The Unbearable Delightfulness of Scones

Nothing beats my new Scottish guilty pleasure: a warm, perfectly light fruit scone, slathered in cool cream and strawberry jam and then enveloped by a sip of breakfast tea. Even the thought cures all my homesickness, my chilled bones, and of course, hunger.  I suppose I shouldn’t call this a guilty pleasure, it’s a necessity.  My relationship with the scone wasn’t always as romantic as I deem it to be now.  It begins with me sitting in a coffee shop on the sunny coast of California choking on the dry crumbs of a blueberry “scone,” attempting to wash it down with a lukewarm vanilla latte.  This was not a pleasant experience, along with most scones I’ve found in the United States.   I initially assumed all scones were dry and tasted like stale cake.  It wasn’t until a fateful November day that changed it all.

It was truly the most beautiful afternoon I could ever envision: an ancient chapel, lush green fields, gentle dew on blades of long grass, and a rolling mist that softly overtook the sky and land.  A group of friends and I drove over to Rosslyn Chapel for an outing.  In the middle of this picturesque, almost catalog worthy, scene are a group of five friends basking in the sun whilst eating plump, moist yet crumbly, scones with homemade strawberry jam and cream.  Being new to this country, I never knew the custom for eating a scone properly.  There was much debate on which order to spread the jam and cream first.  I had no opinion on the matter and washed it down with tea.   Any which way, and I assure you I tried both, it tasted marvelous.  Maybe it was just the scenery.

Scones are simple, consisting of flour, baking powder, sugar, butter, milk and eggs, incorporating the cut-in method where the butter is rubbed into the dry ingredients creating pea sized balls.  These pockets of butter will steam and rise in the oven, giving a fantastic flavor and flaky texture.  However recipes vary, some use buttermilk and use baking soda instead of powder[1] and there are many recipes that don’t’ use egg at all.  From the basic ingredients come a plethora of options to flavor your scone.  Traditionally, fruit scones come from the addition of dried sultanas (which on my first day of my internship at The Balmoral Hotel, I had no clue what these were, raisin-like I now know), but the opportunities are endless.  Cheese scones, treacle scones and potato scones are all prominent.  What is unique to the potato scone- or tattie scone- is that it doesn’t need a chemical leavener to rise.  These scones are melted butter mashed into potatoes and mixed with flour and milk and baked most commonly on a griddle  and cut into wedges.  Any of these treats, either sweet or savory, can be cut round or triangle-shaped.

So how long have scones been around?  The first written evidence of the term dates back to a 1513 translation of The Aeneid[2] .  Scones can be traced back to Scottish roots.  The word scone does have a rather debatable origin.  On one hand the word could be derived from the Dutch schoonbrot meaning “fine bread” or from the Gaelic sgonn meaning “shapeless mass or large mouthful.”  The Oxford English Dictionary favors the Dutch term and dates back to the early 16th century.  There are other sources that also state that schoonbrot can also be derived from the older German sconbrot also meaning “fine bread.”   Either way scones are distinctly Scottish and have been transitioned into English cuisine.  Legend also has it that the word scone comes from the Stone of Destiny, the rock upon which the kings of Scotland were crowned on, from an abbey in Scone.  Famous Scottish poet Robert Burns muses over scones in his 1785 poem “Scotch Drink,” “souple (soft) scones, the wale (choicest) of food.”  Clearly, the scone is a source of Scottish pride.  There is no way you can’t enjoy a scone in this charming country.

Originally they were made of oats and cooked on top of a girdle (aka griddle).  Because baking powder dates back to the 1860s, scones were originally leavened with yeast and generally thinner than those of today.  Buttermilk was also widely used.   Around this time, ovens were becoming more prominent in households.   With the creation of afternoon tea, reportedly by Duchess Anna Maria Russell of Bedford at Belvoir Castle in the late 1830s, scones became a crucial detail to the meal.  Scones are served in all forms of tea (cream, light and high) with jam and Devonshire or clotted cream.  I have yet to sit down for a proper afternoon tea, but of course you’ll know I’ll reach for the scones first.

When you do get the chance to make scones at home, the process is simple, quick and so delicious!  I’ve got my cherry scone recipe for you to enjoy.  Just a head’s up, it’s rather sweet.  While they bake, maybe take some cream, sugar and vanilla extract and whip up a tasty topping and give your arms a little workout.  Your arms may be a bit tired at first, but it just gives you more time to savor each delectable bite.  Enjoy!


[1] This is because this chemical leavener (baking soda) uses the acid and moisture in the buttermilk to aid in the scone’s rise whereas baking powder already has the acid (usually cream of tartar) in it.  Both of these need heat in order to fully rise.

[2] Scots translation by Bishop Gavin Douglas

Sweet Cherry Scones -makes 10-12 scones

12 oz. self rising flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1 ½ oz. sugar

3 oz. cold unsalted butter (cut in 1/2” cubes)

3 ½ oz. glacé cherries (cut into ¼’s)

4 to 6 oz. milk

Directions:

  1.  Combine all dry ingredients in bowl (flour, baking powder, sugar) and sift together to combine.  Then add in butter and rub together with fingers or with a pastry cutter until butter chunks are about pea-sized.  Fold in cherries.
  2. Pour 4 oz. of milk into mixture and combine gently.   Don’t overwork or mixture will become tough.  If it appears too dry, add in a bit more milk until it becomes slightly sticky yet firm.  If you add too much milk, add in a little flour.
  3. When dough just comes together, on a lightly floured surface, roll out dough to a minimum of 1” thick.  Cut out scones with floured circle cutter (don’t twist when pulling up!) and place onto baking sheet.
  4. Bake in convection oven at 350°F for about 12 minutes.  Scones are ready when golden.  Allow to cool for 10 minutes before serving.

 

Sources: (I’d be a bad person if I didn’t cite my sources)

1. The Scots Cellar by F. Marian McNeill

2. The Taste of Britain by Laura Mason and Catherine Brown

3. The New Food Lover’s Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst

4. Cake Baker http://www.cakebaker.co.uk/history-scones-griddle-cakes.html

5. Scotch Drink by Robert Burns http://www.robertburns.org/works/84.shtml

6. The Glutton’s Dictionary: A Dictionary of Food and Drink Terms by John Ayto

7. The History of Scones, The Nibble online speciality food magazine


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4 thoughts on “The Unbearable Delightfulness of Scones

  1. Dear, dear Andrea, I am overwhelmed at this lyrical and beautifully written text that let’s me escape to that garden at Rosalyn with the five of you. While I will make my feeble effort at creating such a marvelous delicacy, I can assure you I will gladly await your creations, complete with jam and cream. I will look forward to following your blog daily to carry me over there in spirit to share times like this with you both.
    Hugs, Ma

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