Traditional scones make a delicious tea-time treat, but the basic mixture is more versatile than just this. You can make lots of savoury and other flavoured variations, and different shapes too. The dough can also be used as a topping, called a cobbler, for both sweet and savoury dishes.
Because the dough is so quick and easy to make, it is the ideal stand-by in emergencies. If you run out of bread, simply prepare a batch of scones. They only take about 10 minutes to make and 12-15 minutes to bake. And there is no need to wait until the scones are cold as they are best eaten warm. Simply ease them open with your fingers (do not use a knife as this spoils the lovely crumbly texture) and serve thickly spread with butter.
In addition to the usual equipment needed for making and rolling out, you will need pastry cutters to cut out the scones and baking trays or sheets on which to bake them.
These come in a variety of shapes, but plain round cutters are traditionally used for scones. They are sold in sets comprising a range of sizes. The 5 cm (2") diameter cutter is most frequently used for scones. Cutters made from stainless steel are best. They do not rust and will not break as easily as the plastic type.
If you do not have a pastry cutter, you can use the rim of a thin drinking glass or a china cup instead.
Baking trays and sheets
The difference between a baking tray and a baking sheet is that the tray has four raised sides, whereas the sheet only has one.
Both trays and sheets are made from metal and are available with and without a non-stick finish.
It does not matter whether you use a tray or a sheet, but don't be tempted to make do with a pottery container. Metal is a good conductor of heat and this is important for the scones to be properly cooked. The oven temperatures used in the recipe section are based on using a tray, you won't get the same results if you place your scones on a ceramic baking dish.
Check that you have enough trays for the number of scones you are making. If you are using a 5 cm (2") cutter you will get about 12 scones from 225 grams dough and you need to space the scones on the tray. A 30 cm (12") tray will fit nine scones comfortably so, if you are making more, use two trays or use a larger tray, if you have one.
A point to remember when using large trays is that there should be a gap of about 5 cm (2") between the sides of the tray and the sides of the oven. If there isn't, the hot air cannot circulate freely, it hits the tray and is deflected downwards, resulting in scones that are overcooked on the bottom and undercooked on the top.
You only need to grease the baking tray if the scones contain cheese or a liquid sweetener, such as syrup.
You can use either self-raising or plain flour. If plain flour is used you will have to use a raising agent as well. Brown flour can be used and is excellent for savoury scones,
A raising agent is added only if plain flour is used. This can be either baking powder or a combination of bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar.
Always measure carefully. Too much raising agent will give your scones a dry or acid after-taste. If not enough raising agent is used the scones will not rise well and will have a hard, heavy texture.
The proportion of fat to flour is 1:4. So if you are using 225 grams of flour, you will need to use 50 grams of fat. The fat is rubbed into the flour so it should be cold but not rock hard. Whipped margarines are not suitable as they are too soft.
Butter and margarine are both excellent: both give a good colour but butter has the edge over margarine for flavour. Lard is not suitable as it gives poor flavour and appearance.
Salt is always added to enhance the flavour of both sweet and savoury scones. Sift 2.5 ml salt with every 225 grams flour.
You need to add enough liquid to bind the dry ingredients together to the right consistency. The dough should be soft but not sticky.
Fresh milk gives an excellent soft scone but, for richer results, use sour milk, natural yoghurt or buttermilk. If you're feeling extravagant, try sour cream or thick or thin fresh cream for a really fabulous flavor and texture. Water is not suitable as it gives a poor, rather tasteless scone.
One of the keys to successful scones is to make and bake the dough as quickly as possible. This is because the raising agent begins to work as soon as it comes into contact with a liquid, so the sooner you can pop the scones into the oven the lighter they will be.
Always heat the oven to the recommended temperature: if the oven is too cool the scones will be tough and pale. If scones are baked in too hot an oven they become hard and over-brown. Recipes usually specify a very hot oven that is between 220°C (425°F) and 230°C (450°F). Scones which contain sugar and fruit are baked at the lower temperature to prevent the sugar from caramelizing. Next, organize your equipment and lay out your baking tray (greased if necessary) ready for use. Then collect and measure your ingredients and do any necessary preparation, such as grating cheese or chopping nuts. You can now begin to make the scones.
