This is a story entirely about scones. I’ll be honest. I really took one for the team this time. We spent 3 weeks in the UK from May into June, and I was determined to do scone research. If you’ve had scones in the USA, guaranteed they aren’t anything like what’s being served in tea houses on the other side of the pond. Maybe it was the vision of Devonshire clotted cream dancing in my head that led me to such persistence. Either way, after we returned from our trip, I joked that I brought a couple of pounds back from the UK, and they weren’t monetary.
It all began with a much anticipated trip to visit my sister Emily and her husband Joel and their darling daughters who had all been living in North Yorkshire for a couple of years. They lived in a cozy little village called Glasshouses, on the side of a gentle slope, overlooking rolling hills, stone fences and sheep for as far as the eyes could see. It could not have been more perfect.
So we began our adventure by flying into London, and a couple of days later we “had occasion” to celebrate my birthday with a lovely tea at The Ritz. My girls wore their “fizzy dresses” and behaved themselves which was a gift in and of itself, as all moms will understand. The scones were delicious. Light, buttery, and so very refined. And as I was bound and determined to eat my weight in scones for the remainder of the trip, I thought, maybe it was a mistake to start the research at The Ritz, of all places. Would everything else disappoint? But I must carry on. We had tea and scones one afternoon at our hotel, and between the four of us, we made short work of the hot basketful that was brought up to our room. They were a bit more rustic, and seemed to be sprinkled with semolina? Different, but good.
A few days later, we headed north on the train into the welcoming arms of my sister’s family. Immediately after arriving in Harrogate, we took the kids to run around at the park, and then headed to Café Rita. According to my sister, this was the place to have tea in Harrogate (which ran counter-culture to the fact that everyone says you should be at Betty’s for tea, but let’s not get into that right now). Café Rita was wonderful and even better than Emily promised. Still it ranks for me as one of the best places to have tea, and the scones were amazing. More rustic and “homemade” than The Ritz, less like a pastry and more like a quick bread. The Devonshire cream was perfectly soft and runny like a very ripe cheese, with the lightest crust on it. I was in heaven.
From Café Rita in Harrogate and on, I was a woman obsessed. Wherever we were, if it was tea time, I had tea with scones. My sister Emily is a die-hard afternoon tea-er (can that be a word?) and even she outright laughed at my one-track mind. We had tea in York in The Shambles at the Earl Grey Tea Rooms where I had very large scones which were more dense (maybe this is the way you muster the energy to make it through until dinner?!) and filling. We had tea at Fountains Abbey where the scones were also a bit more dense and still very delicious with their Sultanas. And it was during our time in North Yorkshire that my sister broadened my horizons by introducing me to Delia Smith. To her cookbook, that is: Delia’s Cakes. Here I found a recipe for her Rich Fruit Scones. We were watching the latest BBC version of Sense & Sensibility (oh YES) and you just can’t watch it without a cup of tea, and who wants tea without scones? Nine o’clock at night? What does that matter? I made the scones with a couple of adjustments (no spreadable butter, if you please) and they were very good. Very good indeed!
We went on to travel to “the Lakes” with my sister and her family. We stayed at Lindeth Fell which was breathtaking. Our men generously took the little ladies off to scamper in the gardens and peer into the lily pond while Emily and I had cream tea outside overlooking the garden, Windermere shimmering in the distance. By this point, I was a bit of a lunatic, scrutinizing the density, texture, and incorporation of raisins in the scones, and where the clotted cream was from (turns out, Devonshire was not as commonly served as Cornish clotted cream). The scones were hot and delicious, and I swear my hiking pants were a bit roomier before we left Colorado!
Meanwhile, it should be noted that whenever we MISSED tea time (not near a tea-house, short on time, etc), I became extremely grumpy. What about my SCONES? Two weeks in, and you’d think I would have had my fill. Not so.
After our time at the Lakes, we headed north to the Lowlands of Scotland. We spent an evening with my dear friend Sarah‘s husband, Andrew, and his parents in Boreland, near Lockerbie. Andrew’s mother, Barbara Roxburgh wakes each morning and by 7 am has fresh scones ready for her happy husband and sometimes her grandchildren, who are often over for a visit. We were fortunate enough to sample her scones, carrot cake, and other ridiculously delicious baked goods from her kitchen that day. I was deliriously happy because in Barbara Roxburgh’s kitchen, I found THE PERFECT SCONE. It was light, yet rustic, it was thick, and it tasted so, so good. I ever so politely begged for her recipe, and she very matter of factly told my sister and me that she used all the usual ingredients, plus buttermilk. Buttermilk. The mystery had been solved. I swear none of the other scones had used buttermilk, and that this was the difference.
After some time traveling in Edinburgh, we headed back to Glasshouses for a couple of days where I whipped up another batch of scones, this time with buttermilk. That was the trick! Back in Colorado, I was having cold sweats in scone-withdrawal. Well, not really. I just kept making scones. Delia’s recipe called for self-rising flour and spreadable butter, and I generally make a point of avoid both in my baking. So, I fiddled with the ingredients, forced my family to eat scones with their dinner sometimes, and at last landed on a recipe for consistently great scones. Aren’t you glad?
adapted by Stephanie Kunstle from Delia’s Cakes with thanks to Barbara Roxburgh for sharing her secrets
Makes about 8 or more scones. *All photos in this post were taken during a recent “cream tea” I had with my mom and sisters on a warm October afternoon.
- 225 g flour
- 40 g sugar (I use an organic cane sugar that is not totally refined)
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- 75 g butter, just softened
- 50 g dried fruit (mixed fruit, golden raisins, or Sultanas)
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 150 ml (5 oz.) buttermilk
- extra flour for rolling out dough (just under 60 g or 1/2 cup)
- Preheat oven to 220°C or 425°F.
- In a medium-size bowl, mix flour, sugar, and baking powder well with a whisk.
- Cut in the butter, until mixture is coarse with butter lumps broken down into pea-sized pieces or just smaller.
- Add the fruit, and mix well.
- Pour in the egg and the buttermilk, turning the mixture with a fork until just incorporated. Mixture will be a little wet and sticky.
- Sprinkle about 35-40 g (about 1/4 c) flour on a clean counter, spanning about a 12 inch circle (do you love my blend of metric with English system?)
- Turn the dough out onto the floured area, and gently pat the dough into a circle, making sure you handle it as little as possible, and leaving it 3 cm thick (about 1.5 inches).
- Sprinkle about 20 g (1/8 c) or a bit less of flour onto the top of the dough and gently distribute it over the surface of the dough with your hands.
- Using 2-3 inch pastry cutter/biscuit cutter, cut rounds of dough, taking care not to twist the cutter or smash the dough. (Set it gently on top, and then drive it into the dough).
- Cut as many scones as you can (and if you are ok with a couple of odd sized ones, use the scraps to get 1-3 more scones out of the dough), arranging them on a baking sheet.
- Bake “near the top of the oven” as Delia says (I just use the top rack, set at about the middle of the oven) for 12-15 minutes until golden.
- Serve warm only with butter if you want to keep it simple, or add some good strawberry jam, clotted cream, and/or lemon curd.
- Don’t forget “a proper brew!” You can get the good stuff here.