Concerning Scones

There has been a discussion of scones going on at Sarah Jane's blog, in the course of which I mentioned my recipe for Scottish scones, which was then requested. Here it is, along with the discussion of them in the recipe book!

Scones belong to the British family of small tea cake though their Scottish pedigree goes back at least to the 18th century when Robert Burns rightly describes them as 'souple (soft) scones, the wale (choicest) of food'. How they got their name is difficult to say. The OED [Oxford English Dictionary] suggests that the word may be a shortened version of the German 'schonbrot' meaning fine bread, while Chambers Scots Dictionary suggests that hte word is from the Gaelic 'sgonn', a shapeless mass. There is no confusion, though, about its pronunciation, at least in Scotland, where it is universally spoken of as a 'skawn' as in gone. The English pronounce them in some regions as the Scots do, while others pronounce the word to rhyme with own.
When to eat
They should not be limited to teatime. Savoury ones make excellent accompaniments to soups; they are also good at the end of a meal with cheese. They are so incredibly quick and easy to make, five minutes mixing and ten minutes or so baking, that it is not impossible to make them for breakfast or perhaps for the meal which crosses boundaries between breakfast and lunch, and which the Americans call brunch.
The secret of a good scone
The dough should be as wet as you can handle. The mixing should be done quickly and lightly. There should be the minimum of handling and they should be baked until they are just risen and dried out.
Scots traditionally make scones with buttermilk and bicarbonate of soda [baking soda] -- known as Soda Scones. There is a subtle difference in the result which is softer, lighter, moister and with a sharper flavour than scones made with fresh milk and baking powder. If buttermilk is not available then sour milk may be used or fresh milk can be soured by adding about 2 teaspoons of lemon juice.
Mixing and Shaping
'Deftly mixed' is probably as good a description as any of the technique which depends on light quick handling for a perfect result. The flour should be well sifted and the buttermilk poured into a well in the centre. [I don't think we ever sift our flour, just for the record!] Dont add the liquid drop by drop. Stir with a wooden spoon, gradually bringing in the flour; if you get the mixture dry and 'ragged' looking the scones will not be light. The mixing should be done with as little 'working' as possible and it should be a soft elastic consistency, sticky unless well floured. It should not be handled more than is necessary and for this reason it is not rolled out but lifted in well-floured hands and placed on either girdle [griddle] or baking tray. Then it is well floured on top and lightly pressed down into a rough round shape (a bannock) for the girdle 1/2" and for the oven 1 1/4" and only at this point is it divided into scones. Chambers is right, they are a 'shapeless mass'. If liked, they may be separated or touching; if the latter they will take longer to cook but can be broken after baking. [We usually cut ours into rounds with a biscuit cutter - although a small glass, upside down, works too! - but you can cut them into squares or triangles or whatever suits your fancy.]
All Scones may be baked either on a girdle in the traditional way or in the oven. There will be differences in shape and texture. Those baked on the girdle will have smooth flat top and bottom surfaces while the oven ones will be rough on top. The oven ones are more likely to be drier while girdle scones will be moister. [Unless you, like us, have a tendency to forget to turn them if cooking on a girdle... and the oven ones are very moist as well.]
The girdle baking technique allows more control over the baking since you can watch them as they cook and learn to judge when they should be turned and, more importantly, when they are ready. The girdle should not be too hot to begin with or the scones will brown too quickly. Cook slowly till risen and till there is a white skin on top. This usually takes about five or six minutes. The heat should have penetrated to the top and the centre well set before turning. Increase the heat if necessary till brown underneath then turn and brown on the other side. It should take about 15 minutes altogether. Open up a little at the edge to check they are quite dry. Wrap in a towel to keep them soft. It is more difficult to judge when they are in the oven but they will take a shorter time than you imagine. Overcooked, they lose their softness and lightness.

SODA SCONES made with buttermilk

The Irish, who have perfected the art of making these scones, call them bread, which they are, reserving the scone term for the sweet variety. No additional flavouring should be added to soda scones. [And none is needed! Served hot with butter and jam or tart marmalade, these are heavenly.]

