FORGET AMERICAN “ROCK CAKES”—A REAL SCONE IS LIKE CAKE
In the past decade or two, Americans have embraced scones. Fueled by the proliferation of coffee houses (thank you, Starbucks), the scone is now as popular as the muffin. And in typical American fashion, our bakers add almost anything to scones—chocolate chips, chiles, cheese—you name it.
Real scones, the kind made in Britain, are rather different. Like two cousins who have grown up in dissimilar environments, American and British scones share the same name and a lot of the same DNA, but they are, as the Brits might say, as different as chalk and cheese.
Proper British scones are round and tall (not wedges or amorphous blobs), with a light, cake-like crumb and a soft, tender crust. They’re not as sweet or as rich as American scones, but that’s because they’re usually split in half, lavishly spread with butter or clotted cream, and piled high with jam at teatime. While American scones work well as an on-the-go snack, British scones are ideally suited for the home baker, on both sides of the Atlantic, who can enjoy a scone while sitting down. (Salted butter mandatory; tea optional.)
Since the typical American scone can have two or three times as much butter, the finished product is often much heavier and denser. (Brits visiting America often describe our scones as “rock cakes.”) To achieve a fluffy texture, Brits use less butter, and they soften that butter so that it can be fully incorporated into the flour. (American scones usually call for chilled butter). To taste the difference, try our recipe. It’s amazing how the same familiar ingredients—handled differently—can yield something so novel. To Yanks, anyway.
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS
Soft (Not Chilled) Butter
American scones (and biscuits) are typically made with chilled butter that is cut into the flour mixture until the pieces have been reduced to broad flakes, which give the scone a flaky, biscuit-like texture. British scones, however, are fine-textured and cakey. To achieve this type of crumb, use soft butter and pulse it into the dry ingredients until the pieces are no longer visible. Because more of the flour particles are coated with fat, and thus protected from the wet ingredients, a lot of the protein in the flour is prevented from linking to form gluten. While it’s traditional to use your fingers to combine the butter and flour mixture, we recommend a food processor for ease.
Milk and Eggs
Once the butter and dry ingredients are combined, it’s time to add whole milk, beaten with two eggs. Reserve a couple of tablespoons of the beaten egg and milk to use as a wash to brush over the rolled and stamped scones. The wash encourages browning and yields a soft, tender crust.
You Need to Knead
The dough for American scones must be handled as little as possible. But in this recipe kneading is actually beneficial, since it offers those proteins still available from any uncoated flour a chance to link together, giving the scones more structure to support the lift. Likewise, don’t be reluctant to roll and stamp more scones from the scraps—this sturdy dough can be worked quite a bit.
Breads often start in an extremely hot oven to maximize oven spring, the rise that happens when water vaporizes into steam and the air in the dough heats up and expands. Then the heat is lowered to ensure that the crust doesn’t burn before the interior is cooked through. Follow suit here and you’ll be rewarded with the lightest, fluffiest scones ever.
Softened butter is fully incorporated into the flour; slather on more butter at serving time.
British-Style Currant Scones
MAKES 12 SCONES
- 30 minutes to cut and soften butter at room temperature (heat oven and gather ingredients while waiting)
- 15 minutes to make dough and stamp out scones
- 10 to 12 minutes to bake scones
- 10 minutes to cool scones
- Rimmed baking sheet
- Parchment paper
- Food processor for cutting butter into dry ingredients
- Rolling pin
- 2½-inch round biscuit cutter with sharp edges
- Pastry brush for brushing scones with milk mixture
Substitutions & Variations
- We prefer whole milk in this recipe, but low-fat milk can be used.
- The currants are classic but other add-ins can be used in their place, including chopped crystallized ginger, toasted nuts, or other dried fruits.
- These scones are best served fresh, but leftover scones may be stored in the freezer and reheated in a 300-degree oven for 15 minutes before serving.
The dough will be quite soft and wet; dust your work surface and your hands liberally with flour. For a tall, even rise, use a sharp-edged biscuit cutter and push straight down; do not twist the cutter. Serve these scones with jam as well as salted butter or clotted cream.
- 3 cups (15 ounces) all-purpose flour
- ⅓ cup (2⅓ ounces) sugar
- 2 tablespoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces and softened
- ¾ cup dried currants
- 1 cup whole milk
- 2 large eggs
- Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 500 degrees. Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Pulse flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in food processor until combined, about 5 pulses. Add butter and pulse until fully incorporated and mixture looks like very fine crumbs with no visible butter, about 20 pulses. Transfer mixture to large bowl and stir in currants.
- Whisk milk and eggs together in second bowl. Set aside 2 tablespoons milk mixture. Add remaining milk mixture to flour mixture and, using rubber spatula, fold together until almost no dry bits of flour remain.
- Transfer dough to well-floured counter and gather into ball. With floured hands, knead until surface is smooth and free of cracks, 25 to 30 times. Press gently to form disk. Using floured rolling pin, roll disk into 9-inch round, about 1 inch thick. Using floured 2½-inch round cutter, stamp out 8 rounds, recoating cutter with flour if it begins to stick. Arrange scones on prepared sheet. Gather dough scraps, form into ball, and knead gently until surface is smooth. Roll dough to 1-inch thickness and stamp out 4 rounds. Discard remaining dough.
- Brush tops of scones with reserved milk mixture. Reduce oven temperature to 425 degrees and bake scones until risen and golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes, rotating sheet halfway through baking. Transfer scones to wire rack and let cool for at least 10 minutes. Serve scones warm or at room temperature.
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