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.

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