Birthdays, a food fair and how to make the perfect scone

Busy times in the Eat and Dust household.  We’ve had  two significant birthdays – our eldest son turned 18 last week, our daughter 16 yesterday.  The former involved tent-wallahs, champagne and sushi courtesy of the Yum Yum Tree. For our daughter, dinner at Sidewok, a mountain of butterfly cakes and an impromptu serenading by a wedding band organised by her Dad.

Last weekend also saw the International Food Fair at our kids’ school, an annual event showcasing the food of over 50 nations represented at the school.  Inexplicably (and I know I’m asking for trouble here), United Kingdom hasn’t been represented for the past few years – and the last time we did have a atall, some bright spark decided it would be a really great idea to serve Chicken Tikka Masala.

Unable to bear the national shame any longer, this year I rallied a few mums to put on a bake sale.The Women’s Institute would have been proud: everything from Bakewell Tart, Victoria Sponge and gingerbread men to Sherry Trifle, meringues and of course fresh cream scones.

Scones are actually trickier than they look – it’s very easy to end up with a leaden lump (happily none of those at the Food Fair) and coincidentally my Mint Lounge column the same day was devoted to ‘The Perfect Scone’.

Here it is, in case you’re ever called on to represent your country….

Scones of happiness

This perfect autumn tea-time treat is easy to make as long as you follow a few golden rules

It’s that blissful time of the year when the temperature dips, we breathe a collective sigh of relief, switch off the air conditioning and dig out the picnic hamper.

It’s also now cool enough to spend a few hours in the kitchen baking for my favourite meal of the day: afternoon tea. One of the many attractions of afternoon tea is that it harks back to an era when, with pinkies crooked from Bombay to Basingstoke, everything had to be just so—leaf tea, in a pot; dainty cups, not mugs; the prettiest linen napkins and, of course, a cake stand piled with fresh scones oozing jam and cream.

Scones are at their welcoming best when eaten warm straight from the oven. They’re simple to make, using the most basic store cupboard ingredients—flour, milk, butter—and it’s possible to rustle up a batch in the time between friends calling to say they’re on their way and the knock at the door.

Earlier Lounge columns

Before we break out the bone china, though, there are a few golden rules to achieve the soft, airy scone of dreams rather than a lumpy leaden brick. Firstly, the scone dough has to be handled as lightly as possible, in fact, hardly handled at all. It doesn’t matter if your dough looks lumpy and ragged; in fact, if it does, it’s more likely to yield a light scone. If you try to knead or smooth out the dough, the scones will be hard and chewy. Just as important is to not roll out the dough too thinly—it should be at least 2cm thick, preferably nearer 3cm.

Also important is to use the correct raising agent. In my family, we always use bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar, and I firmly believe this gives the best rise. Always preheat your oven for at least 15 minutes before baking, so that the scones start to rise as soon as they go in the oven.

A good scone shouldn’t be too sweet—it isn’t a cake—in fact, many traditional recipes contain no sugar at all. The sweetness comes from the jam and cream. If I know I’m going to be making scones at the weekend, I save the cream from the top of the milk all week, then whisk it till thick. It’s also a good idea to keep a tub of mascarpone in the fridge for impromptu tea parties. Use the best strawberry jam you can find, preferably home-made, but failing that Bhuira Jams also make an extremely good version.

Once you have mastered the basic recipe, you can play around with variations. If you have some buttermilk (chachh) or cream (malai), use it to replace the milk. You can add 100g of raisins, dried apricots, dates to the basic recipe and flavour with ginger, cinnamon or mixed spice. One of my favourite accompaniments to autumn soups is a cheese scone (replace the sugar with 100g grated cheese and 1 tsp mustard powder). I’ve recently come across recipes using lemonade and ginger beer although I have to confess an experiment with Limca ended in the bin.

For me, though, scones are one of the sacred items of baking, a perfectly plain scone the best vehicle for all that indulgent cream and fruity jam. Besides, it’s the one my mother, grandmother and aunts always made whenever they heard the knock at the door.

Perfectly Plain Afternoon Tea Scones

Makes 12-14 scones

Ingredients

450g plain flour (maida)

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

2 tsp cream of tartar

110g cold butter, cut into small cubes

50g caster sugar

1 egg, lightly beaten, with enough milk to come up to about 250ml mark

Extra milk for brushing

To serve

Thick cream, or mascarpone and strawberry jam

Method

Preheat the oven to 220 degrees Celsius. You will need a baking sheet and a 5-6cm fluted pastry cutter,

First sift together the flour, bicarbonate and cream of tartar—this is important to spread the raising agents throughout the flour. Add the butter, and with your fingertips, quickly and briefly rub it into the flour until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar. Make a well in the flour mixture and pour the milk/egg mixture in all at once. Quickly and lightly mix the milk into the flour mixture with your hand until you have a very soft but not sticky dough (although for scones it’s better for the dough to be too soft than too dry).

