Mrs Beeton extolled their virtues, the Country Women’s Association champions them and they are the high point of the day in sweaty Australian shearing sheds. Even the Queen is partial to a scone, or so we’re unreliably informed. But few things are more hotly contested in baking circles, or generate such debate. Why? Because they’re simple, and the simplest things are often the most elusive. With few ingredients and reliance on sound cooking principles, the simple is often deceptive and leaves little room for error.
As Isabella Beeton herself wrote back in 1861: “the otherwise good cook sometimes finds considerable difficulty in producing really light, well-shaped, nicely browned scones, and there is no doubt that, as in pastry-making, the ‘light hand’ is particularly essential to good results.”
In pursuit of the perfect scone my Thermomix and I road-tested a few recipes; the traditional, the lemonade and the “non-lemonade”. For years, as a believer that synthetic junk food has no place in cooking, I disdained the lemonade scone phenomenon. But then I was sent a recipe, as always with a rapturous recommendation, so I gave it a go. Mixed in a heartbeat and plunged into a hot oven, they were … brilliant.
Is this really magic? Could the same be achieved with soda water sweetened with sugar (because, delicious as they were, they still contained the dreaded lemonade). Another batch went into the oven to test the soda water-and-sugar theory. Bingo! Just as good. Yet another batch, this time with just plain water and sugar. Result: the same.
Scones are made from flour, raising agent, fat and liquid. Traditional scones have a small amount of butter, which is 100 per cent fat, and are mixed with milk, giving them a low fat content and the characteristic soft texture—more fat creates a crumblier mixture and a high proportion of fat yields crisp products like biscuits or cookies.
If the flour is mixed with a significant amount of cream, which is 35 per cent fat (yes, it really is that much), a lighter liquid than milk is needed to maintain the fat ratio of the mix.
Lemonade adds liquid and sugar, that’s all. The same result can be achieved with soda water and sugar, or good old tap water and sugar. A controversial opinion, I know, but I’m happy to be proved wrong.
Be sure to follow my secrets of scone success: knead the dough gently, quickly and lightly but only to produce a smooth dough and no longer. Kneading develops the elastic gluten and gives the scones better shape.
If you cut circles, edge the cutter up to the previous cut to reduce waste. Scones can also be cut into squares using a sharp knife.
When placing scones on a greased oven tray be sure to “batch”; place them in rows touching each other so they bake as one batch. This helps the scones to rise straight up and keeps the interior soft. A tray with side walls helps.
Allow the scones to stand for 10 minutes on the tray before baking. This gives the raising agent a chance to start working and a better initial rise.
Scones need a hot oven for that quick initial rise. Begin at 190C for the first 5 minutes then lower the temperature to 180C–170C, depending on your oven, for the remainder of the cooking time.
They are best eaten halved, then spread with salted butter or with the traditional jam and cream.