Cooking Off the Cuff: The Only Scone Recipe You -- or Anybody Else -- Will Ever Need

Its plainness makes it a perfect base for the traditional toppings of jam, butter and spreadable cream scone.
03/04/2015 10:12 am ET Updated May 04, 2015

Some time back in the twentieth century, Jackie and I were having afternoon tea at one of London's swanky hotels and were particularly struck by how good the scones were - even apart from the splendid jam and cream they were served with. So I asked for the recipe. The word came back from the chef: "Oh, we use Delia's."

I don't think the name "Delia" resonates in the USA as it does in Britain. Here, if someone spoke of "Martha's recipe" or "Julia's recipe" there would be no uncertainty about Martha's or Julia's identity. Likewise, in the UK "Delia" can mean only Delia Smith, who has been generating television and radio programs, books and articles about cooking since the late 1960s. Everybody in Britain learned to cook from Delia Smith, or so it seems, and her recipes have the reputation of being trustworthy and carefully devised - like Martha Stewart's or Julia Child's.

The scone is a much-abused thing. Too many store-bought versions, and even those baked at home, are flawed (that's putting it kindly). They are often (select all that apply): too sweet; metallic-tasting from excessive leavening agents; too salty; not salted enough; too complicated in flavor; too big; underbaked; overbaked; underbaked inside and overbaked outside; stale. Some of these flaws are matters of personal taste, but others are the result of bad cooking or bad recipes.

I like the kind of scone Jackie (who is British) introduced me to years ago: a small cylindrical biscuit (in the American sense) that is slightly sweet, slightly buttery, slightly crisp outside and warm but not doughy inside. It tastes of wheat and has enough salt to enhance the butter and sugar and, yes, it has a barely perceptible tang of baking powder. Its plainness makes it a perfect base for the traditional toppings of jam, butter and spreadable cream, but it's perfectly nice on its own, though I can't think why anyone would want to eat an ungarnished scone. (I admit the virtues of scones containing a few raisins or dried currants, but these are a somewhat different, slightly richer thing.)

In terms both of (my) personal taste and of its objective excellence as a recipe, Ms. Smith's recipe nails it. Still, as I cooked I adjusted it, mainly to bring it into conformity with the ingredients I keep in my kitchen and that other Americans are likely to have in theirs. Here's what I did to make eight two-inch (5 cm) scones, enough for a teatime snack for four people - or, come summer, an almost-traditional strawberry shortcake for six (figuring three half scones per portion drizzled with strawberry juices and topped with sugared berries and whipped cream).

First of all, I heated the oven to 425 degrees F or a little higher (say, 220 C). In a bowl, I whisked together half a pound (225 g or a scant two cups - but please try to weigh your ingredients) of flour (I used a mixture of pastry and all-purpose flours, but all-purpose will work fine), a heaping tablespoon sugar, a quarter teaspoon fine salt and a rounded tablespoon baking powder. (Stick your finger into the mixture and taste it - it shouldn't be overtly salty, but the salt must be noticeable: its flavor will soon be diluted with butter and milk.) Into this, I rubbed 3 tablespoons (40g or 1-1/2 oz) unsalted butter at winter room temperature: not fridge-cold, not soft, but pliable. I suppose I could have done these first two maneuvers in the food processor, but that might have risked creaming the butter into the flour rather than leaving it sandy - which should be your goal. If you're like me, you'll taste the mixture for salt again: this is your last chance. I measured out half a cup (110 ml) of whole milk and, with a rubber spatula, combined about two thirds of it with the dry ingredients. Now I switched to my fingers as a mixing tool and gradually incorporated as much of the remaining milk as I needed to form a soft but not actually sticky dough. I could imagine needing another splash of milk to attain this, but on that occasion it wasn't necessary.

I kneaded briefly and gently to ensure that the dough was homogeneous, but (as with American biscuits) the less you handle the dough the better the result. I dumped the dough out onto the lightly floured counter and pressed it into a sort-of rectangle more than an inch (say, 3 cm) thick, then used a rolling pin to flatten the surface and thin it to roughly 7/8 inch (2.2 cm) or even a little thicker. I used a 2-inch (5 cm) circular cookie cutter to form discs (Ms. Smith is strict about plunging the cutter into the dough rather than turning it, and this is likely to yield a scone that rises vertically rather than at an angle), then lightly kneaded and re-rolled the remaining dough, repeating until I'd formed eight scones: there was very little waste. The scones made from re-rolled dough rose just as well as the first ones I'd formed, but had gnarled surfaces because I really was very careful not to overwork the dough scraps - and you will be just as careful, I'm sure.

Without any further tinkering (no brushing them with egg or milk), I arranged the scones on a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet and baked them for 25 minutes, turning the baking sheet after 10 minutes and checking progress after 15 and 20. If you have a convection oven, expect them to be done sooner. You're looking for top and bottom surfaces to be toasty brown and sides to be more of a pale tan. The crust will be delicately crisp.

Let them cool for a few minutes before cutting or breaking them in half and serving with butter and jam; I'm assuming that American cooks, like me, have no access to clotted cream or other cream thick enough to spread (whipped cream doesn't cut it here). Those of you who do can spoon some on over the jam. (Leftovers can be refrigerated or frozen and reheated, but do not expect the same perfection.) The first scone you eat should be just warm enough to melt the butter but should not be uncomfortably hot. Inevitably, the second round will be cooler, which is fine by me: I actually prefer the butter not to melt into the scone, but that is a matter of taste - just like my fondness for these, the plainest of scones.

  • Ready for the oven: The especially gnarled ones are made with re-formed scraps of dough
    Photograph by Edward Schneider.
    Photograph by Edward Schneider.
  • Waiting for butter and jam - and clotted cream if you're lucky enough to have some
    Photograph by Edward Schneider.
    Photograph by Edward Schneider.