I have a little anglophile in me left over from my childhood when I thought that royalty equaled dignity and that princesses remained happy. Those beliefs faded…for some reason…but enough remained to fuel a romantic attraction to the craggy scone. Just looking at one made me think of fog, castles, and totally cool accents. But after choking down a hunk of dried clay at a sadistic cafe years ago, and after baking a batch of what turned out to be lifeless feta scallion scones, I gave up. Besides, I knew how to put out a decent buttermilk biscuit if I needed to. I was an American, damn it. I could live a fine life without scones.
That belief changed during my recent visit to Connecticut where I stopped by Atticus in New Haven, a bookstore/bakery/cafe next to two of Yale’s great art museums and serving food so consistently good that I violated my own rule about not eating more than once at any establishment on the road (a rule that encourages me to constantly try new places in the spirit of travel). Atticus brags specifically about their scones, so I decided to order the classic currant for breakfast. My first taste of the gigantic triangle won me over with its moist center and restrained richness. I gilded the lily with butter and fell in love before the last sweet corner had slipped between my lips.
[Three Fat Scones from a half batch cut into 4 wedges instead of 8]
For the last four days I have baked scone after scone trying to duplicate the Atticus scone. I started with the most obvious recipe—the alleged original Atticus scone by John Ryan. That recipe yielded dry scones. Either I screwed up, the recipe was wrong, the scone had changed since the original, who knows, but that failure caffeinated my inner geek. I scanned multiple cookbooks looking for any scrap of data that I could remember reading on topics like browning, leavening, tenderizing, temperatures, and hygroscopic . . . osity. I consulted Alton, Shirley, Beranbaum, King Arthur, Joy, Anne Willan, baking911.com, and muttered curse words about never getting around to buying Harold McGee (he’s been in my shopping cart for a year). I scoured cookbooks, websites, and magazines to compare at least fifty different scone recipes and the minute and massive ways in which they differed. Somehow I didn’t develop a headache.
Then I girded up my torso in an apron and began to fiddle with the original. Salt went in to boost flavor, and for simplicity’s sake, baking powder replaced the cream of tartar and baking soda. I then tried fewer eggs, more milk, less milk, smaller butter chunks, bigger butter chunks, heavy cream, heavy cream plus milk, kneading more, kneading less, baking more, baking less, baking cooler, and baking hotter. I broke scones in half and sniffed them, resisting the urge to get out a magnifying glass. I baked and ate, and ate and baked, hauled family and friends in as guinea pigs, learned that wet dough resulted in thin and misshapen scones and that dry dough resulted in, well, dry scones. Baking until the scones turned an attractive brown inevitably resulted in dehydrated scones, but eating albino scones, however moist, depressed me.
[Early scone attempt, too dry, too pale]
The result? Oh god, I’m so sick of scones. Did I crack the recipe? I don’t know, I’m so sconed out. Is it an authentic English scone? I don’t care, I just want a scone that I yearn to eat when I’m not oversconed. Did I succeed? Yes.
The big breakthrough came via a mistake, as is often the case. One of my scones fell apart in transit to the pan, so I gathered it up and shaped it into a lump. That lump, thicker than the flat triangles, yielded a soft center that took me back to the huge domed scones in New Haven, except my scone had a more attractive brown top. Thick scones solved the dryness problem. Since the scones had made me fatter, it was fitting that I’d now return the favor and fatten up my scones.
People have almost violently personal preferences on scones and biscuits, so I won’t say that this is the best scone ever. I will say only that is the best scone or biscuit that I, personally, have ever enjoyed. I did not use buttermilk, sour cream, or yogurt because though I like that tang in biscuits, I prefer these scones without it. The high baking temperature helps the scone rise quickly and brown nicely without overbaking. Ample butter adds flavor and a touch of flakiness. Overly rich biscuits tend to make me ill, so there is more milk than cream in the recipe. The result is sweet but not too rich, slightly flaky but not crumbly, and cakey but tender. While I don’t think that the Atticus scone uses any heavy cream at all, the bit I’ve added keeps me from buttering the scone. No need to gild this lily.
