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Lightening up homemade scones

Blackberry scones for brunch

I’ve been wanting to post my favorite scone recipe for some time, but it seems to me that most food blogs start out with good intentions and end up maxing out on the desserts-and-starches end of the food spectrum.

The reason is pretty simple: if you’re a food blogger,  a baking recipe and a pretty picture (or any picture of an aggressively-frosted cupcake) will never put you wrong, even if the real result tastes kind of blah. I mean, cupcakes? Isn’t that what Duncan Hines is for? But if you do feature cupcakes, somebody’s sure to repost it or call it awesome, particularly if you figure out how to add bacon to it. Somehow people just don’t flock to posts about green beans in droves unless you’re redoing the Thanksgiving-straight-from-the-can classic, complete with canned fried onions.

There are way too many variations for every kind of baked good, none with a clear and permanent advantage, and people take them all literally (see under, my New Year’s apple pie insecurities).

So as I say, I’ve been reluctant to put up too many baking posts. Scones, though they’re not exactly the staff of life, are very easy to make and actually taste best when you make them from scratch–much better than buying them in a store and definitely not at your local Starbucks. The question I have is whether it’s a good idea to do it very often–I usually don’t, even on the weekend, but partly that’s because I live in southern California and heating the oven for more than five minutes in my little galley kitchen is often a Very Bad Idea. The other reason is that I keep remembering something Valerie Harper once said (maybe in the role of Rhoda Morgenstern; can’t remember): “I don’t know why I bother to eat this piece of chocolate cake. I should just apply it directly to my hips.”

Most quick breads (i.e., raised with baking soda or powder, or beaten egg whites, not yeast) do fine in a microwave as long as you don’t need them to brown. So lemon-poppyseed cake is okay, as is gingerbread. Scones, which to my mind require a deep and crunchy crust, need a regular oven to do well, but I make the sacrifice (90-degree weather makes it a genuine sacrifice) once in a while on Sunday mornings, because they taste terrific and they’re not exactly rocket science to make.

So if they’re that easy, should I really be posting about them–haven’t you already seen too many wide-eyed, “Look, Ma, I made SCONES!” kinds of posts?

Let’s face it. You can make great scones in a food processor from a very short list of ingredients for cheap, in about half an hour including baking time, and flavor them simply or exotically. Fruit or chocolate chips or chiles and herbs and cheese–all optional. I stick with berries and turbinado sugar, which makes the crust crunchy and glittery. But they really only require flour, butter, baking soda or powder, maybe sugar, a bit of half-and-half or yogurt or buttermilk or sour cream, and preferably eggs.

Which is why I winced when I saw one of my friends  in the Trader Joe’s last week eyeing a package of scones and deciding that at $3.75 for four (or maybe just two? even worse), they were a bit pricey. She probably dodged a bullet on the nutrition stats as well (disclaimer: I didn’t actually see the TJ’s label), but scones don’t have to be a commercial, or even a homemade, salt-fat-and-carb bomb to be edible.

And that’s where I decided that I actually had something to say about scone recipes. Because I winced even harder when I saw a feature on the glory of homemade scones in my local paper.

This LA Times scone recipe from May 5th is a typical magazine and newspaper version, and a good example of why you should look before you leap. It’s criminally high in sodium–almost 500 mg/serving, which is as much as most commercial tomato soup. Most of that sodium is due to an extraordinarily high dose of baking powder–4 teaspoons for only 3 cups of flour.

It would be one thing if the scones in the article photo looked stupendous–but they don’t. They look kind of heavy, to tell you the truth, and when you look at the nutrition stats, it’s pretty clear that they are. Forty-four grams of carb, and 14 grams of fat, 8 of them saturated. That’s a heavy load for a single breakfast item. No fiber to speak of, either, and only 8 servings. And although it’s hard to judge the size of the platter, they don’t look all that big and impressive considering how much of each ingredient the recipe’s using. Worst yet, they gave hand-mixing instructions that are probably as intimidating to most people as the ones for pie dough.

Scone dough in the food processor

Say it with me slowly: “F-O-O-D P-R-O-C-E-S-S-O-R”!

I mean, if you’re going to work that hard and go that far with the “indulgent” nutritional stats, I’ll take the lox and eggs Sunday brunch special instead, thanks. Strong coffee with that, please, and toast the everything bagel.

But that baking powder–this is exactly the kind of unbalanced proportion that novice bakers assume must be correct, since it was in a printed recipe. It should really set an alarm bell off in your head. Why so much for so little flour?

The reason given in the article is so that you don’t need to use eggs. Well, what’s wrong with using eggs in a baking recipe? To me, that’s a really bad trade. Even one egg would let you cut the baking powder way down, maybe to a teaspoon or teaspoon and a half for three cups of flour. Vegans could use flax meal soaked in water, or tofu, or a combination, as an egg susbstitute to get more lift with less sodium. You could also use significantly less fat for the flour and lighten it up calorie-wise, and it would still be crunchy on the outside and tender inside.

