eight wedges, spreading the wedges apart a bit on the pan.
6. Brush the scones with a bit of cream; this will help their crust brown.
7. Bake the scones in the middle or upper third of the oven for 22-24 minutes, until they’re golden brown. Remove them from the oven, and cool right on the pan. Serve warm or at room temperature.
8. Refrigerate any leftover scones, well wrapped, for several days; reheat before serving. Freeze for longer storage.
Tips from King Arthur bakers
1. Looking for a gluten-free version of this recipe? Find it at https://bit.ly/35dq032.
2. Make mini-scones: Divide the dough in half, and roll each half into a 5-inch round. Cut each round into eight wedges. Bake in a preheated 425-degree oven until golden brown, 18-20 minutes; or for about 25 minutes if frozen.
3. Want to make scones now, freeze and bake later? Make scones up to the point they’re on the baking sheet, cut and ready to bake; don’t brush them with cream. Freeze, then remove from the sheet, and wrap airtight in a plastic bag. When you’re ready to bake, remove however many you want to bake from the freezer, place on a baking sheet, brush with cream, and bake in a preheated 425-degree oven for 35-40 minutes, until golden brown.
Maple Parsnip Scones
Source: King Arthur Baking Co.
- 2 cups peeled, grated parsnips (about 3/4 pound before peeling)
- 3 tablespoons maple syrup
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice or cardamom
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 3 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, divided
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 18 tablespoons cold European-style butter, cut in 1-inch cubes
- 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups cold, well-shaken buttermilk, divided
- 1 large egg, beaten with 2 teaspoons water
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup
- 4 teaspoons honey
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
1. To prepare the parsnips: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment. Spread the grated parsnips on the prepared baking sheet. Drizzle with syrup and sprinkle with salt.
2. Bake for 13-15 minutes, stirring once after 9 minutes, until soft and slightly caramelized. Remove from the oven and place on a rack to cool.
3. In a small bowl, stir together the cinnamon, allspice or cardamom and black pepper. Sprinkle over the roasted parsnips. Set them aside to cool while you make the dough.
4. To make the dough: Place 3 cups of the flour in the bowl of a food processor with the sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the butter and pulse until pea-sized. If you don’t have a food processor, work the ingredients together using your fingers or a stand mixer. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl.
5. Sprinkle the remaining flour over the cooled parsnips on the baking sheet and scrape them into the mixing bowl. Stir to distribute them evenly.
6. Pour 3/4 cup of the buttermilk over the dry ingredients, tossing it gently with a spatula or your hands to incorporate it. Repeat with another 1/2 cup buttermilk. The mixture should feel damp and hold together when lightly squeezed; it will probably still look somewhat crumbly. If it’s very dry, add the remaining 1/4 cup buttermilk.
7. Transfer the dough to a floured piece of parchment. Use the parchment to fold the dough over on itself until it becomes more uniform. A bench knife or dough scraper is handy here, to scoop up the crumbly parts and bring them to the top of the pile.
8. Divide the dough in half. Pat each half with floured hands into a disk about 8-inch in diameter. Divide each disk into 8 wedges. Transfer them to a parchment-lined baking sheet, leaving 1 inch of space between them.
9. Place the cut scones in the freezer for 20 minutes while you preheat the oven to 400 degrees
10. Brush the tops of the scones with the egg wash and bake for 20-23 minutes, until the tops and sides are golden brown and crisp. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack for 5 minutes.
11. To make the glaze: In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, cook the butter until it separates and the solids begin to brown, about 5 minutes. Strain into a heatproof bowl. Add the syrup, honey and salt, whisking until smooth.
12. To finish: Generously brush the scones with the warm glaze before serving.
13. Store in an airtight container on the counter for two days; freeze for longer storage.
Tips from King Arthur bakers
1. It’s a simple and wise thing to bake half of these scones and freeze the rest, unbaked, for baking later. You can bake the frozen scones as directed, and add 5 minutes to the baking time.
2. The sweet and spicy glaze is wonderful on pancakes or French toast; feel free to double (or triple) the amounts, and keep on hand for other breakfast occasions.
Honey Scones with Rhubarb Compote
Source: “Crave: Brilliantly Indulgent Recipes” by Martha Collison, Harper Collins, 2018
- 7 ounces rhubarb, trimmed and cut into small pieces, about 2 cups
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1/3 cup plus 5 teaspoons orange juice (about 1 large orange)
- 2 1/3 cups self-rising flour, plus extra for dusting
- 5 1/4 tablespoons cold butter, cubed
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons honey, plus extra for glazing
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- Clotted cream, to serve
- 2 1/3-inch round pastry cutter
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and line a baking tray with baking parchment.
2. Place the rhubarb in a saucepan with the sugar and orange juice. Simmer over a medium heat for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the rhubarb pieces have completely broken down and the mixture is thick and sticky. Spoon into a small jar or ramekin and leave to cool.
3. To make the scones, place the flour in a large bowl and add the cubes of butter. Quickly rub the butter into the flour using your fingertips until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar and make a well in the center.
4. Pour the honey into the center of the well, then gradually add the milk, stirring it into the mixture using a round-ended knife. A soft, rough dough will form. Tip the dough out on to a lightly floured worktop and knead very briefly to smooth out the dough. Over-handling the dough will make your scones tough and flat, so knead as little as possible.
5. Gently pat or roll the dough out to a thickness of around 1 inch. Cut into rounds using a 2 1/3-inch pastry cutter, cutting straight down and not twisting, as twisting prevents the scones from rising properly. Very gently re-roll the remaining dough, taking care not to handle it too much, and punch out more scones — you should get nine in total. Arrange the scones on the lined baking tray and brush the tops with a little extra honey.
6. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until risen and golden brown. Serve warm from the oven, split in half, with big dollops of clotted cream and rhubarb compote.