What could be more tempting than a scone, tender and flaky within, delicately browned and slightly crunchy at the edges?
Nothing, apparently, judging from the baker’s dozens of requests we’ve gotten for scone recipes. Some are positively rhapsodic. “I can’t stop thinking about it,” wrote in a reader who asked for La Brea Bakery’s chocolate-walnut scone recipe.
“Please, please, please, could you get the recipe from Clementine for their ginger scones?” begged another who dotes on the crumbly scones studded with apricots and bits of candied ginger.
And Maple Drive in Beverly Hills “makes the best scones I’ve ever tasted -- light and perfectly sweetened, with just a hint of citrus,” enthused a third.
Less sweet than Danishes and more elegant than doughnuts, scones are big sellers at coffeehouses, restaurants and bakeries. But just what makes a scone a scone? It’s not quite bread but it isn’t exactly pastry either. It’s somewhere in between.
“The structure of scones is very individual,” says pastry chef Nancy Silverton, whose chocolate-walnut scone recipe is made at La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles. “In a way, it’s its own category.”
Or as Rose Levy Beranbaum writes in her cookbook “The Bread Bible,” it’s “the missing link between bread and pastry because they are more crumbly and delicate than bread but more substantial than pastry.”
Today’s scone is descended from the Scottish bannock, a thick cake usually made with barley and oatmeal and baked on a griddle rather than in an oven. Bannocks were as big as dinner plates, and cut into sections or small rounds, they became scones.
Contemporary chefs have replaced old-time ingredients with lighter flours and expanded on the classic raisins and currants to include other dried fruits, citrus zests, chocolate, nuts and spices. The liquid may be buttermilk, whipping cream, whole milk or creme fraiche.
Scones are easy to make. They’re not tricky, like pie dough, involved like croissants, or exacting like cakes. There’s no yeast and therefore no rising time, so they’re quick too.
“Scones are so simple, you don’t even need a mixer. You can mix them by hand, right in the bowl, then roll them out and cut them up,” says Maple Drive pastry chef Lisa Gardner.
The key to tender scones is to mix the ingredients until just barely combined (overmixing makes them tough). You can roll out the dough or pat it into shape.
Because these updated scones tend to have a high ratio of fat (usually butter and cream) to dry ingredients, the dough can spread out in the oven, leaving you with mutant scones. But that’s easily prevented. Just freeze the dough after cutting the scones and before baking them -- that way they’ll hold their shape.
Freezing the dough is also deliciously convenient: Pull out however many pieces you want at a time and you’ll have fresh-baked scones whenever you want. To freeze the dough, set the pieces on a parchment-lined baking sheet, making sure they aren’t touching each other. Cover them with plastic wrap. If you plan to keep them in the freezer for a while, transfer the frozen scones to an airtight container for storing. You won’t need to let them thaw before baking.
Annie Miler, chef-owner of Clementine in Century City, is a fan of freezing. She even sells frozen mini-scones that customers can bake at home, and she often freezes scones for baking and serving at her restaurant.
The apricot-ginger scone is among them. Its dough is so crumbly it practically begs to be frozen after being cut into triangles in order to hold together all those nuggets of sweet and spice within.
La Brea Bakery’s chocolate-walnut scones are baked frozen, too, helping keep intact their cloverleaf shape. They call to mind a grown-up’s chocolate chip cookie, with finely chopped bittersweet chocolate and toasted, ground walnuts dispersed in the dough. The nuts give them a feathery texture that’s lighter than if they were made entirely with flour, Silverton says. And a sprinkling of grated nuts on top add crunch.
Maple Drive’s lemon poppy seed scones are the most bread-like of these three recipes. They have no butter in the dough, instead relying on whipping cream for richness. Cut into rounds, they have a delicate lemon flavor and are chockfull of poppy seeds.
Scones have come a long way from the plain Janes that had to be slathered in butter or clotted cream and sweetened with jam to be grand enough for the afternoon tea table. Nowadays with the cream and fruit baked right in, they’ve become a vehicle for creative chefs who embellish them with ever-surprising combinations of fruits, nuts and spices.
And with a batch in the freezer, it’s only a matter of putting on the kettle or coffee maker to carry on the scone tradition any time of day.