Scone Studies

January 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

If you want to understand the deep-rooted social differences between the US and UK, one need not engage in lengthy study of welfare systems or aristocratic history. A few choice dishes will tell all you need to know. A scone is a fine place to start. George Bernard Shaw, a man who had a grasp of the power of a simple word (and who, I conjecture, liked a good meal), produced the now infamous line that England and America are “two nations separated by a common language”. Never is this more apparent than in the world of flour and butter, in scones and biscuits. The latter may be the cause of quite some consternation for the transatlantic traveller. Why, thinks the Brit with diner menu in hand, would biscuits be served with gravy? She has in mind of course a flat, sweet, crumbly concoction, made to sit alongside an afternoon cup of milky tea, or be served from a tin by a flowery aunt. Gravy does not belong with biscuits and neither belong at breakfast.

The scone of American lineage, as far as this interloper can tell, is a democratic creature. It’s a vehicle: a starting point that shifts shape in the hands of the chef, determining its own fate by taking on different shapes and additions. Not all American scones are created equal, of course, a fact to which we will return. But they enjoy total freedom of expression. The British scone, by which I refer to a Scottish creation of English appropriation, comes with with much butter-laden baggage. It’s the centrepiece of the revered high tea, where only scones born to be the smallest, palest, untainted dainties are worthy of their perch on the frilled edges of fine china, a smear of cream and jam awaiting expensive mouths. It’s also a staple of peach-linened bed and breakfasts across the country, almost always studded with a frugal number of currants. Jam and butter still accompany, but in individual packets on the side of the plate: one of each, no more, no less. Even the very pronunciation of the word scone is fraught with social nuance. A scone with a hard, short middle vowel, to rhyme with “gone”, is probably the standard pronunciation all round, and given the scone’s origin in Scotland, is in line with its heritage. But you will hear people pronounce the word with a longer vowel, like “bone”, and this is considered to be southern, or “posh” or pretentious: a fancifying of a perfectly fine folksy cake. Tread carefully in the world of scones my friends.

Now, I am a girl who grew up in the north of England, studied and then lived in Cambridge via Spain, and now calls America home. It would be fair to say that I am not one to hold court on the issue of vowels: my vocalic repertoire would be a curiosity even to Henry Higgins. But I can tell you that wherever it’s served and however you care to pronounce it, a flaky scone is a good scone. Yes, the divider in the world of scones is not accent or shape, it’s whether you would be prepared to stand and have someone throw your creation at your forehead. A scone should never be able to be used by your younger brother as a projectile weapon. It should have a firm exterior that, on immediate contact with force or pressure, yields to a flaky, buttery centre. It’s a tiny Scottish grandma of a bread: stern on the outside to protect the softest heart.

Where the English scone can often fall down on a tough dough, my main issue with the scones that line the counters of coffee shops across America is a matter of scale and additions. The trend is for doorstopper hunks of scone laden to the brink with ingredients: cranberry walnut maple, or chocolate macadamia with frosting. All well and good, but scones of such mammoth proportions have to be baked for longer to cook through and as such risk drying out (hence the resultant slathering with frosting). And the piling on of ingredients, delicious and inventive as such combinations might be? You sacrifice the tender crumb to something sterner which has to provide tension and support for those nuts and fruits. The seeming democracy of the scone as home to all possibilities and combinations doesn’t quite hold up: what you do with that base matters and at that point it’s a question of education: the science of scones teaches that less is usually more and that sometimes simple traditions persist for a reason.

My local cafe (to whom I will have to dedicate my first book, since their brews power most of my writing) offers only one scone. On the counter it is easily overlooked alongside more ornate creations, the pale golden squares almost camouflaged against the wood counter. The curious observer’s closer look is rewarded with the glimpse of intriguing nobbles and a slightly cracked surface, and when you take the plunge and order one, the golden edges break to reveal a buttery soft interior in which are suspended large chunks of crystallized ginger. There’s a crumb, for sure: a tight, clipped one that would be perfectly safe for eating off the best china with your in-laws. It’s an American breakfast scone with a British accent. I set out to recreate at home something with that balance of crumb and crystal. I happen quickly upon a recipe from Molly Wizenberg, originally published on her uber-inspiring blog and later reproduced in her lovely hearth of a book. Hailing from Scotland but adapted by an American, the recipe has the perfect balance of tradition and hope. The January markets yielded petite, sunny Meyer lemons this week and I grate in their zest alongside the chunks of ginger. The results are just as restrained and elegant as my inspiration: a socially mobile scone if ever there was one.

