This is definitely the messiest batch of scones that have ever come out of my oven, but truthfully, what does mess matter when they taste so good? Crisp sugared edges, buttery, slightly sweet interior with fragrant steam of anise and orange mixed into the batter. Scones are deceptively luxurious, as really, they are so easy to make. It's the same process as making biscuits, cutting cold butter into flour until it's broken into little pieces, adding liquid, mixing only enough to pull the dough together, cutting and baking. Once upon a time every mother, grandmother auntie and even a few uncles knew how to do this. It's a skill that has been replaced with refrigerated cardboard tubes barely containing the dough ready to burst from inside, filled with five times the number of ingredients needed, leaving the average shopper feeling there is some mystery to making a biscuit, something you can't just do at home.
And so we are here. Like so many other culinary skills I savor, a totally basic recipe that once you make a few times, will vanquish the fear and open up a world of possibility, a food that's quick, versatile, and delicious; a gift you can whip up to treat your family and neighbors who have yet to walk behind the velvet curtain revealing the simplicity that is scones and biscuits.
This scone recipe comes from a great cookbook from Julia Child that came out in the 90's when I was just entering the professional culinary world. It is among the early wave of photo rich cookbooks that helped to birth the realm of celebrity chefs and cookbooks of today, those books you want to pour over nearly as much as you want to eat the foods described within. Baking with Julia by Dorie Greenspan is a collection of recipes from great bakers across the country, and some of the base recipes, like these buttermilk scones are gems. My standby favorite additions are anise, lemon or orange zest and currants, but really you can add nearly any combination of flavors you like: citrus, dried or fresh fruits, ginger, spices or shredded coconut. You could even go savory by reducing the sugar to 1 tablespoon and adding cheese, olives or herbs.
This batter is very wet, so flour your counter well before turning out the dough, handle the dough as little as possible, leaving the small chunks of butter to melt in the hot oven resulting in flaky pockets of rich steam and deliciousness. A simple pleasure you will now be able to enjoy more often.
Above: unbaked scone, bits of butter layered within the dough are what make the final product so tender and flaky.
Recipe by Marion Cunningham
from Baking with Julia by Dorie Greenspan (with my notes and adaptations)
3 cups all-purpose flour (part whole wheat, corn meal or oat flour is great too)
⅓ cup sugar (I use 1/2 cup)
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
1 ½ stick cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup (approximately) buttermilk*
1 tablespoon grated orange or lemon zest (optional)
½ stick unsalted butter, melted, for brushing (I generally use a few tablespoons of cream or 1/2 & 1/2)
¼ cup sugar, for dusting (I use turbinado sugar or "Sugar In The Raw")
Other additions might include:
1 tablespoon anise seeds
1/4 cup dried fruit like currants, raisins or shredded coconut
1/2 cup small or diced fresh fruits
candied ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg or other spices
savory additions work to, just reduce sugar to 1 tablespoon and add things like cheese, fresh or dried herbs, olives, curry or other things you like.
* If you don't have buttermilk, you can substitute 1 cup of any kind of milk with 1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar or 3/4 cup milk with 1/4 orange juice.
- Preheat oven to 425°, and position the racks into thirds in the oven.
- Mix flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium size bowl. Add the cold butter and mix it with your hands until it resembles coarse cornmeal. You could also use a pastry cutter, but your hands are really the best option. (I use my electric mixer with the paddle attachment.) It's OK if there are a few bigger pieces of butter remaining because they add to the flakiness of the scones.
- Pour in the buttermilk and the zest and mix with a fork or rubber spatula until it is just combined. Do not be tempted to mix it until it looks pretty! The original recipe says to knead a few times, but I just scrape the dough onto a floured counter and gently pull it together. If it is too dry, you can add 1 tablespoon more milk.
- Shape the dough into a long rectangle about 3 inches from front to back of counter, 1 inch high and about 18 inches left to right. Using a chefs knife or bench scraper, cut from front to back across the 3 inch length of the rectangle angling from right to left in a zig zag resulting in triangular scones.
- Place the scones on a baking sheet, lined with parchment, brush them with melted butter or cream, and sprinkle with a little bit of coarse sugar. Bake for 10-12 minutes, until both the tops and bottoms are golden rotating in oven if necessary. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool slightly.
For freezing: you can make these up until the point of cutting them into triangles. Freeze on a cookie sheet, then transfer to a air tight bag or container. To bake place scones on a baking sheet while oven is preheating. Bake following instructions above, but increasing baking time slightly (time will vary).
Do you have a great scone or biscuit recipe? Please share!