If I have to rank my favourite baked goods, scones would be right up the top of my list vying for attention along side toasty walnut sourdough bread, pillowy biscuits, and buttery brioche. Luckily, I don't really have to choose. A well-made scone is a beautiful thing with its buttery flavour and tender crumb. Like many objects of beauty, the perfect window of enjoyment is fleetingly narrow. A scone is best enjoyed moments after it emerges from the oven. A stale scone is a sad sight indeed.
It's unfortunate that most coffee shops are littered with inferior scones that are dry as sawdust and tough as doorstop. If you've never encountered a fresh scone before, I can imagine why it's difficult to be enthusiastic about this unassuming pastry especially if it is not gussied up with chocolate, fruit, nuts, cheese, or herbs (not that I haven't done so in the past). Personally, I prefer the more classic unadorned version or simply strewn with a handful of currants. When pair with clotted cream, marmalade, and a steaming cup of tea, it can brighten up any dreary afternoon even if it's cold and dark outside. It's no wonder this is the quintessential British ritual.
Scones ought to be easy to make and most of the recipes are indeed so. It is nothing fancy after all. A typical recipe would likely call for butter rub into the mix of flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt before gently tossed with cream to form a dough. Pat it into a thick disk before cutting to individual pieces for baking. A gentle touch is key to tender crumb and the less you handle the dough the better. I have no doubt this method yields a delicious scone as I've made plenty myself. What you don't get is a scone that rises uniformly. You may end up with something lopsided or a bulge here and there.
No! Layers! Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. ~Shrek
I can't believe I just quoted Shrek but yes, my favourite scones have something in common with onions and ogres. The recipe comes from Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Bread Bible. These scones embody the perfection of buttery flavour and tender crumb. At the same time, they are also impossibly flaky and proudly tall. The trick lies in how the dough is shaped. After mixing in cream to form a ball, you flatten the dough to a rectangle with neat straight sides and sharp corners. You then fold and turn the dough just like making puff pastry, repeated four times. This seemingly excessive handling doesn't toughen the scone. Instead, it creates layers upon layers of fat and flour. Once in the oven, the scone rises high much in the same manner as puff pastry. I cannot get enough of this delicious treat.
In a way, I'm glad that this perfect scone is so labour intensive. If it's any easier, I would be making and eating freshly baked scones everyday. However, if you have an hour to spare, it's a great idea to freeze the cut and unbaked dough so you have a stash ready to bake should the mood strikes. If you plan on serving these at your next afternoon party, even better! You can easily make them days ahead and simply bake minutes before serving. The aroma of scones fresh out of the oven is pretty hard to resist!