Whenever I leave the country for a holiday, I always reflect on my favourite British food. And that's a topic I'm constantly asked about as a food writer, particularly: 'what is your favourite cake?'. Well, a favourite cake I may not have (though a carrot cake would be a contender) but I do have a favourite bake, and that is the scone.
While ordinarily considered a fairly speedy bake, a true batch of scones, fit for the finest of afternoon teas, requires a little more time. This isn't time you need to spend doing or making; this is merely time to allow the dough to rest, as you would a bread dough (scones are a type of quick bread, after all). The resting is vital for two main reasons. The first is aeration; a scone is a chemically aerated product. The mix of acid (cream of tartar) and alkaline (bicarbonate of soda) in the baking powder react when mixed with liquid (in this case, buttermilk and creme fraiche). That reaction fills the dough with carbon dioxide, which when heated, expands, forcing the scones to rise. Allowing the dough to rest for half an hour or so, maximises this injection of air.
The second main reason is the relaxation of the gluten. Naturally when you work flour with liquids you break down the proteins glutenin and gliadian, which in turn, when confused, lost and alone, grasp onto one another desperately. The result is gluten, and that makes a product a little tougher. As with pastry and pasta dough, resting the dough ensures the gluten is relaxed and a little more supple, giving a much softer scone.
INGREDIENTS - MAKES 8-10
- 150ml buttermilk
- 150g full-fat crème fraîche
- 1 tsp lemon juice or cider vinegar
- 450g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
- 15g baking powder
- 80g caster sugar
- Pinch of fine sea salt
- 80g unsalted butter, cubed, plus extra for greasing
- 1 large egg yolk, beaten with a pinch of salt
Half an hour or so before you start, put the buttermilk, crème fraîche and lemon juice into a jug and mix together. The mixture is intended to curdle, so don’t throw it out. Leave to come to room temperature.
Put the flour into a mixing bowl with the baking powder, caster sugar and salt. Add the butter and rub together until the butter is evenly dispersed in the dry ingredients and the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the wet ingredients into the bowl and start to mix – either with hand or wooden spoon – until the mixture comes together into a scraggy mass. Tip the dough onto a lightly floured worktop and knead very briefly – no more than a minute or so – until the dough is smooth. The dough will be firm enough to hold its shape, but it will be tender and yielding to a poke. Put the dough onto a greased tray and cover with clingfilm. Leave to rest for 30 minutes.
Flour the worktop lightly and tip the dough onto it. Pat the dough down, with a floured hand, just until about 2cm thick – I don’t bother with a rolling pin because the tendency is to over-roll it. Cut out using a 6cm(ish) cookie cutter. Set the scones on a greased tray, cover with clingfilm again, and leave to rest for a further 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 220°C/200°C fan/gas mark 8.
Once the scones have rested flip them over so their flat bottoms become perfectly flat tops. If you put the scones fairly close together, with enough room in between each to allow for swelling, the scones will steam as they bake, keeping them softer. Glaze just the tops of the scones with the egg yolk, then bake for 12–15 minutes, until the tops are deeply golden and the bases are just gently browned. The scones will feel very soft, but they will firm up a little as they cool. Slide them onto a cooling rack and allow to cool, just until you can slather one liberally in cream and jam, to eat without burning your mouth.