In the past, I was never a huge fan of the scone.
For most of my life, the scone was an anonymous doughy vehicle for conveying jam and cream into my mouth. Often a bit dry, often a little tart with too much baking powder, frequently too sweet or with superfluous dried fruit, I simply couldn’t raise much enthusiasm for them. And then I came to Australia.
Here, the scone holds an unassailable position in the hearts and minds of the people. A good scone is a point of pride with those who like to bake. Men hold opinions about them, women compete to produce the best, and I’m not talking about the blue rinse brigade, either. It’s a social accomplishment to be able to whip up a batch of tall, fluffy, lightly bronzed lovelies at the drop of a hat. So it was a matter of some embarrassment to admit that actually, I couldn’t make a decent scone.
At school in the early 1970s, we were subjected to scone-torture, and mine were always akin to cannonballs, much more suited to being fired at the enemy with lethal effect. All that rubbing butter into flour, carefully measuring bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar, mixing the batter with a palette knife and always, always getting the amount of liquid wrong… I gave up on the dratted things and moved on to a lifelong love affair with yeasted dough and all its works. But in recent years I’ve found the fragrant, warm piles of freshly baked scones at my favourite teahouse strangely alluring.
So I decided I would not be defeated. In the past few weeks, I have tried multiple recipes and methods and baking temperatures. I have gazed dismayed at dry, crumbly doughs that would not stick together, and horrendously clingy messes that stuck all too well. The Husband has heroically sampled them all, generous with encouragement and feedback. But today, I cracked it. My scones are tall, tender, light and fluffy inside. They split perfectly without a knife, to soak up butter and lavish strawberry jam. They didn’t crumble or cleave to the palate. They were not thick biscuits or thinly disguised rock cakes. They were Proper Scones. True, they could be smoother: my finishing still leaves a little to be desired, and on a couple of them I used the wrong (wavy) side of the cutter instead of the smooth side, but only a purist or a show judge would complain.
And now that I can do it properly, I wonder why it took so long for me to attain this important skill. But the title of this post says it all. Chemistry really is the answer. So, the recipe:
3¼ x cups of self-raising flour
1 rounded teaspoon of baking powder
1 cup pouring cream (half & half)
1 cup fizzy lemonade (Sprite or 7up, for example)
1 good pinch of salt
Sieve the flour, salt and baking powder into a mixing bowl. Make a large well in the centre with a spatula. Pour in the cream and lemonade. Cut everything together with the spatula, mixing as little as possible to combine the ingredients. If it’s still very, very sticky, add a smidge more flour. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead no more than 5 times to bring everything together. Flatten gently with your hands until about 2½ cm/1 inch thick. Roll gently across the top with a rolling pin to give a fairly smooth surface. Using a smooth sided 6cm/2½ inch cutter, cut out rounds, pressing down firmly but not twisting the cutter at all. If you twist, you will prevent the scone rising to its full potential. Place onto a sheet of baking paper on a cookie sheet in the top half of a fan forced oven preheated to 200°C/395°F, for about 12 minutes or until the top is lightly browned. Place half of a tea towel on a cooling rack, put the scones on the towel and cover with the other half, which will prevent the outsides drying out and going hard. Wait as long as you can before eating them. They’re best warm.
Makes about 8 man-sized scones or 10 more ladylike ones if you use a slightly smaller cutter.
The Chemistry bit:
Sift the flour and baking powder together, twice, to incorporate as much air as possible.
Measure the ingredients, don’t eyeball it. The cups I used are standard 250ml metric measuring cups.
Use fresh self raising flour. If it’s too old the raising agents will not activate as well as they do in fresh flour.
The fizzy lemonade contains both citric acid to boost the effect of the cream of tartar in the flour, and carbon dioxide to increase the aeration of the dough.
Don’t over-mix or over-handle the dough, you’ll toughen it.
Don’t twist the cutter, it seals the cut sides and prevents rising. You’ll want to twist. Just don’t. You can also cut the dough into squares, removing the temptation.
Place scones close to each other on the baking paper. It’ll help them rise upwards.
I’ve tried recipes with butter, with just cream, with egg and with milk. This one is by far the simplest, easiest and most effective. The scones are not sweet, but if you’re going to be adding the traditional toppings, I don’t think sugar is necessary. You get a tiny hint of sweetness from the lemonade.
And now, excuse me please. My scones are getting cold.