Infinite Variations on a Buttermilk Scone Theme

Scones

Scone variations: (clockwise from top): Peanut butter frosted, potato and English cheddar, and chocolate crunch.

A lot of people have asked for my scone recipes. The truth is, I have one basic recipe, but I improvise every time I make scones. Take a look at the basic scone recipe, and then come back here to read about where I go from there.


The first six ingredients (flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and butter) are constants in all my variations, except for the quantity of sugar. I reduce the sugar to one tablespoon if I’m making savory scones or adding another sweetening agent.

The last four ingredients are variables; replace them with whatever other flavor elements, liquids, and toppings you care to substitute.

Liquids: Instead of buttermilk, you could substitute regular milk that you’ve curdled by adding a tablespoon or two of lemon juice or vinegar and warming gently for a minute in the microwave. Or put a small amount of yogurt or sour cream in a jar with enough milk to make up a total volume of a half cup, then shake to combine. Or try kefir, either plain or fruit-flavored. As long as you use a liquid with some acidity, you can hardly go wrong.

Also, consider adding vanilla or almond extract, liqueur, ricotta or another wet cheese, or vegetable puree, such as pumpkin or butternut squash. You could include a beaten egg; this will add richness, but will make the scones more cake-like instead of biscuit-y. If you use a large volume of liquid (more than a tablespoon or two), cut back on the buttermilk or other main liquid a bit to keep the total volume close to half a cup. (You can always add a little more buttermilk at the mixing stage if the mixture seems too dry.)

Sweeteners: Add two or three tablespoons of honey, molasses, corn syrup, or maple syrup, and cut back the white sugar to one tablespoon.

Dry (or nearly-dry) flavor ingredients: fresh or dried fruit, diced or shredded cheese, grated vegetables or greens, nuts, chopped onions or green onions, chocolate chips, fresh herbs, whole or crushed spices, seeds, oat bran, oatmeal, corn meal, artichoke hearts, crumbled bacon, diced ham or turkey, cooked sausage (diced or crumbled), raw cacao nibs, sauteed mushrooms. How long shall I go on?

If you’d like a strong taste of another grain or bran ingredient, either substitute it for some of the flour, or increase the amount of liquid a bit to compensate for the additional dry volume. (You want to keep the ratio of flour to liquid roughly four to one.)

Consider substituting whole wheat, rice, or graham flour for one cup of the white flour. Or substitute rye flour for 1/2 cup of the white flour.

Toppings: For sweet scones, brush the tops before baking with buttermilk, milk, cream, kefir, or egg wash, then sprinkle with white sugar, turbinado or demerara sugar. Mix a little cinnamon or cocoa powder into the sugar. Or make a crumb topping with 3 T flour, 2 T brown sugar, 1/4 t cinnamon, a pinch of salt, and 2 T cold diced butter, rubbed together until it looks like wet sand. Or leave the tops plain, and glaze the scones while they’re still warm or after they’ve cooled with a glaze made of any fruit juice, citrus zest, and powdered sugar. If you glaze them hot out of the oven, the glaze will soak into the crust a little, and some of it will run off. If you prefer, wait until they’re completely cool, then frost them instead.

For savory scones, try a dusting of Parmesan cheese, a grind of fresh black or white pepper. Or brush with melted butter or an egg beaten with a little cold water. Or sesame, poppy, sunflower, or pumpkin seeds.

Or try making filled scones! Just skip the cutting stage before baking. Instead, make a well in the center of the disk of dough. Fill it with a mixture of ricotta or cream cheese, egg, and sweet or savory flavorings—sugar and vanilla or a liqueur, or garlic, Parmesan cheese, and fresh herbs. Bake until the filling is firm and the crust is golden brown. After they’re cool, slice them into wedges. (Or shape the dough into individual-sized servings before you fill and bake them.)

Instructions

  1. Grease or apply cooking spray to a sheet pan. Preheat the over to 375° F.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, sift together the dry ingredients. (Go larger than you think you might need, because you’re going to need to get your hands in there.)
  3. Cut the butter into tiny cubes with a sharp knife.
  4. Toss the cubes of butter in the dry ingredients until they’re separated and coated with flour, then gently rub the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles wet sand. (I call this “Méthode Julie Brown.”)
  5. Add any dry or nearly-dry flavoring ingredients. Toss to mix thoroughly. (You want to do this before you add the buttermilk, because once the buttermilk goes in, you want to handle the dough as little as possible.) Make a well in the center.
  6. Add the buttermilk and any other liquid ingredients, such as extracts, honey, molasses, or wet cheeses. With a wooden spoon, stir until the ingredients are mostly gathered together. Don’t worry if some of the dry ingredients aren’t sticking; it’ll all come together in the next step. But if the mixture seems very dry, add another splash of buttermilk or other liquid.

    [What if the mixture is too wet? If the mixture looks like chocolate-chip cookie dough or even wetter than that, you’ve probably used too much liquid. Don’t worry! They’ll still be delicious. But you’re better off not trying to knead and shape them, or they’ll get tough. Just use a couple of tablespoons to scoop lumps of dough onto the sheet pan, then add toppings and bake.]

  7. With your (clean) hands, scrape any dough off the spoon. Then use your hands to squeeze together as much of the dough as you can into one big lump. Push it around the inside of the bowl a few times to gather up all the loose bits of dry stuff. You can use a gentle kneading action at this stage to get everything incorporated. Once it’s all sticking together, give it one or two more kneads with the heal of your hand to even out the consistency, then press the dough into a ball or log.
  8. Tear the dough into two or three pieces of similar size. (Two pieces will yield eight finished scones; three will give you a dozen mini-scones.) Shape each piece into a rough ball, then place it on a greased or cooking-sprayed sheet pan. (Instead of greasing the pan, you could line it with parchment paper or a Silpat instead.) Press the ball into a flat disk. Don’t worry if the edges split here and there. (Or do. It’s up to you. If you don’t like cracks, use the palms of your hands to smooth the edges a little.)
  9. Brush on a little cream, milk, buttermilk, or other wash, then sprinkle with sugar or other topping.
  10. Use a large, sharp knife to cut each disk into four wedges. At the end of each cut, rock the knife a bit from side to side to create a narrow valley across the scones. The scones will grow together in the first part of the baking, but these cuts will help you pull them apart.
  11. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and use a metal spatula to pull the wedges apart so they’re no longer touching one another. Proceed with caution, as the scones will still be a bit wet and steamy-hot!
  12. Return the pan to the oven, rotating it 180 degrees from its original orientation. Bake for a few more minutes—anywhere from 5 more to 15 more, depending on the flavoring ingredients you used. You’re looking for golden-brown crust, but you want to retain some moisture so the scones will keep for a couple of days. If you’re not sure, take one out of the oven and break it open.

    Don’t worry! If your timing is off, they might be a little dry or a little too moist, but your experiments will probably still be delicious. And after a few batches, you’ll know exactly what “done” looks like.

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