The Scottish Scone: the ultimate quick bread

I think many people forget that the scone is really a version of bread. It is a simple food that you can rustle up at the last minute if uninvited guests suddenly turn up for tea. They can be served either just with a good butter or butter and jam. The deliciousness lies in everything being freshly produced and good quality. The ultimate local delicacy of the West Country, the Cream Tea, usually includes freshly baked scones served with clotted cream and home-made strawberry jam.

Traditional Scones

There are many, many different recipes for scones. Some recipes use eggs, some don’t. Everybody seems to have a closely guarded secret to make sure their scones are the best. My secret ingredients are free – it is all about confidence and care. I personally don’t use eggs as I view scones as a quick bread – the simpler the better.

Be confident that you will make the best scones and they will be sensational. Care about them, using good quality ingredients, and they will reward you with their deliciousness. If you worry, something will go wrong – perhaps your worry transmits itself through the fingers. I remember my heavy, lumpy offerings when a scone novice. Just keep practising. This recipe for plain scones is pretty fool- proof. THe key is to understand what is happening to the ingredients at each stage of the process. Master that and your scones will always be delicious.

A scone is a form of bread, the core complex carbohydrate of the British diet. Today this humble quick-baked staple food has reached an almost mythical status of importance at the English tea table.

Biscuits, Bread, Buns and Cakes

Evidence of different forms of breads have been present on the domestic English tea table since the early 18th Century. Bread was the staple food in the ecosystem of the English home, holding a relationship with the home brewing of ale as the everyday drink and the consequential production of yeast as the main raising agent for breads, buns and cakes. We talk of toasted tea cakes which are spongy bread buns with spices and dried fruits, muffins that are yeasty flat buttermilk breads, and tea breads, more of a loaf cake, this time flavoured with dried fruits, spices and tea. We usually eat all of these with a thick layer of butter.

The scone is similar to the Scottish Bannock. Scone is used as a term to cover a wide range of fairly plain small cakes (the term cake being a reference to a small round entity of foodstuffs pressed together – think oatcakes and fishcakes). The frontiers between the terms cake, biscuit, bread and bun are indistinct.

The 1861 edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management makes no mention of the scone. There are numerous recipes for similar quick-breads (breads that do not use yeast as the leavening agent). You may find these variously described: Light Buns (with dried fruits and spices), Soda Bread (no butter), and Nice Breakfast Cakes, (no butter but enriched with eggs).

Mrs Beeton’s recipe for Soda Biscuits is probably the nearest that I can find for what I call a traditional scone in terms of ingredients although it has a hefty amount of sugar.

A Common Theme for scones and quick-bread recipes

All the recipes for these quick breads carry the instruction to work quickly and lightly when using bicarbonate of soda or baking powder and to get the items into the hot oven as quickly as possible otherwise they become ‘heavy’. Unlike breads made with yeast where you want to knead the dough to release the gluten in the flour and let it slowly rise and knock back, the use of chemical raising agents need a different and very light touch.

Scones, soda biscuits or soda breads are quick and easy to make. This is advantageous if you want to bake an almost instant bread. From the initial thought to the finished food on the table only requires about 20 minutes. There is no need for advance preparation (I always have flour, butter, baking powder and milk). Ideally you want to eat them on the day of baking. Old-fashioned bakeries will dispose of any unsold scones at the end of each day.

There is no reason why you cannot make your scones over a fire. Just use a heavy frying pan or a cast iron pot as  they just need a high even heat. The more familiar griddle bread is made this way. Recipes are less likely to include butter.

Drop scones or Scotch pancakes are another variation. These thick mini pancakes are cooked in a pan or on a hot griddle plate. They are similar to American waffles.

The scone is very much a product of the home and defintiely a food to eat at a dining table, rather than a grand drawing room. Serve thm with a thick layer of cream or good farmhouse butter if you can get it. No other bread-type food is required as one or two scones are going to completely fill you up.