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Sunday, Jan. 6, 2008

Scouting for Scones

Bits of Britain in Milwaukee

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Although a decade ago they could only be found in Milwaukee’s most exclusive tearooms or progressive bakeries, scones are becoming a common staple of today’s cafes. Still, people can be forgiven for being slightly wary of these wedge-shaped treats. Often their fluffy appearance will mask a heart of stone; a hardened resilience that makes them rather dangerous if hurled at speed or dropped from a great height.

Engorged with sweet fillings or drizzled with sugar, most cafe scones are hardly recognizable descendents of a British fare that dates back to the early 16th century. Most sources agree that scones originated in Scotland, made of ingredients as simple as barley meal, salt and water, and typically cooked on a griddle, or sometimes even pan-fried. The invention of chemical baking agents such as bicarbonate of soda revolutionized the taste and appearance of scones. Today British scones are usually round like biscuits, split and served with jam, cream and a steaming pot of tea.



Local Offerings

American scone consumption tends to be rather unceremonious. Still, there are a few local establishments that serve them with the pomp and splendor they deserve, including the Pfister Hotel and George Watts Tea Room. On the one occasion I tried the Pfister’s scones, I found them to be rather dry. Watts’ are subtly flavored and rather bread-like—in some respects more like the British scone. They even look different; cut into triangular wedges after baking rather than before, and delicately powdered with confectioners’ sugar.



Harlequin Bakery probably makes the best scones in Milwaukee: buttery, light and not gargantuan like most of their rivals. Pastry chef Andy Schneider describes the method as fairly simple. “They’re made just like biscuits would be, but the biggest thing is using fresh ingredients, whether it’s fresh cranberries or orange zest,” he says.



The only criticism one might make of Harlequin’s scones is a lack of variety, which is certainly not an issue at any of the Alterra locations. Alterra can also be commended for creating the most sizable scones. However, despite being made daily at their Riverwest bakery, Alterra’s scones are rather hard and dry.



Making the Perfect Scone

While looking for the perfect scone in Milwaukee may prove a frustrating task, making them at home is a piece of cake, and often yields the best results. The basic scone recipe is rather simple, including flour, a leavening agent, sugar, butter and milk. Many recipes also involve nuts, fruit and chocolate chips, and often suggest alternatives to milk such as buttermilk, heavy cream or sour cream. In my experience, yogurt works very well, lending the scone a smooth texture, especially when paired with an egg.



Meanwhile, Harlequin’s pastry chef feels one thing that doesn’t bear substitution is butter. “A lot of places use shortening to give more longevity to their scone,” Schneider says. “Because we make them fresh we use all butter and get more flavor out of it.”



All scone recipes require you to “rub in” the butter, a term that perplexes many people. When taught scone-making at school, we were literally required to rub the fat into the flour until the mixture looked rather crumb-like. However, many cooks use a pastry cutter or food processor, or else grate a chilled stick of butter and lightly mix it into the dry ingredients. Most cooks agree that the wet and dry ingredients shouldn’t be mixed too rigorously, and the dough shouldn’t be overworked. This could result in a somewhat stodgy scone.



On the other hand, many recipes suggest using more chemical-leavening agents, which often results in a texture that’s too light and airy (not to mention a somewhat acidic taste). Perhaps the perfect scone is poised somewhere between the density of bread and the lightness of cake, and much like everything else requires finding the right balance through a process of trial and error.



For my favorite scone recipe or to post your own scone-making tips or queries, go to www.expressmilwaukee.com.

My Favorite Raspberry & Chocolate Scones Recipe

from The Joy of Baking

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F and place rack in middle of oven. Grease a baking tray with butter.In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Cut the butter into small pieces rub it in with your fingers until it resembles coarse crumbs.Stir in the chocolate chunks (chips). In a small bowl whisk together the yogurt, vanilla extract , and egg. Add this mixture to the flour mixture and stir just until the dough comes together. Do not over mix. Transfer to a lightly floured surface and knead the dough gently four or five times and then pat the dough into a circle that is about one inch thick. Cut the dough into eight triangles. Position about four or five raspberries on each scone and then place the scones on the baking sheet.

Make an egg wash of one well-beaten egg mixed with 1 tablespoon milk and brush the tops of the scones with this mixture.Bake for about 15 to 18 minutes or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Remove from oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool. Before serving sprinkle confectioners sugar over the tops of the scones. Makes about 8 scones.

Recipe:

2 cups all purpose flour

1/3 cup granulated white sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cold and cut into pieces

1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chunks or chips

3/4 cup fresh raspberries

1/2 cup whole milk plain yogurt

1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1 large egg, lightly beaten

Egg mixture for brushing tops of scones:

1 large egg, lightly beaten

1 tablespoon milk or cream