Scottish Scones with Lemon and Ginger
Adapted from Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life (originally published here)

Yields 8 scones

2 cups (220g) all purpose/plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
4 tbsp/2oz/1/2 stick/55g cold unsalted butter, cut into ½ inch cubes
3 tbsp sugar
2 tsp grated lemon zest
¼ cup chopped crystallized ginger
½ cup/110ml half and half, plus more for topping (see note below)
1 large egg

English readers: half and half is a cream and milk mixture. It is not semi-skimmed milk, as several tea-drinking visitors discovered through experience! You could substitute single cream, or a mixture of whatever runny cream you have to hand and full-fat milk.

Preheat the oven to 425F/220C.

Whisk or sift the flour, baking powder and salt together in a large bowl. Use your hands to rub the butter quickly into the flour mixture. Two things will help here: I like to put the butter in the freezer for 10 minutes or so as I prepare the other ingredients to keep it as cold as possible. And second, use your fingertips rather than palms for the rubbing in, letting the flour and butter fall back in from a foot or so above the bowl. Your fingertips are cooler than the other parts of your hand and the aerating of the flour as it falls back helps to keep it cool. Stop when the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs with no lumps of butter larger than a pea remaining.

Add the sugar, lemon zest and crystallized ginger and whisk to incorporate.

Pour half a cup/110ml half and half into a small bowl and add the egg. Beat with a fork until well combined. Pour the wet ingredients into the flour bowl and stir gently until just combined. Some flour at the bottom of the bowl may not incorporate but don’t worry. Use your hands to squeeze the dough into a rough ball and turn this, along with any flour remaining in the bowl, onto a board or counter, and press and gather and knead it until it barely comes together. Do not overwork the dough at this point: ideally you will knead it fewer than 12 times to get it to come together. As soon as the dough holds together, pat it into a rough circle, about an inch thick and cut this into 8 wedges.

Place the wedges an inch or so apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush the tops of the scone with a thin coat of half and half to glaze. Bake for 10-14 minutes, or until pale golden. Transfer them to a wire rack to cool slightly and serve warm.

NB: the scones are best fresh from the oven, on the day they are cooked. If you are serving them on a second or third day, reheat them in a 300F/150C oven briefly and serve warm. You can also freeze the scones, sealed in a plastic bag or air-tight container, and put them into the oven straight from frozen until warmed through. They will keep that way for a month or so.


Home, Alone

January 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Olympic mountains, to the west of Seattle, catch the mid-afternoon glow. I’m in a cab speeding south, airport- and home-bound. The cloudy curtain lifts for the first time on this four day sojourn to reveal a postcard of a backdrop. The peaks are curiously flat and false, as though a tourist board or film crew had rolled them in just for that moment. Stay, they plead, propping up a Mount Rainier shaped scene ahead of us for maximum impact. But I’m ready to leave, stunning natural beauty and all; ready for home, for the new year to begin in earnest, and for soup.

Conference travel sometimes feels like an ever-changing set of backdrops in front of which I am supposed to act. Mostly it’s the one of the book exhibit, scene of jaw-cripplingly permanent smiles and nods and unparalleled enthusiasm. Don’t get me wrong: it’s the part of my job which I love the most: tossing around ideas, seeing work being tested out and refined, and then the excitement of a stack of a book hot-off-the-press getting the love and attention it deserves. But at the end of those long days I’m ready to unpin that identity along with my name badge. That’s when I head out to eat, alone.

