Scones are one of the basic pleasures in life. Like biscuits with a touch of added sweetness, the best scones are delicate and light yet somehow wonderfully rich, each bite suggesting bits of butter that have all but disappeared, leaving behind tender, flaky layers. A scone is a singular work of art, yet any sweet or savory flavorings just add to the magic.
And as hard as it may be to resist a beautiful scone in a bakery display case, nothing beats the flavor of homemade.
Like biscuits, scones are part of the quick-bread family, rustic cousins to more refined pastries and cakes. Just like the quick-bread name suggests, scones come together quickly, a few ingredients only briefly mixed before baking.
Simple as they may be, there is an art to a great scone, and it starts with ingredients. Don’t bother with a packaged mix — it should take no more than a few minutes to gather the six or so ingredients you’ll need, and you have more room to be creative when you work from scratch.
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Some flour, a little sugar and salt, and a leavener will get you started. Whisk them together in a large bowl, then add some cold butter. Cut in the butter as if you were making a pie crust, just enough so you can still see little chunks of butter, being careful not to overmix. As the scones bake, those bits of butter will melt into the scones, and the steam will give the pastry layers as the butterfat lends richness.
As soon as the butter is added, stir any sweet or savory flavorings into the crumbly mix. Currants may be classic, but feel free to use your imagination. Try chocolate chips or grated ginger for a sweet scone; shredded prosciutto and cheese, perhaps some chopped fresh herbs, will lend wonderful savory notes.
Stir in a little liquid to bind. Buttermilk has a gentle tang, though cream or even regular milk will work just fine. Some recipes call for egg, but it’s not necessary. Work the dough gently, pressing and kneading a few times, just until it comes together. The trick is to have a delicate touch, or your tender scones will toughen.
Cut the dough into wedges or rounds and bake until puffed and lightly golden, 25 to 30 minutes. While biscuits are best served fresh out of the oven, scones can be baked ahead of time, ready to go whether you’re serving them for a celebratory brunch or a simple snack, even afternoon tea. A basic pleasure, best shared with others.