A good plain scone, real butter and a cup of earl grey are one of life’s joys. Well for me, Kate likes fruit scones (yuck), covered in jam. However, I have frustratingly found that all the recipes I have tried for making my own scones have been a disappointment. Small and sometimes just too crumbly. Don’t get me wrong, they taste great but they are always way smaller than I expect and usually a bit underwhelming. This has led me on a journey of discovery over the last year to find the perfect scone recipe.
For centuries, scones have held a place of esteem in Scotland’s history and literature. The bard (Robert Burns) himself said, “souple scones” were “the wale of food”, wale meaning “the best.” Boswell ate scones on his tour of the Hebrides in the 1700s, although he found it hard to appreciate that the highlanders ate them with cheese for breakfast. And in the novel “Kidnapped” by Robert Louis Stevenson, David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart, when hiding from the Redcoats, “lay upon the bare top of a rock, like scones upon a girdle” (girdle is Scottish for griddle).
Whereas the modern scone may be known for the Cornwall / Devon debate of jam or cream first, in Scotland scones are definitely not just a simple “tea bread”, oh no, here scones are an all-day, everyday blessing. We eat them with mid-morning coffee or tea, with soup at lunch, in the afternoon tea as a wee snack or even high tea if you are a bit posh, and even as a wee supper treat before bed. Kids eat treacle scones as a treat (made with spices and treacle added to the basic white flour), and commuters buy scones on the rush for their trains in Glasgow’s Central or Edinburgh’s Waverly Station (much like the clamber for a bagel in New York).
The history of the scone
You’ll find scones connected with many countries, especially Scotland (soda scones, tattie scones and girdle cakes), Ireland (soda scones), Wales (Welsh cakes) and England, with each having deep traditions associated with them but the first known mention of a scone that was printed is from the translation of The Aenaid (1513) written by a Scottish poet named Gavin Douglas.
What’s in a name?
The word scone is said to come from the Gaelic word “sgonn”. Macalpine’s Gaelic-English dictionary defines “sgonn” as “gulp, glut, eat in large mouthfuls.” Although in “The Scots Kitchen” (1929), Marian McNeill, a prominent Scottish food writer, accepts “sgonn” as the root but defines it as “a shapeless mass.”
However, it could also be argued that the root is either the dutch “schoonbrot”, which meant fine white bread; or the German “sconbrot”, fine or beautiful bread.
There is, however, definitely a debate on how to pronounce the word “scone”. In Scotland and North England, the word rhymes with gone. In the south of England, it rhymes with cone. To be honest, it doesn’t really matter how you pronounce it, although if I’m honest, you will be laughed at if you use the wrong pronunciation in the wrong region. 🙂
So now that you are slightly more acquainted, let’s talk about how they are made.
Making the perfect scone
My quest came about mostly because the various recipes I found infuriated me with their claims of makes 12, when in fact I maybe got 5. I couldn’t understand it. Until one day I realised the different ways we consume scones in our various countries. I was using recipes from people who saw scones as an afternoon tea delicacy. A mouthful. I, however, come from a culture where a scone is substantial. 🙂 So my first simple finding was just to double up on recipes to make enough dough for a “proper” batch. Now you understand why knowing the history of the scone is so important.
So in saying this, I will add my final scone recipe to the bottom of this blog post, and it is intended to make 10 “Scottish style” scones. Not tiny high tea ones.
The next part of my journey was about texture. See scones are not buns, they shouldn’t be bready and chewy, they should have a short, crumbly texture BUT they also are not rock cakes. It’s a very difficult thing to explain, but I found that often my scones would be heavy, flat and too crumbly. Often completely falling apart when I tried to butter them.
So this next part of my journey led me to rising agents and I found that there are tried and tested recipes in every family, but most people stick to what they know works without understanding how things work, and so can’t deviate from the recipe.
Baking powder and bicarbonate of soda
The main rising agents I’ve found in scone recipes are bicarbonate of soda (bicarb) and baking powder. Each of these works in a different way and you need to know this in order to understand the ingredient choice in your recipe.
Baking powder and bicarbonate of soda are not interchangeable. Baking powder contains both an acidic and an alkali element which react together when you add moisture, forming a gas which creates tiny bubbles and makes your dough rise. Bicarbonate of soda, on the other hand, is solely an alkali and needs an acidic element to make it react, such as buttermilk, yoghurt, citrus juice etc.
Self-raising flour is simply plain flour which has baking powder added. However, these rasing agents have a shelf life and become less efficient over time, so it helps to add a little more baking powder if you are using self-raising flour. Just a little though, too much can make your scones taste soapy.