Tip the dough on to a floured surface and pat it into a disc 2-3cm thick. Don’t worry if the surface is uneven. Dip the pastry cutter into some flour and cut out individual scones. Place them close together on the baking tray. Gather up the scraps and gently make another disc and continue cutting out scones until all the dough is used up. Brush a little milk on the top of each scone to give a shiny finish. Bake for about 10-12 minutes.

The scones should be lightly browned on top and the sides will be dry but soft. They will probably not look uniformly pretty—some may have toppled slightly, and as Nigella Lawson points out, they might look more like a bad case of cellulite than anything else. This is as it should be: uneven, lumpy, but light. To keep the scones soft, cover them with a clean dry tea towel. Let them cool slightly before breaking the scones into two halves and slathering with the cream and jam.

Step by step guide to making scones

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11 thoughts on “Birthdays, a food fair and how to make the perfect scone

  1. Thanks – I must try this recipe. I seem to have missed out on the scone gene in my family, and dream of making the perfect one. I do cheat and make the lemonade scones as a quick fix – no creaming of butter or eggs required!

    2 cups + 2 tablespoons self-raising flour
    2/3 cup cold lemonade (must be fizzy) or soda water
    2/3 cup cream (35 percent fat)

    Preheat oven to 225 degrees Celsius (205 degrees Celsius fan-forced). Line a baking tray with baking paper. Mix the cream and lemonade or soda water together, add to the flour and gently fold. Press the dough out on a lightly floured surface to about 2in thickness. Use a 5 or 6cm cutter. Place the scones on the tray so they are just touching and bake for 12 – 15 min. They don’t keep particularly well, but are very nice served warm from the oven.

  2. Hey Pamela,

    Best wishes to the birthday boy and girl. And congrats on going beyond the British national dish at the fair 🙂

    I grew up on stories tea and scone parties in Enid Blyton books. Then finally tried them at The Tea Centre Mumbai wwhen I had gone there for a review
    http://finelychopped-k.blogspot.com/2008/03/tea-new-coffee.html

    Loved what I ate. As you said, they weren’t overtly sweet and was served warm. The management’s changed since then but you still get scones at the Tea Centre

  3. Hello Pamela,
    Scones! Wonderful! A tea of warm scones oozing jam and cream has to be one of life’s great indulgences.
    Pamela I am from Pakistan but my maternal grandmother was Scottish and we would often talk about clootie dumplings and tablet and all the other Scottish fare that we all find delicious in my family. She adored curries as well.
    I have tried making tablet with little success. Do you happen to have a good recipe and some tips? I tried some the other night and while it tasted like tablet it stayed soft and had gritty lumps in it.
    Love your column by the way! You should try Lahori food sometime. Its amazing.
    Amber

  4. Hi Amber – thank you for your lovely message. It made me instantly long for Scotland and want to come to Lahore. Do you know, I’ve never had Clootie Dumpling but I just went to look it up in my Scottish cook books – I might give it a go this Christmas. Tablet I absolutely adore but it’s a standing joke with my sister about how difficult it is to get right even though it only has about 3 ingredients. I think I’m going to do a Tablet recipe for my 25th December column – stay tuned. All the best. Pamela

  5. Pamela, you are so a woman of your word! Thank you for the tablet recipe in your Mint column!! I know what I’ll be trying this week 🙂

    I hope you and your family had a good Christmas celebration and I wish you the best for the year ahead.

  6. Hi Amber – thanks for your message – hope you enjoy the tablet – make sure you book an appointment with the dentist though!

  7. Hello Pamela – I am English living in Switzerland and feelng homesick, so imagine my delight when I found your article in the Saturday Telegraph (a weekend treat of ours) – and to find your recipe for Scones of Happiness – I am going straight away to find the ingredients and make some. Ex-pats have so many things to be grateful for but there is always the “but” of being away from home. We dropped into our local Indian Grocery Store today and Ashwin gave us some chapattis to try and I realised too that I missed a good curry. I do so love synchronicity in life, don’t you – yes I imagine you do. How pleased I am to be able to read about your experiences over there. You have breathed some life into my life here. Bye, Susan

  8. Hello Pamela ( my middle name is Pamela)

    I enjyed reading the artivcle in The Telegraph brought to me by a friedn who is visiting Perth, Western Australia. So I got on to your site and have enjoyed reading all your ‘ getting to know India and her cuisines’. When researching for my books Moghul Cooking and Fire and Spice Parsi Cookery I was invited into homes and learned so much from Indian ladies in their homes. I have been collecting books on Indain cooking since the 1950’s and do have the largest known collection some 850 titles – I love dipping into them but sadly I now have to downsize and will have to part with them. I was born in India in 1929 – English p;arents and because of WW11 I stayed on in India until 1947 – I had a magical childhood. I visit India almost every other year. I do hope to be able to meet youif and when I am next in Delhi

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