8 oz/250 g plain flour (2 c) - you can use at least half whole wheat if you prefer
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 fl oz/250 ml buttermilk (1 c)
Moderately hot griddle, or Pre-heat the oven to 450F/230C/Gas 8
Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl, make a well in the centre and add the buttermilk. Mix till soft elastic consistency, flour and place on baking tray or girdle. Cook till risen and dry. Wrap in towel when cooked. Serve warm.

makes 8 scones
These scones can be made either sweet or savoury and can have all kinds of things added to them, even fruits or vegetables. Like shortbread, absorbency of the flour will dictate the exact amount of liquid required for the right consistency, so add more if necessary. Wholemeal flour will absorb more than white.

8 oz250 g plain flour (2 c)
Raising agent, either
1. 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
2. or 3 teaspoons baking powder
3. or use self-raising flour
2 oz/50 g butter (1/2 stick) - this can be varied according to taste or even oil used instead
5 fl oz/150 ml fresh milk (3/4 c)
Salt to taste
Preheat the oven to 450F/230C/Gas 8; bake on third from the top
Heat girdle till moderately hot

Sift all the dry ingredients into a bowl and rub in the butter. This can be done in the processor but the mixing should be done by hand so it seems hardly worth it unless you are in a desperate hurry to get them into the oven. Pour the milk into the centre and mix to a soft elastic dough, slightly stiffer and more manageable than for soda scones. Knead lightly on a floured surface till smooth and press out with your hands or roll out. Cut into shapes, flour or brush with egg on top and bake. Wrap in towel when ready to keep soft and warm. Serve warm.

Then there are all sorts of additions suggested! Here is a list:
2 tablespoons of treacle or molasses with 1/2 c. of chopped walnuts or pecans
Substitute orange juice (fresh) for 1/4 c of the milk. Add 2 T. honey and the grated zest of a lemon and 1 T. chopped walnuts.
Use 3/4 c. cream, either sweet or sour, instead of the milk, and add 2 eggs.
Add about 4 oz. soft fruits, and sugar to taste.
Add 1 teaspoon dried herbs, or 2 teaspoons fresh herbs to the mix.
Add 5 oz/150 g grated Scottish cheddar cheese (1 c generous) and a large pinch of cayenne pepper sifted in with the flour. Season well with salt. Brush with egg and sprinkle cheese on top. For serving with soup or dinner. [I imagine just about any kind of strongly flavoured cheese would work well in this!]
Add 1 small onion, cooked until soft in 2 tablespoons bacon fat. Add most to the dough but keep some back to put on top after brushing with egg.
Or, add both onion and cheese.
Or, add both onion, cheese, and herbs - chives are particularly good.

~from Scottish Cookery by Catherine Brown. Everything in brackets [] is my comment, and I merely summarized the last list of add-ins.

We usually make the buttermilk version, baked in the oven, with at least 1/2 wheat flour, and they're delicious! I haven't ever made the sweet milk ones myself, although I think my mother has, but they are a little more of a "production" as you have to cut in the butter. I think I'll try the cheese ones to go with dinner this Saturday, when I cook next, and if so I'll try to take some pictures along the way to illustrate the process and report back here with the results!

If you try any of these, or even just read through it all, I'd love to hear back from you about what you though :-)

I am off; my mother is having a routine test done today but it involves sedation, so I must go with her to the doctor's and drive her home afterwards. I'm not particularly looking forward to upwards of two hours sitting in a waiting room, but perhaps I'll manage to get some knitting done!



  1. This is fantastic! So very informative and the history is so interesting. I will have to try this recipe very soon. The one I used seems similar, but it has 1 c. of sugar added to the basic ingredients of butter, flour, cream of tarter and sour cream (I suppose buttermilk might act in a similar way as sour cream?) The bacon fat and onion additives sound wonderful. . .bacon and onions happen to be Davids favorite foods, so I should suprise him with some like this! I will let you know how they come out!

  2. I knew I approved of David! Bacon and onions are some of my very favourite foods too! ;-) I think the sour cream would function similarly to buttermilk, yes; and of course if you happen not to have either, you can "sour" sweet milk with a few teaspoons either of lemon juice or vinegar.

    I think the first recipe, without butter, is the true "Scottish" one - the second probably makes up more similarly to our American conception of scones. But I will have to try it and find out!


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