Making the Dough
Sieve white flour (and raising agents if plain flour is being used) together with the salt (and any powdered flavourings if used). This ensures the ingredients are evenly distributed and aerated and helps keep them cool. Perfectionists even recommend sieving twice! Whole wheat flour is not sieved as this separates out the bran. Just stir the salt into the flour.
Cut in the fat with a round-bladed knife until the pieces are walnut-sized and well coated with flour. Rub the fat into the flour until the mixture resembles even-sized breadcrumbs, then use the metal spoon to stir in any additional dry ingredients if used.
Adding the liquid is one of the most crucial stages in scone-making. You need to add enough liquid to give a soft, but not sticky, dough. If too little liquid is used, the scones won't rise well and will have a heavy texture. When too much liquid is used, the dough is slack (loose) and the scones tend to spread and lose their shape during baking.
Make a well in the centre of the mixture and pour in almost all the liquid to bind (plus any liquid flavouring if used). Using a palette knife, work the liquid(s) into the mixture to make a soft dough. Do this lightly and quickly as over-mixing toughens the scones. Stir in remainder of the liquid if the consistency is too dry.
Gather the dough together your hand to form a ball, the sides of the bowl should be left clean, and turn the dough on to a lightly floured board. Knead until the dough smooth and free from cracks. The dough should be slightly springy to the touch (the cooking term for this is an elastic dough). The kneading must be thorough, but lightly and quickly done. Insufficient kneading can lead to scones with a rough surface when cooked. On the other hand, heavy handling toughens the dough and makes a heavy scone.
Roll out the dough on the lightly floured surface to a round 1.2 cm thick. Turn the dough 45° to your left after each rolling to keep it in shape and evenly thick. Take care not to stretch the dough.
Alternatively you may prefer to dispense with the rolling pin altogether. Instead, shape the dough into a round and, using the palms of your hands, press it out lightly until 1.2 cm thick.
Either method is perfectly suitable, although scones cut from dough which has been shaped by hand will not have such a smooth top. If you have a large quantity of dough, it is quicker to roll it out with the rolling pin rather than pressing it out by hand.
Cutting Out The Scones
Use the size of cutter specified in the recipe. To stop the dough sticking, the cutter is lightly coated with flour before each round is stamped out. To do this, dip the cutter into a bag of flour, then shake the cutter to remove excess flour.
The correct way to use the cutter is to press it sharply and firmly down through the dough. Don't twist the cutter as this will distort the shape of the scone. Shake the cutter gently to release the scone. Stamp out as many scones as possible at a time as each successive kneading and rolling out toughens the dough.
Gather the trimmings together and knead gently. Roll out again and cut out more scones.
Place the scones on the baking trays (greased if necessary), spacing them about 2.5 cm (1") apart to allow for expansion.
Glazing and Baking
Scones made with white flour may appear rather pale when cooked, so they are usually glazed before baking. Milk, melted butter, beaten egg or egg white can all be used and will also enhance scones made with brown flour. Warmed syrup or honey can also be used to give a shiny brown, sticky finish to sweet and plain scones but is unsuitable, of course, for savoury scones. Simply warm a little syrup in a heavy-based saucepan over a low heat, but don't let it boil. Remove the pan from the heat and dip your pastry brush into the syrup, then glaze the uncooked scones.
Bake the scones for 12-15 minutes. If you are using two baking trays do not place them directly beneath each other. Place one tray on the shelf second from the top and towards the right-hand side of the oven. Place the second tray on the middle shelf towards the left-hand side. This allows the hot air to circulate freely.
To test whether the scones are cooked, tap the underside with your finger or knuckle and it should sound hollow.
Turn the cooked scones on to a wire rack, allow to cool for a few minutes and serve.