In & Out of the Kitchen: Scones fuel thoughts of England
To me, a scone has always been much more than a mere afternoon snack. A warm, flaky scone with clotted cream and strawberry jam is the perfect embodiment of British culture, calling to mind a group of beautifully dressed ladies delicately sipping their tea and exchanging gossip.
My mother was a rabid Anglophile, and I quickly became smitten as well. Together we devoured the books of Jane Austen, and stationed ourselves in front of the TV every Sunday night for Masterpiece Theater’s “Upstairs, Downstairs,” a British soap opera about the Edwardian aristocracy and their servants.
Quite a bit of the action took place around the formal dining table (upstairs) and in the kitchen (downstairs), with much conversation about and consumption of puddings, steak and kidney pies, trifles and mutton.
When I visited England for the first time at the age of 17, I tried as many of these dishes as I could find, with somewhat mixed results. But I loved the scones, and whenever I could scrape up the air fare — which wasn’t very often — I made a pilgrimage to my favorite tea shop in the basement of the Marks and Spencer department store.
In between visits, I collected books of British recipes. They have many excellent scone recipes, but the one I like best is based on one from “The Afternoon Tea Book” by Michael Smith. I’ve included my version of the recipe below for those who want to experience the authentic article.
But even as I experimented with Welsh rarebit and sticky toffee pudding, I didn’t realize that my ties to the UK were going to get much closer. About 15 years ago, I made the mistake of bringing my children with me on a visit to London, and my daughter also fell in love with the people and the culture. She studied at Queen Mary College in London during her junior year and, after graduation, moved there for good.
So a simple scone has a lot of emotional baggage for me. In fact, when I recently turned 60, I decided that the only place I could survive the ordeal was in England. It turned out to be a wonderful day. My daughter and I visited Chawton Cottage, a former home of Jane Austen, and then had a wonderful afternoon tea across the street at an ancient shop called Cassandra’s Cup. (My husband and my daughter’s boyfriend passed the time in a pub several doors down.)
Cassandra’s Cup, named after Austen’s sister, is a beautifully serene place with white wainscoting, lace curtains, a plethora of doilies and an eclectic collection of historic pictures, portraits, posters and maps lining the walls. The cups and saucers are delightfully and deliberately unmatched, and the scones are served hot from the oven. It was one of those peak experiences in life that I thought could never be duplicated.
As it turns out, I’m going to return to Marks and Spencer much sooner than I had thought possible. My daughter called on her birthday to tell me that she was engaged to her boyfriend — a guy from Newcastle. So we’re leaving soon to start planning the wedding, which of course will be over there. And I’m guessing there will be a lot of scones involved in the planning process.
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons cold butter
5 tablespoons milk
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Sift the flour with the other dry ingredients and then gently cut the butter into the flour until completely blended. Mix the egg and milk and add to the flour and butter.
Lightly mix with a fork, turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead very lightly for less than a minute. Roll out to approximately 3⁄4 inch thick. Stamp out with a 2-inch cutter or cut into triangles.
Brush the tops with lightly beaten egg, milk or cream. Bake toward the top of the oven for about 10 minutes, until golden brown. Cool slightly on a wire rack and serve immediately with clotted cream and jam.