Once you’re over the initial sheepishness of asking for a table for one that will almost inevitably be with you the first couple of times you do it, you might well be in for a dining alone treat. Solo diners are the stuff of which the dreams of maitre d’s are made: we slip into corners, pad out awkward gaps at bars, never sneer at the offer of the communal table. The reward? Walk ins at the hottest spots in town, gliding past open-mouthed lines of hipsters and foodies and the other dozens of people who thought a two hour wait for pizza was totally reasonable. Avec in Chicago, Mozza in LA, Walrus and the Carpenter in Seattle: a smug litany of solo successes. Nothing deserving of pity there.

When that craving for home hits, usually for me around the middle of the third day away, it’s rarely the aloneness that sets it off. It’s a yearning: for my own bed, for the small everyday things, and for cooking from my own kitchen. Such trifles: they are the intangible yet instantly recognizable sense of home. Soup is one such marker. Before I set off on this brief January trip I made a batch of a fridge-clearing soup. A soup of leeks and of celery, both of which have seen better days but which will be perfectly revived with a gentle saute in butter. To the pale green mix I add a handful of sunchokes – or Jerusalem artichokes as I would have known them from the UK had I ever eaten them there. The rhizomatic chokes bear a pleasing resemblance to the hefty lump of ginger that will later top the soup. And later was right – something about that day just didn’t call out for soup and I froze batches of the barely-green broth for a time when it would be better appreciated. Lunchtime today it is perfect. As the soup reheats, plopping languidly on the stove, I make a topping of crushed coriander seeds, pounded walnuts, and abundant matchsticks of the aforementioned ginger. I set my own table for one. The soup is mild with an almost fluffy texture: a duvet of a dish if ever there was one. The hot-water-bottle warmth of the ginger is just enough to enliven without disturbing the inherent calmness of the dish. Around me, pots overflow in the sink and three suitcases spill their contents into the hallway. There is nothing one-dimensional here.

Leek, Choke and Celery Soup
Adapted from my hero Nigel Slater’s Tender Vol 1 (link is to the combined US edition)

Yields about 4 servings

2-3 large leeks
40g/3 tbsp butter (or olive oil for a vegan version)
4 ribs of celery
400g/14oz sunchokes/Jerusalem artichokes
1 litre/4 cups water
a good handful of parsley, chopped

Walnut and ginger topping
1 tsp coriander seeds
30g walnuts (about a quarter cup)
30g lump of ginger
4 tsp groundnut oil (if you don’t have this to hand use any neutral oil like sunflower)

Discard the very toughest of the outer leaves of the leeks and then slice the white and pale green flesh into thin circles. Leeks often come with quite a bit of grit between the layers so be sure to rinse them well before using. I leave them to soak for a couple of minutes, give them a stir with my hand, then rinse and repeat once more. Melt the butter over a low to medium heat and then cook the leeks in the butter for around 15-20 minutes, until they are very soft. Do not let them colour – you will need to stir frequently and keep a good eye on them.

While the leeks cook, finely slice the celery and add it to the pan once the leeks are soft. Stir and allow to cook along with the leeks while you peel and dice the chokes. Add those to the pan along with the leeks and celery, stir to coat and mix well, and then cover the pot with a lid and allow the vegetables to sweat and soften, still without colouring. Add the water to the pan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, partially cover the pan with a lid, and allow to bubble for about 25 minutes, or until the chokes are tender. Blend the soup with a hand blender or in batches in a blender or food processor. Keep warm while you make the topping, or cool and freeze portions at this point if you want to save some of the soup for another day.

When you are ready to eat the soup, make the topping. Grind the coriander to a powder with a pestle and mortar, then add the walnuts and give them a good pound, so they are broken and pulpy but not finely ground. Peel the ginger and slice into thin matchsticks. Heat the oil in a shallow pan, such as a saute pan, add the ginger and let it sizzle and fry for about 30 seconds, until it starts to brown and crisp. Add the walnuts and coriander, stir and let them sizzle briefly, then tip the mix onto kitchen paper to crisp.

Stir chopped parsley into the soup, ladle into bowls, then top each with a mound of the walnut and ginger mix.

