Sunday, February 10, 2008

Scones and Biscuits Made Easy

I made a batch of scones using frozen blueberries for a fund raising event . The idea, unfortunately, was better than the results. The dough quickly turned wet and sticky and they puddled in the oven as they rose. But I'm told they were a hit and a couple of people wanted the recipe.

So here is more than you ever wanted to know about scones, biscuits (and other quick breads).

Like most cooking, the recipe is more than a list of ingredients. The results have more to do with how they are handled than what they were. Bearing that in mind, here are the ingredients:

2 Cups Flour
2 or 3 Tablespoons Sugar
a little Salt
1/3 Cup Butter
1 Egg
(a little more flour for dusting)
1 more egg for basting

As you can see, they're like biscuits, but with butter instead of shortening, and an egg is added. I think of scones as a cousin to Southern biscuits, although I think what we call biscuits are cousins to scones. Scones came first, and in the UK when they speak of biscuits they are talking about what we call cookies. But that's not important to the recipe...

Anyone who can make biscuits can make scones. They're almost the same. The main difference is that scones are not worked as much. Some recipes say divide the dough into two round portions about an inch thick, then cut each into six pie-shaped pieces, very different from punching out biscuits then re-working the trimmings, maybe two or three times, until the batch is used. Dividing the dough once eliminates re-working. No waste. Quick and easy. (Some You Tube videos show the dough being punched out into fairly big rounds -- about six to a recipe -- and being lightly re-worked but I like the triangles.)

Soft wheat flour is important. Hard flour works for loaf bread and rolls, but it has too much gluten for good quick breads. Too tough. Not light enough. I like White Lily, regular or self-rising. (It's possible to make biscuits using White Lily self-rising flour with only the addition of heavy whipping cream. It's expensive but for someone in a hurry it's easy. Whipping cream has enough butterfat that a soft dough of White Lily self-rising flour and cream makes smooth, rich, easy to manage little biscuits. Only two ingredients. Nearly fool-proof.)

Most cooks mix biscuits by hand, but I use a pastry blender. I like how it cuts shortening or butter into pea-sized pieces. And I like that my hands are not messy when I use a spoon to stir in liquid to make the dough ball. After that, it's hands on all the way.

Why do they rise?

Quick breads rise for several reasons. The main cause is that baking powder makes gas when it becomes hot. It is heat-activated and works in the heat of the oven. If you use buttermilk instead of regular milk, a little soda in the dry ingredients will add pockets of air to the dough as the acid of the buttermilk reacts with the soda. With a little practice you can feel the dough getting spongy against your spoon as you stir, especially when you first pour in the milk. (No soda for plain milk. And no spongy feeling.)

Another reason not to work the dough too much is that it presses out little air pockets which later expand in the oven making the dough to rise even better. (Also, liquids turn to steam, another factor in making the product rise. The reason the oven should be very hot is that the structure needs to get firm quickly so it doesn't fall.)

A few tips...

►Purists sift dry ingredients but it works okay to toss everything together and mix them with the pastry blender or spoon.

►Most recipes call for mixing the egg into the milk before adding to the dry ingredients. It works okay to make a little hole in the flour, pour in some milk, add the egg directly, then stir in more milk as needed to make the dough ball. The amount of milk will not always be the same and there is no way to know ahead of time how to measure it. No need to mess up unused milk with egg. The dough ball should be stiff, so it is better to have less liquid than more.

►Brushing the tops with egg makes for a nice finish, unlike biscuits which come out dry on top. (That's why a lot of cooks brush biscuits and cornbread with butter when they first come out of the oven. Scones don't need that.) I like mixing a little plain milk into the egg to make it spread better.

►Currants are an easy addition, better than raisins in my opinion. Try dried cranberries. If you use blueberries like I did, work fast before they get wet.

►Yes, I add vanilla. I haven't found it anywhere else but it seems like a good idea.

►The oven must be hot and pre-heated. Not all ovens are alike, but 400° F is a good place to start. Peek in at about 12 minutes and see how they look. By then they sould have jumped up and be looking close to done. If they aren't done in fifteen minutes your oven is not hot enough. (If they're too dark on the top, lower the pan next time. If they're burned on the bottom, move the rack up from the bottom of the oven next time.) (I dunno. Is that common sense? I've known people who couldn't figure that out.)


I have seen products in coffee-house displays labeled "scones" that looked like paperweights to me. They were cute but dry-looking. Scones should not be dry. They should make you salivate to look at one...and served hot, they should welcome a blob of additional butter and a layer of fruit preserves, jam or marmalade. Traditionally they are split open and buttered hot, served with whipped cream like shortcakes.

I think of scones as finger foods, not too big and easy to munch. To that end, mine are not as high as most and cut smaller, making them easier to handle, with something sweet on top. Americans love honey buns, donuts, danish, bagels, etc., so holding and munching a scone comes naturally.

I covered the last ones I made with a good layer of cinnamon and sugar mix which stuck in the eggwash and made a nice pattern as they rose and baked. Not happy with the look, I then mixed powdered sugar, milk and a taste of vanilla into a smooth sauce and covered the whole batch with a white drizzle after they cooled.

I saw one recipe using a mixture of orange juice and powdered sugar to make a glaze, but your imagination is whatever you want to try. Now go make some scones. If they turn out well, find someone to share them with before they cool. Tell them it's time for a coffee break.

1 comment:

German Group said...

I really enjoyed your information on scones and biscuits!

A. Cochran