For a quintessentially Irish treat, nothing beats a freshly baked, fluffy scone. It was “Sally O’Brien and the way she might look at you” that used to attract the tourists. Nowadays tourists are flocking to experience wild coasts, ancient ruins and Irish food. Though subtle culinary differences do exist between us and our close neighbours in Britain. Rather than high tea, Irish scones conjure images of a farmhouse kitchen, a wooden table and a ginormous pot of tae.
When I worked the morning shift in a kitchen, the scones were in the oven within 10 minutes of my arrival. All I had to do was crack some eggs, then pour them, along with milk, into the dry scone mixture (which I had prepared the day before). Every B&B in the country might make a fresh batch each morning if they knew how easy scones are to make.
Truly Irish scones are made in the fashion of white soda bread; combining plain flour, bread soda, salt and buttermilk. While delicious and fluffy when fresh, they are not as light and crumbly (and don’t stay as fresh) as a scone made with butter.
Bakers are divided on what constitutes the best scone recipe. Each ingredient can be substituted with an alternative, but with varying results. Once, while eavesdropping on two ladies swapping tips on scones, I was surprised to hear them agree their success was due to the use of strong flour. Both agreed a very hot oven (220 degrees) gave the scones a good start. In true jeopardy style, they monitored the scones, reducing the temperature as soon as a tiny frill developed around the foot (before the lids burned). With a hot oven, these scones do pop nicely. The raising agent used is baking powder, which reacts with the milk and egg to give a wonderful rise (not the lopsided Tower of Pisa that occurs when buttermilk is used in this recipe).
The most important thing to remember when making scones is to handle the dough with the lightest touch. Never ever knead the dough or the scones will be tough. Chefs dip the scone cutter in some flour before stamping out each scone. It’s a handy trick when the moist scone dough might otherwise get stuck inside the cutter.
Basting scones with egg yolk gives a glistening finish (but you can leave them bare or use milk or an egg/milk glaze). And yes, scones do freeze. Once defrosted, give them a short blast in the oven to soften them up. Delicious served with freshly whipped cream (or butter) and jam.
Makes 8 large scones
350g Strong white flour (or plain flour)
1tbs baking powder
Generous pinch salt
60g cold butter, diced small
1 egg (plus an extra yolk for glazing)
1. Preheat oven to 220 degrees (fan). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper (or dust well with flour).
2. In a large mixing bowl, sieve together the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder and salt).
3. Rub the butter in by hand until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs (I prefer to use a food processor for this step).
4. Mix together the egg and milk.
5. Make a well in the centre of the dry mixture, then pour in three-quarters of the liquid, lightly stirring in both directions to combine. Add the remaining liquid, using it to draw in any excess flour from the sides of the bowl (avoid overmixing).
6. Flour your hands and tip the soft, raggy dough on to a very well-floured work surface. Shape and gently pat the dough to an even 2cm thickness.
7. Use a 7cm round scone cutter to stamp out scones, transfer them to the lined baking sheet and brush the tops with egg yolk to glaze.
8. Bake on the middle shelf of the preheated oven, first at 220 degrees for eight to 10 minutes (for large scones) until they rise upwards, without burning, then immediately reduce the heat to 160 degrees for another 10 minutes to bake fully.
9. Once baked, remove from the oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool.
For sweeter scones, add four tablespoons of sugar to the dry mixture, or a handful of sultanas or frozen raspberries.