So here’s the result of my hard work.
Phat Fat Scones.
FAT SCONES, Master Recipe, by Annie
Adapted from John Ryan’s recipe
This recipe is highly flexible and forgiving of changes. See below the recipe for detailed variations.
· 2 cups flour (flour stirred, spooned into measuring cup, and leveled, 9 ounces)
· 1/2 cup granulated white sugar
· 2 teaspoons baking powder
· 1/2 teaspoon salt
· 1 large egg, lightly beaten
· 6 tablespoons milk (more if your air/flour is dry)
· 2 tablespoons heavy cream
· 6 tablespoons cold butter
· 1/2 cup dried currants, raisins, or dried fruit chopped fairly small
· Note: Egg + milk + cream should equal 3/4 cup, add more milk if necessary
1) Preheat oven to 450º Fahrenheit and lightly spray a cookie or baking sheet with non-stick spray. In a large bowl, thoroughly and gently whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt together, being sure to pulverize any lumps of baking powder. With a fork, whisk the egg, milk, and cream together in a cup and place the cup in the refrigerator.
2) Mix the butter into the flour using your favorite method. (Cut in with pastry cutter, pastry fork, or two knives; pulse together in a food processor; grate in frozen butter using the large holes on grater; etc.) I have the cursed “warm hands,” so my favorite method is to place the chilled butter on a plate, cut the butter into pea-sized bits, then place the plate in the freezer for five minutes. Scrape the butter into the flour and quickly squash the bits against the bowl to make flakes. Mix in dried currants and make a well in the flour.
3) Pour the cold liquid into the well and toss with a silicone spatula or wooden spoon until dough just comes together. Press and shape the dough into a ball with your spatula and dump the ball out onto a lightly floured surface. Flatten dough into a disk no wider than 6 inches. Cut the dough into 8 wedges and place at them at least 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheet.
4) Bake scones until top and edges are lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Let cool on rack for at least 10 minutes before eating. Cool completely before wrapping in foil where they will stay fresh for a couple days. Scones can be reheated in the foil.
Variations and suggestions are endless, but the following have been personally tested except where noted:
Half batch: To get around the half-egg problem, mix up a full quantity of liquid and use half of it, saving the rest in the fridge for a later batch. Or you can use egg substitute or make an eggless version and simply make half a batch. Shape the dough into a 4.5-inch disk and cut into 4 triangles.
Make ahead: After shaping, dough can be covered and refrigerated up to 24 hours (the longest I tested) on the baking pan to bake the next day. Baking time may increase slightly.
Sugar top variation: For a more attractive scone, lightly brush the tops of the scones before baking with a mixture of beaten egg and a bit of water. You can also sprinkle any sugar on top. Demerara sugar or pearl sugar look particularly nice.
Whole wheat variation: Wheat flour can replace half of the white flour with surprisingly little impact on flavor. Scone will be just a bit hearty tasting and won’t keep as well.
Less sweet variation: (Not tested, I like them sweet.) Halve or even quarter the sugar for a more traditional scone good for eating with preserves. Scone won’t keep as well.
Flaky variation: (Not tested, I like them cakey.) Cut the egg and increase the liquid to compensate. Scone will be less cakey and more crumbly. Scone won’t keep as well.
Rich variation: Replace milk with cream or half and half, but you may need a little extra liquid to make a cohesive dough. Flavor will be exceedingly soft, rich, and more sweet (the fat seems to accentuate the sugar). Scone will keep well.
Lean variation: Reduce butter to 4 tablespoons and replace cream with milk, you may need a little less liquid to make a cohesive dough. Flavor will be leaner and less sweet (the reduction in fat seems to dull the sugar). Scone won’t keep as well.
Other variations: Cut the currants for a plain scone, or substitute other chopped dried fruit, nuts, etc. I like lemon zest and chopped candied ginger. This morning I made a batch with chopped dates and whole wheat. Flavor combinations abound. Fresh fruit such as blueberries should work as long the moisture stays in the fruit and doesn’t ooze out into the dough during the kneading and rolling.
Calories: Each master recipe scone has approximately 310 kilocalories.