To Start Afresh

January 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

How quickly mice-sized tasks mutate into lumbering elephants. A couple of illness-laden weeks and a post about tortilla de champignones, meandering through memories in Barcelona on its way, loses its sharpness and appeal. Next up, a life- and perspective-changing ten days leads to a whirlwind of emotion, leaving no corner of life unturned in its wake, and suddenly every single word I toil to produce is both of critical importance and yet an insufficient trope. And then, the proverbial cherry on top is the unstoppable march towards Christmas. All too bright, and sharp, and distracting; with its experimental cookies, and the best carnitas cooked and eaten in a cabin in the woods, and the final unraveling of a cake so booze-soaked it practically levitated out of its wrapping of headily scented parchment onto the Christmas table.

Just when it feels like life may from here on out blur into one long faded decoration of over-eating jigsaw-assembling reality-avoidance, January asserts itself with more of a whimper than a pop but audible and ready to be heard all the same. And here we are: three months of half-finished, outdated posts, too much to tell, and where to start? And this, friends, is how a dormouse of a post about muesli, and new beginnings, seems to call on mammoth reserves.

In such sticky moments of doubt, I recommend heeding the wise words of that great thinker Maria von Trapp, and starting at the very beginning. Right now, in January, as we box up the tinsel for another year, hope and potential is in the air. Breakfast is the meal that most encapsulates this mood, setting the tone for what is to come. My love for breakfast is no secret and while reviewing the highlights of the past year with friends over an earl grey gin cocktail (or three) at the new year’s eve table, Ollie and I had one overlap: breakfasting in Sydney. Languid, easy mornings took on the shape of homemade, ricotta-topped crumpets, bowls of yoghurt-heavy muesli and avocado-smeared toast. We would pass the first several hours of each day observing, waking to the rhythm of the city, nourishing whatever state we found our jet-lagged bodies in that morning. On holiday or at home, those hours so often set the tone for what follows: eating on the run, squeezed by the straight-jacket of time, or taking a more compassionate pace and view of the day.

So on that Monday holiday just passed – the brief stay of execution before the “official” start of the year – I tossed hazelnuts, whole and brown-skinned, in oil and coarse salt and roasted them until their aroma penetrated all corners of the apartment. Halfway through, a sheet of oats joined them, the heat warming their winter pallor to a hue more suited to summer months, or (not to brag, ahem) a California January. In a large bowl: quinoa flakes, wheat germ, and handfuls of dried cherries and cranberries. The whole lot, when mixed, filled a quart mason jar perfectly. It sits on the counter as a beacon of the bright hopes of the days, months, year to come and a reminder that you can start afresh every day, not just the first of the year.

Cherry and Hazelnut Muesli
Adapted from the wonderful Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce

When ready, there are two ways to serve this muesli. One is to soak it overnight in milk or fruitjuice, which is the classic way to serve muesli. In the morning, just remove from the fridge and top with chopped fruits and a sprinkle of salt. Or you can treat it more like granola and just pour milk over the muesli straight from the jar. It will be crispier. Try both and see which you prefer. Either way, yoghurt and honey make excellent additional dressings.

1 cup hazelnuts, raw and whole, in their skins
1 tsp olive or hazelnut oil
1/2 tsp coarse sea salt
2 cups rolled oats
1/4 cup plus 1 tbsp wheat germ
1/4 cup quinoa flakes
1/3 cup dried cheries
1/3 cup dried cranberries

Heat the oven to 350F. Toss the hazelnuts with the oil and salt and spread on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes or thereabouts, checking on them a couple of times and giving them a shake to redistribute for even browning. The nuts are ready when they are a dark brown, but not burnt. Set to one side and, when cool enough, chop roughly, keeping a few whole. You can include the skins in the muesli too.

Spread the oats on a separate baking sheet and add them to the oven for around 8-10 minutes, again stirring halfway through. The oats should turn a golden brown. Remove and allow to cool.

Mix all but 1 tbsp wheat germ and the quinoa flakes in a large bowl. Toss the cherries and cranberries in the remaining tablespoon of wheat germ to prevent them from sticking and chop them roughly. It’s fine for them to be uneven and to leave a few whole. Add to the bowl with the wheat germ and quinoa.

Add the hazelnuts and oats and mix well. Tip into a mason jar or similar and cover only when cool. The muesli will keep, well covered and stored in a cool dry place, for more than 2 weeks.

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