How wet should the dough be
Now this one is a very personal decision to me and has been a discovery due to my enjoyment of making bread. Through bread making, I have found that a wetter dough rises better than a dry dough. Traditionally, scones have been made with a very dry dough. This also helps to create that crumbly texture. Through experimenting, I have found that a wet dough gives my scones a better rise and, in my opinion, the perfect texture between too short (crumbly) and too soft and cake-like. Try it once and see what you think, if it’s not for you, you know enough now to go on your own scone making adventure.
Ok, so now you are experts ….. let’s get making scones.
- 500g self-raising flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 80g soft butter (room temperature)
- 70g sugar
- 2 medium eggs
- 235 ml milk
Preheat your oven to 220C/200C fan and get a baking tray ready.
So I am making my scones in the food processor. You guys know by now my take on using assistive technologies so I’m not going to go into food processor versus by hand but you can make yours by hand if that’s your prefered way. They will work equally as well, I have tested this.
The first step is to put the flour and baking powder into the food processor and give it a pulse just to mix the baking powder through evenly. Then add the butter and using the pulse option just give it short blasts to get the butter to coat the flour. People talk about breadcrumbs when they do this. To be honest, I wouldn’t say it resembles breadcrumbs, it’s way finer than that, more like sand. Yup, I’m going with that, you are looking for the texture of sand.
Now don’t go overboard here. If you go too much, the butter will melt and you’ll get too much moisture already.
Next, add the sugar and give things one more quick pulse. Just one to mix the sugar through.
Ok here comes the exciting bit. We are ready for the wet ingredients now. Remember I mentioned how liquid (moisture) is what starts the rising process? I am using baking powder and therefore don’t need buttermilk, I am using ordinary milk as my liquid.
The reason we don’t add everything at the beginning is, firstly, the liquid will activate the baking powder and it will start giving off CO2, which is what helps the scone to rise. If we start this too early, we’ll lose some of that in the process and we won’t get as good a rise. Secondly, the reason we add the butter to the flour, in the beginning, is that the butter (the fat to be accurate) actually creates a coating around the grains of flour, the fat stops moisture from affecting things too much and helps to prevent too much gluten being formed, helping with the short texture.
Scones should have a short, crumbly texture when baked but if you work the dough too much it forms too much gluten and becomes tough and it won’t hold together long enough for you to add butter and jam let alone get it to your mouth, and that would be a crying shame.
Ok next beat the eggs then add the milk and give it a good mix. Save a couple of spoonfuls of this mix as your egg wash for later.
Ok, a bit of patience here, add the milk to the flour mixture slowly making sure to get it all to come together. Again, we’re trying not to overwork things so keep an eye on it and as soon as things come together, stop and tip it out onto a floured worktop.
Top tip: dust the worktop with flour, coat your hands with flour and have a little extra to hand. You’ll use this to make the dough workable. You don’t need much.
Tip the dough out (if you are using a food processor, be careful of that blade.
Sprinkle some of that spare flour on top of the dough and begin to pat it flat. You can use a rolling pin, but you are aiming to keep the dough thick, about an inch. So don’t roll too much, it’s more that you want to flatten and even the dough out. Remember, you don’t want to work the dough much as this affects the texture.
Now it’s time to cut your scones. The most common shape you will see these days is round, cut using a biscuit cutter but scones traditionally can be square or in Scotland and Ireland, I used to see triangular. You can choose to cut yours into whichever shape you prefer, but when you do, make the cut clean. Resist the urge to twist the cutter. If you touch the sides of the scone or twist the cutter, it can cause the scones to rise unevenly, with one side higher than the other. This is actually really common so don’t beat yourself up over it. Here is a fine example of my wonky scones.
Ok, so here is a really important bit. Again, if you cut the scones into rounds, you will have an excess of dough which you can bring together and get more scones BUT remember the more you work the dough, the tougher the finished product. So do this quickly and as little as possible.
Again, when moving the scones onto the baking tray, try to use a floured spatula to get under the scones, rather than touch the sides.
The last thing you need to do is to take that little bit of egg and milk you put aside and brush the tops of the scones, this will help them to go golden brown.
Pop them into the oven and bake for about 12 minutes. The top will be golden and the sides pale. Put the scones onto a cooling rack and leave to cool before enjoying whichever way you fancy.
A good scone doesn’t need to be cut in half in order to add butter etc. Instead, it should have a natural seam and pull apart cleanly.