The American scone is a confection in crisis. Puffy and pale, supersized and supersweet, it has lost its purpose. Is it a muffin? Is it a pastry? Does it exist to be frosted with icing, or spread with jam — or only to crumble into the crevices of car upholstery?
This need not be. To taste a lofty, tender scone just as it should be, all you need is 30 minutes and basic pantry ingredients.
And once you’ve mastered scones, you’ll automatically know how to make biscuits. All that separates them is two tablespoons of sugar and an egg.
British scone purists and Southern biscuit purists (and there are plenty of each) may shriek at this. But from a baker’s perspective, “They are pretty much spot on the same,” said Heather Bertinetti, the pastry chef at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City.
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Biscuits and scones sometimes seem to be from different planets, but they share a buttery, tender flakiness and the versatility that makes them a cornerstone recipe. Homemade scones dress up breakfast or brunch; biscuits go with everything from butter and jam to gravy and ham; mini biscuits can be flavored with cheese and herbs and trotted out for cocktail hour.
In baking both, a few things are certain: the dough should be handled as little as possible; butter is the best-tasting fat (though vegetable shortening and lard have their partisans); and bakers will never stop trying to improve them.
Stacey Eames, the owner of the Highland bakeries in Atlanta, recently added a dollop of sour cream to her basic biscuit recipe, which makes the biscuits richer without adding weight.
“There is no one authentic Southern biscuit recipe,” she said, but there are mandates: the edges should have a nice crunch and the inside should be soft, not greasy. “You don’t have to put all the butter in the biscuit,” she said, “because you might want to put butter on the biscuit.”
American biscuits originated in the British Isles as scones. Upon arrival in the United States, biscuits took over the South, where common ingredients like buttermilk, lard and low-protein soft wheat (which can produce more-tender biscuits than hard Northern wheat) are plentiful.
The art and prestige of the Southern biscuit was raised to such a high level that now there are several biscuit-based restaurants outside the South, including Pine State Biscuits in Portland, Ore.; Biscuit Bitch in Pike Place Market in Seattle; and Empire Biscuit in Manhattan’s East Village.
The scone, meanwhile, went underground, hanging by a thread in Anglophile pockets of New England and grand hotels that stubbornly served afternoon tea.
The scone reappeared in the 1990s alongside the emerging coffee culture in the Pacific Northwest (Washington happens to have an existing scone cult: Thousands of raspberry jam-filled Fisher Fair Scones are baked at the state fair every year, a tradition dating back to 1911).
Nothing besides tradition calls for round biscuits or wedge-shaped scones. Eames’ biscuits are large squares; Bertinetti’s scones are squares or rectangles. Cutting the dough in straight lines with a sharp, wide chef’s knife helps the sides rise up in flaky layers. This approach all but eliminates dough scraps that must be clumped together and rolled out again (a common practice when you are using a biscuit cutter to make circular biscuits). Each time dough is rolled, it absorbs more flour and the flour’s natural gluten gets more activated, which leads to tough crusts and flat biscuits.
For most home cooks, butter and cream produce the best results. As with pie crust, lard makes the flakier biscuit, and butter the tastier: This time, butter wins. Buttermilk is a traditional liquid for biscuits and used to contain more butterfat, but today it is a lean and sour product.
Our recipe gets extra butterfat from heavy cream, making the interior tender and rich.
Many traditional Southern bakers use self-rising flour for biscuits (finely ground, with leaveners already mixed in), but it can be hard to find elsewhere, and is usually bleached. All-purpose flour can make perfect scones and biscuits, said Bertinetti; she’s more concerned about fine-tuning the salt and sugar content. Baking powder, the usual leavener for scones and biscuits, contains baking soda, which is salty.
“People don’t realize that salt not only tastes salty, but it makes sweet things taste sweeter,” she said. “And salt also contributes to browning, which you definitely want in a scone or a biscuit.”
There is one final similarity worth mentioning. Both scones and biscuits stale quickly, which is another argument for eating them out of your oven, not out of a bakery case.
MASTER RECIPE FOR BISCUITS AND SCONES
(The addition of sugar and egg turns this recipe for biscuits into a recipe for scones. The notes at the bottom of the recipe have amounts and instructions for making scones.)
Makes 8 to 12 biscuits or scones
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
¼ pound (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cubed
1 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons melted butter (for biscuits) or 2 eggs beaten with 1 tablespoon water (for scones)
1. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper or baking mat, or use a nonstick pan.
2. Toss dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Using your fingertips or a pastry cutter, rub butter and flour mixture together just until butter pieces are the size of peas and covered with flour. Make a well in the center of the bowl and pour in cream. Mix ingredients together by hand until a shaggy dough is formed.
3. Turn out onto a floured surface and gently knead dough together just until smooth and all ingredients are incorporated.
4. Pat dough into a ¾- to 1-inch-thick rough rectangle shape. Use your hands if you like a nice bumpy top; for smooth tops, use a rolling pin, pressing lightly. Using a sharp knife or dough scraper, cut rectangle in half lengthwise, then cut across into eight or 12 rectangles or squares. Place them on the baking sheet, spaced out.
5. Brush tops with melted butter (for biscuits) or egg wash (for scones). Bake until light golden brown, about 22 minutes; rotate the pan front to back halfway through. Let cool slightly on the baking sheet. Serve warm or at room temperature. Eat within 24 hours.
Note: To make scones, add 2 tablespoons sugar to the dry ingredients. With the cream, add 1 lightly beaten egg. Brush tops with egg wash and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons brown sugar. To make orange-currant scones, make changes above. Additionally, mix freshly grated zest of 1 orange or tangerine with the dry ingredients. When mixing or kneading the dough, add 1 cup currants and knead just until incorporated.
— Adapted by The New York Times from “Bake It, Don’t Fake It,” by Heather Bertinetti