If there is one thing likely to start a debate, to be defended ferociously by both sides, it is the fruit scone or, more precisely, how to eat them (and how to pronounce their name!). For me, the answer is simple: jam first then clotted cream. Why? Well, that’s easy… You get more clotted cream that way! Whatever your preference, you need a decent scone to really enjoy this quintessential British teatime treat. I have had many a good scone; I have also eaten some not-so-good ones. Nothing is quite as unpleasant as a dense, doughy scone that is not sweet enough. When it comes to making them at home, there are a few tricks that will ensure the ultimate scone and success every time. Let me share them with you. (Scone rhymes with stone, not swan, though. Just for the record.)
As I write this, we are coming to the end of the third week of nationwide lockdown in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Baking is a great way to combat boredom and it also means you get to have a little treat without the need to go outside. Scones are simple to make and use few ingredients; you can also adapt them with different fruits and flavours (such as cinnamon, or lemon). It is for this reason that they the perfect bake in times like these.
Why the ultimate scone?
I have made more scones than I can count and, over time, I have learnt the secrets to making the ultimate scone. The ultimate scone should be well-risen, golden on top, with a crack running around the middle. You should be able to split a scone in half by the crack without the need for a knife.
So, what’s the secret? Well, it comes down to a few key things: firstly, you need curdled milk and/or yoghurt. This not only adds flavour but when combined with baking powder (which contains bicarbonate of soda), a chemical reaction occurs that causes massive amounts of rise power. I like to use a mix of curdled milk (a substitute for buttermilk) and yoghurt as it creates a scone that tastes good, rises well, but is not heavy. Secondly, you need a sharp, metal cutter. Plastic cutters will not do the job. You need a clean, sharp edge to cut the dough without compressing it as this will prevent a full rise. And, finally, you need to make sure that any egg/milk wash you brush atop the scones before baking does not run down the sides as it will stick and prevent those bits from rising (causing misshapen scones). Use these tips and tricks, and you will never bake bad scones again!
A brief history.
Whilst it is not known where in the UK they were first made, they have been eaten for centuries and have remained unchanged just as long. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first mention of the word ‘scone’ was in a translation of the Scottish poem, The Aenaid, in 1513. The precise etymology of the name is also debated and may be of Scottish, Dutch, or German origin. Historically, scones were round and flat and could be as large as a plate! They were baked on a griddle and cut into triangles (not something commonly done today). Scones are can be sweet (although only lightly sweetened) but may also be savoury (usually either plain or with cheese). A fruit scone will normally have raisins or cherries but could also have candied peel or dates. My ultimate scones use sultanas, because they are more juicy!
Devon or Cornish? What is the difference?
Before we discuss the difference, I suppose we should first consider what exactly a ‘cream tea’ is. Cream tea is a light meal (usually reserved for the afternoon) consisting of scones, fruit jam, clotted cream, and a pot of fresh tea. You should serve the scones warm with clotted cream (rather than whipped). I really like raspberry jam with scones but there is no steadfast rule when it comes to the jam (although you will find that strawberry jam is most common). Cream tea should not be confused with ‘afternoon tea’ which is a much more substantial meal.
So, what is the difference? Well, the way you serve it is the only real difference between a Devon and a Cornish cream tea. Both versions serve the same items: tea, scones, jam, and clotted cream. In Cornwall, you split the scones in two and top them with jam then cream. In Devon, however, you top the split scones with cream followed by jam. Instead of scones, the Cornish split (a sweetened, enriched bread roll) can be used for Cornish cream tea and a similar (albeit smaller) ‘split’ is used occasionally in Devon, the Devonshire split.
It really is a matter of personal preference, how you eat them… Just be sure to have the ultimate scone to cover with jam and cream!
The Ultimate Scone
- 350 g plain flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp fine salt
- 85 g chilled butter
- 85 g caster sugar
- 125 ml skimmed milk
- 50 ml plain yoghurt
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 1 tsp vanilla extract (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 200°C and lightly grease a large baking sheet.
- In a mixing bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder and salt before adding the knobs of chilled butter.
- Rub together the flour mix and butter until you have a fine breadcrumb, then add the sugar and mix well.
- Warm the milk to around 35°C (or until it feels neither hot nor cold to the touch) before adding the yoghurt and lemon juice. Stir until the wet mix starts to curdle.
- Create a well in the dry ingredients then add the curdled milk and yoghurt mix to the dry ingredients. Add the vanilla and raisins.
- Bring the dough together by hand (stirring with a claw-like hand and squeezing the dough between your fingers to bring it together). Be sure not to over-knead the dough. You want to just bring it together. Overworked dough with result in tough scones that do not rise.
- Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and, using your hands, create a disc that is around 2 inches in height. Using a 3 inch or 7cm metal cutter to cut out your scones, reshaping the dough to create a new disc that is around 2 inches tall when you run out of usable material to allow you to cut further scones from the dough. Keep reforming and cutting until there is not enough dough left to cut from. Top Tip: Be sure to use a sharp, metal cutter (not a plastic one or one that is old and dull) as the sharp edge will ensure you cut the dough rather than squashing it. This is one of the secrets to perfecting the ultimate scone.
- Place the scones on the prepared baking sheet and then lightly brush with a bit of extra milk or some beaten egg. Be careful not to let the milk/egg run down the sides of the scones as this will prevent them from properly rising. If you've ever seen a leaning scone, it's most likely because the milk/egg ran down the side that didn't rise!
- Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 12-15 minutes or until the tops are golden and (ideally) there is a noticeable crack running around the middle of the scones.
- Leave the scones to cool before serving with jam and cream (in whichever order you prefer!)