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
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.
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
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
Thick cream, or mascarpone and strawberry jam
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.