filling the empty nest with food
Not too long ago I embarked on a project to make the perfect scone. I’ve been eating and baking the American sibling to scones, baking powder biscuits, all my life. When I was a child, my mother often made biscuits to accompany dinner. I remember them as light and delicious. Hot out of the oven, we ate them with soft butter and homemade strawberry jam. When I was a child, they were something my mother whipped up when she didn’t have bread and needed to fill up her five hungry kids. They were quick to mix up and delicious when they were piping hot. Then, I grew up and branched out to scones—cream scones, Scottish oat scones, savory and sweet scones. They each have their charms and I like them all.
So, after all those years of baking and eating scones, I set out to bake the perfect scone. I tried many recipes, mostly the ones that made my mouth water, and I tried to follow them carefully. I tend to be a rather sloppy cook, doubling recipes when I’m hungry, substituting or leaving out what I don’t have in the cupboard or forgetting to set the oven timer. Given my sloppiness, I figured that making the best scone ever meant finding the best recipe and following it to the letter.
That’s when the questions arose: What makes the best scone? Is it the particular recipe? Is buttermilk crucial, for that bit of tang? Should the scone be triangular or round? Does best mean the most authentic? And what’s authentic: Scottish scones with oats? English cream scones? Should you include an egg, or not? Breakfast scones only, or can you add a bit of grated hard cheddar and call it an authentic scone? Is it cheating if you use heavy cream and extra butter, which, of course, will tip the scales in favor of tastiness?
But, then, the question that really stumped me was this one: if you’re setting out to make the best scone, what do you mean by “the best”? How will you know when you’ve got it? If you proclaim your recipe “the best”, does that make it so? There’s so much hype about the perfect this, or the most heavenly that, or the best “fill-in-the-blank’ recipe ever.
I realize we are in an era of relativity where individual taste and choice reign. We have no authority as to what is the “best” when it comes to food or cooking techniques or what tastes good. So, maybe the best scone is just what I like, or what you prefer. Maybe it’s only my preference, and yours is just as valid.
Somehow, though, that answer doesn’t satisfy.
A good scone is light, flaky, barely sweet; when you remove it from the oven and open it up by pulling the top from the bottom, it should come apart easily in layers. But not so light that it won’t hold a good dose of butter to melt into the layers and a dollop of jam to add some sweetness and fruit. The first bite is a teensy bit crisp on the outside but mostly soft and warm with a texture that nearly melts in your mouth and brings the butter and jam together with the warm, flaky morsel of scone. They’re most delicious eaten straight out of the oven.
I know when a scone tastes good or tastes bad. (Although I’m not so sure about the “best” anymore.) Good-tasting food isn’t THAT relative.
This may be a crass analogy, but it’s the most apt I know of. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 said of pornography: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be . . .[hard-core pornography]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”
Can the same be said of a scone?
I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I taste it.
And, in that spirit, here’s a recipe for a pretty damn good scone. It’s an old Gourmet magazine recipe from 1990.
Miniature Cream Scones with Currants
Yields: Makes about 16 miniature scones
1/2 cup heavy cream plus additional for brushing the scones
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons sugar plus additional for sprinkling the scones
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/4 cups cake flour (not self-rising)
1 tablespoon double-acting baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits
1/2 cup dried currants
In a bowl whisk together 1/2 cup of the cream, the egg, the vanilla, and 3 tablespoons of the sugar until the mixture is combined well. In another bowl stir together the flour, the salt, the baking powder, and the baking soda and blend in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in the currants and the cream mixture with a fork until the mixture just forms a sticky but manageable dough. Knead the dough gently on a lightly floured surface for 30 seconds, pat it into a 1/2-inch-thick round, and with a 1 1/2-inch fluted cutter cut it into rounds. Gather the scraps, repat the dough, and cut out more rounds. On an ungreased baking sheet brush the scones with the additional cream and sprinkle them with the additional sugar. Bake the scones in the middle of a preheated 400°F. oven for 15 to 18 minutes, or until they are golden.