Scones for Marlena

Betsy McNair

Betsy McNair

· 7 min read
Scones for Marlena

This morning I was proclaimed "The Best Scone Maker in Existence" by Her High Holiness of the Roving Feast, Marlena Spieler. I couldn't be prouder. I feel like I've been knighted by the queen herself (which would be appropriate, given that Queen Liz II was coronated at the Stone of Scone in 1953.) After all, Marlena, author of about 70 cookbooks, world traveler, and superb food writer, lives in London and knows her scones.


I, however, having been raised in 1950s suburban Connecticut, know my way around a glazed doughnut, a cruller, and even a bran muffin...but a scone? They weren't even in my orbit, much less my repertoire (remember, I'm a cook, not a baker), until fairly recently.

From pastry bumpkin to scone maven; how is that possible, you ask? Two words: Sunset Magazine. In the early 90s my neighbor and friend Diane made a batch of scones that knocked my socks off. I asked for her secret recipe, she handed me a Sunset Magazine cookbook. I baked, I ate, I was hooked.

The original recipe calls for the basics: butter cut into flour, sugar, and leavening, liquid added, and a simple combination of currants and lemon peel in there for flavor. Scones made from this recipe are delicious, will allow you to win friends and influence people, and make you very welcome at pot luck parties, especially high teas and brunches.

But I'm a rule breaker, I bore easily, and I like to cook with what's on hand, so by my third batch I was using a Cuisinart to work in the butter. The currants were left in the dust as I mixed in chocolate, dried fruit, nuts and seeds, cheeses, sun-dried tomatoes, herbs - really, whatever hit my fancy and was in the house. (Not all at once, of course...but you knew that.)

Since that first fateful batch I have baked literally thousands of scones, most of them during my years managing La Casa de Espiritus Alegres Bed & Breakfast in Guanajuato, where we served a freshly baked basketful to appreciative guests every morning. House favorite: chunks of Mexican chocolate, almonds, and candied orange peel.) We also used this recipe at the much-missed Emmanuelle's Restaurant in Santa Cruz, where loyal scone hounds lined up daily to see what delicious flavor combination would come out of the oven each morning. They have been written about in newspapers, guide books, magazines, and online. Traditional? I don't know, but delicious? Absolutely.

Buttermilk Scones

3 cups all purpose Flour
⅓ cup Sugar
2 ½ teaspoons Baking Powder
½ teaspoon Baking Soda
½ teaspoon Salt (omit if you're using salted butter)
6 oz. cold unsalted Butter, cut in pieces
¾ cup Currants & 1 tablespoon grated Lemon Zest OR 1 cup Mix-In of your choice
1 cup Buttermilk

  1. Put flour, sugar, baking powder, soda, and salt together in Cuisinart and pulse until thoroughly blended. Add butter and pulse until it resembles coarse cornmeal.
  2. To the dry mix add the currants and lemon peel or other "mix-in" and pulse just a couple of times to combine evenly. Add buttermilk and pulse until dough begins to form a ball and cleans the sides of the bowl. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and form into two discs. Cut each disc into 6 wedges and place wedges on a greased cookie sheet. Brush tops with buttermilk or cream and for sweet scones sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Refrigerate scones at least ten minutes, or even overnight.
  3. Place cold scones in a 425 oven. Bake for for 18-20 minutes or until tops are golden brown, turning once mid-bake.
  4. Serve hot from the oven. Clotted cream, butter, and jams are all lovely with them, but they are about perfect just as they are.

*Some wonderful ideas for Mix-Ins, but only the beginning: Candied Ginger and Dried Apricots...Bacon, Cheese, and Chives...Dried Pineapple, Toasted Coconut, and Slivered Almonds...Sundried Tomatoes, Feta, Pine Nuts, and Fresh Herbs...Chocolate Chips and Candied get the idea.

You're allowed to use the Cuisinart only if you promise you will not overmix. You're looking for the same texture you'd get if you used two knives or a pastry blender to cut the butter into the flour, a coarse meal. This allows the rising to happen, resulting in flaky moist scones.

On the same note, once you've added the buttermilk, stop pulsing as soon as the dough begins to come together. Better to turn it into a bowl or out on the board at that point and finish the mixing by hand than to overmix and risk melting the butter.

If you have buttermilk around that's great, if you don't, just substitute regular milk (you can stir in lemon juice to create instant buttermilk.) I've also used yogurt (plain or flavored) and a combination of all of the above with success.

The second secret to successful rising is cold scones and a hot stove. Chill the dough or chill the scones on the pan, but be sure they are cold when they go in the oven. Also, a 425 degree oven is not very forgiving, so don't walk away at the 15-minute mark. If you find that your oven is consistently browning too quickly, start out at 425 to get the rise you want and drop to 350 after 10 minutes.

So what flavor scones did I make for my special guests - the Divine Miss M, Sonia "Spielberg" Bañuelos & Little Sprout, and the lovely Vanessa?

  • Sweet scones loaded with chunks of good quality Bittersweet Chocolate, coarsely chopped Roasted Almonds, and Dried Montmorency Cherries (Left)
  • Savory scones with cubes of sharp Cheddar Cheese, minced Fresh Herbs from the garden (fennel fronds, parsley, sage), and a sprinkle of Pungo Creek Indian Corn Meal for toothsome texture, dusted with the tiniest bit of smoked paprika. (Center)
  • Reefer Madness scones inspired by the ingredients for brik a l'ouef that ended up in my refrigerator after Marlena and Sonia visited the other day: a bit of Preserved Lemons, chopped, precooked Broccoli Rabe, and crumbled Feta Cheese, brushed with a bit of yogurt and finely ground parmesan. I baked them free-form to leave the greens intact. They were exotic, fragrant, and fabulous. (Right)

The Divine Miss M with the scone platter.

By the way, I tried to find the original Sunset scone recipe online today. Following threads like In Search of the Perfect Scone and Lost Scone Recipe led me to Lemon Buttermilk Scones from Sunset Magazine. I bet they're delicious, but it's not the same recipe. I know this because - non-baker that I am - I never would have had the nerve to leave out an egg or change the amount of flour by even a tablespoon, much less raise the oven temperature by 75 degrees.

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Betsy McNair

About Betsy McNair

MY MEXICO TOURS began in the fall of 2003. Since then I've introduced hundreds and hundreds of intrepid travelers to the folk and fine art of Michoacán, Oaxaca, and Chiapas; the elegant colonial cities of Puebla, Guanajuato, and Morelia; the fabulous cuisines of Oaxaca, Michoacán, and Yucatán. We’ve enjoyed regional culinary experiences in humble huts, palatial homes, and cooking schools throughout the country; walked amongst the crumbling ruins yet seen the thriving preHispanic cultures in Michoacán, Oaxaca, Chiapas and the Yucatán.

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