Last season’s third episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” begins with Larry David going on the hunt for the pastry chef who makes the perfect scone. He needs the scones for his “spite store,” which he’s opening up next door to Mocha Joe’s, a coffee shop he’s banned from after pitching a fit about how, among other things, Mocha Joe’s scones are like muffins.
COVID-19 stood in for me having a Mocha Joe fit, seeing as it has temporarily banned me from my Sunday pre-farmers market scone-and-latte routine.
I love breakfast pastries, particularly Sqirl’s scones, which are superlative. After buying a couple dozen of her last premade frozen scones, I begged head pastry chef Catalina Flores for the recipe. To my astonishment, both she and Jessica Koslow, Sqirl’s chef-owner, agreed.
People often confuse scones and biscuits, thinking they’re the same. While a biscuit can be super buttery and flaky-tender, scones are meant to be sweeter, drier and crumblier — think of them as a cross between a biscuit and a shortbread cookie — since they’re supposed to be split and served with jam and butter or clotted cream, as the Brits do. Over several decades, though, scones in America have morphed from the traditional British archetype — made with flour, leavening and cream; no butter — to become catch-all breakfast breads, like a free-form muffin without the corset-like liner.
At Sqirl, however, Flores has restored the pastry’s traditionally understated appeal and merged it with SoCal seasonal abundance. The scones — created by original pastry chef Meadow Ramsey, passed down to Sasha Piligian and now on to Flores — are a master class in balancing extravagance and simplicity.
Flores came to her version of the recipe after tinkering with the original. “I worked with a lot of what [Piligian] already was doing,” said Flores. “I started subbing things out, trying out different dairy, taking away sugar and adding honey. I wanted them to be nutty but with some moisture inside — and still, outside, be rough as a scone.”
Scott Barry, Koslow’s business partner at Sqirl, eats a scone every day, according to Flores, and would give her feedback.
“One day he was like, ‘This is it!’” Flores said. “I thought he was joking just to give me relief, but he immediately texted Jessica.”
Though some may balk at the idea of a pastry made intentionally dry, the trick Flores has figured out is balancing this defining scone characteristic with just enough moisture from fruit to make it worth the choking hazard.
Flores uses sourdough starter, crème fraîche and buttermilk to balance all the sweet fruit with the proper undertone of sourness. “I tried to incorporate [the starter] in everything,” said Flores. “I use it almost as a flavor enhancer for cakes, scones, cookies ... it’s so yeasty and helps tie together the flavors of the flours and dairy nicely.”
The fruit and spice combinations Flores comes up with make the scones stand out further. Before Sqirl closed I had a honeycomb candy-mandarinquat scone, topped with bee pollen sugar, and a blueberry iteration dramatically tie-dyed with turmeric juice and dark purple jam. As cultured as the flavors may be, Flores says it can be just as easy for cooks at home to make combinations that may seem weird at first but magically just work in these scones.
“I already have knowledge of ingredients we’ve used in the past, so I go off that a lot,” said Flores. “When I’m going into making the scone, I try to not overthink it and let the inspiration come naturally. Just knowing what’s in your shelves — what’s going bad first, knowing what’s in season — the scones are a great way to clean out what’s in your fridge.”
Flores’ recipe is a balm to all of us with an eye toward exacting breakfast pastries and will keep us blissfully baking until the day we can stand in line again and get them from the master herself.