Even without the egg or egg substitutes, you could probably get as much rise as you’re going to want for scones with a single spoonful of baking powder or soda. Did the LA Times test kitchen even try, or did they too gloss over the odd proportions and figure that [I’m guessing, I haven’t actually checked] because it was in a bunch of older American cookbooks that way, that they really needed that much baking powder, and then extra salt? The no-eggs-needed argument makes me think those recipes probably stemmed from the Great Depression, when eggs were dearer and baking powder looked like a good cheap substitute.

But back to scones here. If there’s something that can distract me from the dream that is Nova lox, it’s probably something like the following for brunch (but I still want the hot coffee).

So here’s my version, considerably lightened up, and pretty too. You can get 8 fairly large but not leaden wedges out of this, which pats out to a 12-inch round. It takes only 2 rather than 3 cups of flour, skips the added salt, most of the sugar and a good bit of the fat as compared with the LA Times versions, and adds some glamor in the form of actual fruit.

It also features sour cream or labaneh as substitute for part of the butter. The sour cream has enough actual flavor to make adding salt unnecessary, but it has less butterfat than butter. The acidity also helps the baking soda do its thing, and the baking soda has plenty of lift. About 200 mg sodium, 30 g carb with berries and turbinado sugar pressed into the top before baking, and 7 to 8 g total fat per eighth, probably 4 g or so of that saturated. Not fabulous but at least reasonable, and you won’t feel like you’d eaten an airline danish afterward. Eat something non-baked for breakfast along with it–my grandmother would have insisted on half a grapefruit, but tomatoes and egg white omelets are also good brunch fare. And make the coffee strong.

Pressing frozen blackberries into the scone doughFrozen blackberries pressed in

A few last cooking notes: It’s important to add the berries still frozen, NOT thawed, so they don’t just mush and turn the whole thing blueish gray from the first. Unless you’re using blueberries, frozen are easier than fresh ones to press into the dough without mashing them. And bake this until it’s really seriously deep-golden brown so you get a good crunch out of it. If you don’t separate the wedges before baking it’ll be more muffiny inside, but that can be pretty good too.

Blackberry Scones

  • 2 c flour
  • 1 t. baking soda (bonus: it’s also cheaper than baking powder, and it doesn’t lose its oomph after a few months)
  • 1/4. c (4T or 1/2 stick) unsalted butter or margarine, cold but not frozen, cut into 1/2-1″ chunks
  • dollop of sour cream or labaneh, which happen to last very well in the fridge
  • 2 large eggs
  • very small drizzle of half-and-half or milk as needed, just enough to get the dough to come together if it hasn’t already
  • 1-1.25 c. frozen blackberries, raspberries or blueberries, or a mixture, or else about 1 c. fresh blueberries
  • 1 T. turbinado sugar (“Sugar in the Raw” or coarse-grained brown sugar) for sprinkling on top

Preheat oven to 425 F. Prepare a baking sheet or a double layer of foil the size of a cutting board. Pulse the flour and baking soda just a couple of times with cold butter or margarine in the food processor (yes, I said it. If you actually don’t have a food processor, you can just squeeze the flour and butter together with your fingers until you get coarse pea-sized lumps, then blend in everything else with your hands until it just makes a dough. It’ll work, even if it’s a little messy, though that might be fun too). Add the eggs and labaneh or sour cream, pulse three or four times more, until the mixture just barely comes together as a dough. It might be in bits, you don’t want it so processed that it’s all stuck together in a big ball. Open the food processor and feel the dough–if it presses together and is moist but not gooey, you’ve got it. If it’s a bunch of sandy dryish pellets, which it probably won’t be, you need to add a very small drizzle of milk or cream and pulse again.

Quickly dump out the contents of the food processor straight onto the ungreased foil, and press the mound together lightly. Either press it all down to about 1/2 inch thick with your hands or put a sheet of plastic wrap on top and roll the dough into a flat round with just a few strokes–you don’t want to knead it, just push it together and flatten it a little. With a knife or better yet, a pizza cutter, divide the circle into 8 wedges–you can lift them off the foil and spread them out with space in between at this point, or leave them in a circle. (You get more crust with option A).

Press berries into the top of the scones–be decadent about it (this is easier if you keep the wedges together or separate them only after this step). Sprinkle on the turbinado sugar and slip the pan or foil into the hot oven. Bake for about 20-25 minutes until you can smell the scones, they have a deep golden brown crust, and the berries are bubbling. Let the scones cool a few minutes before serving–because of the sugar and berries, you may need a large, wide-blade knife or spatula to unstick them from the pan or foil, but they should come off pretty easily. Eat nice!

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