I had my share of cream teas while getting my Master’s degree in London last year: in its simplest form, this ineffably British ritual is a little snack taken in the afternoon, consisting of a pot of tea and a scone (or two), served with clotted cream and jam. They can get much fancier (and more expensive) of course, almost like light meals, with things like tiny cucumber sandwiches and miniature cakes, but scones are always present. Traditional British scones* look something like small Southern-style biscuits, with a similar tender crumb and buttery flavor, only slightly sweet, and are often studded with currants or raisins. Of course, bakeries and coffee shops (Starbucks, for example) both in the UK and US have taken the dainty scone and morphed it into a sugar- and butter-packed behemoth of a pastry the size of a baby’s head. While admittedly delicious, they are not exactly appropriate everyday snack fare.
Unless, of course, you make them yourself. This scone recipe comes from my mom’s recipe file and was clipped from either Bon Appetit or Gourmet magazine (my mom no longer remembers which publication she got it from, and an online search turned up nothing). It is considerably healthier than even the original, more reasonably-sized British pastry, because instead of relying mostly on butter and/or cream for flavor and texture, these scones use predominantly buttermilk, which preserves their tender, light interior and adds a pleasing tang without much fat. There are no eggs and only a tablespoon of sugar in the whole recipe, and a little bit of wheat germ provides some added nutrition and a slight crunch in the finished scone. The original recipe is actually called Wheat Germ Scones, but since the wheat germ component is pretty subtle compared with the buttermilk flavor, and since they are healthy enough to indulge in every day, I decided to change the name to Everyday Buttermilk Scones (aren't I clever?).
These are also easier to put together than traditional scones, because while those usually call for cold butter to be worked into the dough and then the scones to be rolled out and cut into rounds (possibly leading to tough, overworked dough, as well as sore biceps), what little butter there is in this recipe is melted and then stirred into the dry ingredients along with the buttermilk and baking soda, so the dough comes together quickly and easily with minimal stirring required (my mom, after repeated batches over time, has also adapted the recipe a bit, stream-lining the process to make it even easier; I have added notes on how she does things to the recipe below). The whole thing gets turned out onto a greased (or parchment/Silpat-lined) baking sheet and patted out into a roughly circular shape. The dough round is then scored with a knife or pastry cutter to allow for easy separation of the wedge-shaped scones after it is baked, and then into the oven it goes. You could brush the top with some beaten egg or milk and sprinkle it with sugar before baking to give the scones a slightly prettier finished look if you want, but their cragginess and irregular edges give them a rustic look that I think is part of their charm.
Also, you might not want to try and dress these up too much, because one of the things that makes this recipe such a good one to have on file is actually the plainness of the scones: the simple buttermilk flavor provides a great canvas for almost any sort of add-in you can think of. Dried fruit is the most traditional – these are dried blueberry and dried cherry scones, but dried currants, apricots, raisins and almost anything else you can think of would also work – but feel free to play: throw in chopped nuts, candied ginger, some spices with the dry ingredients, maybe even experiment with cocoa powder and chocolate chips to make a (very untraditional) chocolate version. Fresh fruit might work too, though be aware that if your fruit is on the wetter side, like berries, this will change the consistency of the dough a bit and may make it messier and more difficult to work with. The possibilities are such that you’ll never get bored. These freeze well, too, so you’ll never have to ponder what to have with a cup of tea in the afternoon again.
*Incidentally, the correct way to pronounce scone (at least according to the British, who invented the thing in the first place and so, I suppose, know best) is so that it rhymes with “John,” not “cone.” I still pronounce it the latter way, though.
Everday Buttermilk Scones
1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour [I’d like to try this with at least part white whole wheat flour to up the nutrition profile even more, but I wouldn’t use regular whole wheat because it might adversely affect the light, fluffy texture that is the hallmark of a good scone]
1/4 cup wheat germ
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup raisins [or other mix-ins; you can probably add a bit more than this, if like me you just can't resist an extra handful of whatever it is you're using]
¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon buttermilk [here's the main recipe alteration: my mom says she uses about 1 cup minus 2 tablespoons, adding it all at once rather than in stages, as described in the recipe below]
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) melted butter
Preheat oven to 350F. Lightly butter heavy large baking sheet [or use a cooking spray or line the sheet with parchment/Silpat]. Combine first 5 ingredients in bowl. Add raisins; toss to coat. Mix ¾ cup buttermilk and baking soda in cup [as noted above, we used a bit more buttermilk (about 2 tablespoons) initially; this means you don’t have to add more later and risk overworking the dough to get the dry ingredients incorporated]. Add buttermilk mixture and butter to dry ingredients; stir until just blended (do not overmix). Gather dough together, adding 1 tablespoon buttermilk to moisten any dry particles [won’t be necessary if you start with the larger amount I recommend].
Transfer dough to lightly floured surface; shape into round [you can just do this right on the prepared baking sheet]. Using rolling pin, flatten dough to 7-inch-diameter round [I used my hands to pat the dough out; it doesn’t have to look perfect, and this way you make sure not to overwork the dough]. Transfer to prepared baking sheet. Cut round into 8 wedges; leave wedges in place. Bake scones 15 minutes. Increase oven temperature to 450F; bake until scones are light golden, about 8 minutes more [this step just seems wrong to me, as my scones were definitely done - nice and golden, with a slight crust - after the initial 15 minutes at 350. Any longer and they would have been overdone. I’d say use your judgment and take them out when they’re lightly browned on top, but you most likely won’t need the second baking time]. Serve warm [preferably with jam!].