You and I probably don’t think of the same thing when we hear the word ”scone.” The American version is typically a triangle-shaped sweet cookie, while the New Zealand scone bears more resemblance to a Southern-style biscuit: It’s tender and flaky, it can be sweet or savoury, and it never lasts more than a day.
My father has fond memories of the cafeteria lady who made the scones decades ago at the Central Institute of Technology in Wellington. Her name is long forgotten, but she was famous for the best scones in the city (this is an honour akin to winning best barbecue in Texas). Each morning, she’d drop hundreds of spoonfuls of batter one by one onto a line of trays, and twenty minutes later pull out rows and rows of piping hot craggy scones.
The recipe is adapted from the Edmonds Sure-to-Rise Cookery Book, a collection of 600+ recipes originally published in 1955 that can be found in every kitchen in New Zealand. It sends me into nostalgia-induced fits with gems like Yoghurt Jelly Whip, Mysterious Pudding, and Chinese Chews (an oatmeal cookie whose dubious name refers to a full cup of preserved ginger in the ingredient list). Ten years ago it would have been dated, but now, vintage is in.
Scones are simple, but like most good home-cooking, they require a practiced touch. He asked her once what made her scones different, and she said that the secret is to handle the ingredients as little as possible. Like biscuits, pastry, and pie dough, the perfect texture relies on the butter staying cold. Cold butter doesn’t blend as easily with flour, which means the flakes of butter bake into a flaky dough. Warm, homogenous dough (think Pillsbury dough-in-a-can) won’t bake up to the same tender flakiness.
Keys to a pillowy scone……..
– If possible, use a blend of all-purpose flour and pastry flour. The finer pastry flour gives a more tender crumb.
– Be gentle with the dough. It’s better to under-mix than to risk a tough scone.
– Use a food processor to blend the ingredients. It’s the quickest way to mix the dough, which means colder butter and a flakier scone.
– Don’t be tempted to bake at a lower temperature. To rise properly, scones need a roaring-hot oven.
In a traditional Devonshire tea, you serve tea alongside scones slathered with clotted cream (which packs more calories per molecule than just about anything) and raspberry jam. Since clotted cream is hard to find and time-consuming to make, I over-beat regular heavy cream, which makes a more lightweight spread that’s halfway between cream and butter.
(This one looks like a crab.)
Notes & Variations: These are sweet scones, but they adapt to any flavouring. Herbs, cheese, and spices all work easily into the recipe. Use 1 tsp. for dried herbs, 1 tbsp. for fresh herbs, and up to ¼ cup cheese. Don’t sprinkle cheese on the top, because the oven will burn it before the scones are finished baking.
American scone recipes commonly include fruit; because this is such a delicate dough, it’s best to stick with dried fruit such as raisins (most traditional), cranberries, apricots, or currants. If you have fresh fruit on hand, chop finely and macerate in a tablespoon each of lemon juice and sugar to draw out some of the liquid before folding into the batter. Drain and pat dry with a paper towel before adding to the dough.
Lavender Lemon Scones
Makes 1 dozen scones
1 tbsp. dried culinary lavender
Zest of one lemon
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup milk
3 cups flour
4 ½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
25g (1 oz. or 2 tbsp.) unsalted butter, diced and chilled
- Preheat the oven to 450°F (that’s right, 450°F—no cheating).
- Scald cream over medium heat with zest and lavender until cream is just under the boiling point. Watch it carefully to avoid burning on the bottom or a skin on the top. Pour through a sieve into a small bowl, pressing down on solids. Discard zest and lavender and allow the infused cream to cool completely.
- Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt into the bowl of a food processor.
- Add butter and pulse until the butter pieces are the size of peas. Add in the cream and milk and pulse until the mixture is just barely on the very edge of coming together as a dough. The dough should be on the dry side, but not stiff or crumbly. If it won’t come together, add a little milk.
- Turn out onto a floured board and knead 2-3 times, then drop dough in rough balls onto a greased cookie sheet. You should have about a dozen scones. Brush the top of each scone with a little milk.
- Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until scones are puffed and golden brown. Serve with over-whipped cream with freshly brewed tea.
Recipe adapted from Edmonds Sure-to-Rise Cookery Book.