Thursday, January 16, 2014

Romancing the Scone

A few months ago, I had taken advantage of my wife and children’s visit during my longer-than-planned Japanese trip (the purpose of which I may go into… someday) to take a “long belated-birthday celebration weekend” getaway to Hokkaido. It was there we had visited the farm that produced the lovely lavender honey my Auntie gave me earlier in the year, which I had enjoyed on my actual birthday.

We purchased quite a few jars. And since she had tasted the first sample, Namiko wanted to eat the honey with scones, confiding to me that she almost couldn’t wait until our holiday was over and we would return to the small rental flat in Kokubunji where I can bake her up a batch.

I thought to myself, why wait? And we were fortunate that the lovely Japanese couple running the bed and breakfast at which we were staying granted our unorthodox request to borrow their kitchen for an hour in the afternoon to make scones, which they at the time did not serve. We of course purchased all of the ingredients for our spontaneous baking endeavour, and invited the couple to our afternoon tea as a small “thank you” for their generosity.

Suffice to say, the couple felt that they were well-rewarded, with the elder man paying a very fine complement in Japanese for my “flaky golden treasures” that were “befitting for the Emperor himself.”

“In other words,” my wife said in response to my translation, “your scones are ‘fit for a king’… or should that be queen? Namiko’s eyes flickered as she shared my knowing smile that told me that we were both thinking about the now-no-longer-secret origin of the recipe.

Four years prior, one of my old college mates from London was making his first trip to the states, and was planning to visit my family in Daly City during the first and last leg of his week-long stint in California. Since he would be spending a few weeks with friends in Boston and New York before he would trek out west, Namiko thought it would be fun to surprise him with a British tea on that Sunday afternoon. So we planned a spread with fresh strawberries, finger sandwiches and, of course, scones with clotted cream. Not happy with the American version of scones from our favorite Bay Area bakery, I decided to make them from scratch following the guidance of an old British cookbook I had acquired during my early-college years (and that I had still retained mainly for the shepherd’s pie recipe, which is spot-on). The instructions made the scones seem relatively easy to make, which I planned to do on Sunday so they would be freshly baked upon my mate’s arrival. Best laid plans…

In short, the scones didn’t turn out. Long version: Namiko actually tossed one of them out onto the small veranda outside of the dining room window of our second-storey flat, and we watched it bounce into the dumpster beside the parking lot below. If the dumpster was empty, I’m sure we would have heard it bounce a few more times.

So we had a sconeless tea to start off my mate’s visit, but a lovely time was still had by all… even if my so-called “friend” divulged to my family embarrassing stories of a few of our college-day misadventures with the same cheek Namiko used when she related our recent mishap with the “rubber biscuits” I planned to serve with the tea.

“I was wondering about that,” he remarked, noting the obvious deficiency. Then, to Namiko, “I’m surprised you let 'im have a go at baking.”

“Oh, I can’t bake to save my life,” Namiko laughed, “Xum is really quite good at it, when he isn’t making scones, of course…”

“Maybe I can help you out with that, X-Man,” my mate barely annunciated between mouthfuls of cucumber finger sandwiches. He then explained with a grin of admiration that his girlfriend back home made an excellent scone.  In fact, she used a recipe given to her by a friend who had a friend who had a cousin who worked at Buckingham Palace, and was thus privy to how they made the scones served at their “royal tea.” I admit I was skeptical of my mate’s claim ( as I am sure you were upon reading the previous sentence), but I did welcome the recipe that he arranged with “his bird” to have delivered to my e-mail later that evening (when morning would hit the U.K.). In return I promised a proper tea with scones when he returned back to the Bay Area after his week-long excursion to L.A. and San Diego.

No longer wanting to leave anything to chance (and perhaps to quickly salvage my once-spotless baking reputation with my wife), I decided to wake up early Monday morning and try out the “royal scone” recipe for breakfast, which the entire family enjoyed with leftover clotted cream and some Shropshire honey my mate brought for us from Fortnum and Mason. Well, “enjoyed" may not be the appropriate word, though it was a definitive improvement over the previous day’s hockey pucks. They did have a good flavor, yet they were a bit dry and crumbly, and not too unlike the passable-but-lackluster scones from the Bay Area bakery (maybe they had "connections" at Buckingham Palace as well?).  What was the point of taking the time and trouble to bake scones from scratch if we end up with the same ones from a shop? That would not do. These scones needed to be better.

Driven by a passion that I now admit bordered on the irrational, I spent the next few nights baking five batches of scones with a slightly tweaked recipe (inspired by my years of successfully making various types of pastries): less baking powder in batch one; more butter in batch two; shortening in batch three (big mistake!), exchanging one of the eggs and some of the milk with full cream in batch four; eliminating the eggs and milk altogether in favor of cream in batch five. Namiko was very tolerant of my current obsession (even during batch three), and both of our workplaces were in what they thought was “breakfast scone heaven” as we shared the overnight leftovers (except for batch three, which we had tossed). And the scones were getting fluffier, tastier, (in a word, better) with each batch (except for batch three), but I wasn’t quite… “there.” For with my first bite of these five batches I immediately had an idea on how to make the scone even better in the next go-round (especially with batch… well, you know).

Surprisingly, no ideas for improvement came to me with the sixth batch, which was rich and dense, but not too heavy -- and had just the right amount of crumble without being dry. However, I couldn’t rule out the possibility of my judgement being affected by possible “baking fatigue.” Then the definitely baking-fatigued Namiko bit through the crisp crust and into the moist tender layers (that I imagine must have melted into the same sweet buttery heaven that I had just experienced), and exclaimed with a mouth full of scone:

"I don’t think I can possibly love you any more than I do right now!”

That was when I knew I had finally perfected the recipe.

That night, my baking efforts were rewarded with a different kind of passion.

And we didn’t share the leftovers with our workmates.

When my British mate returned that Saturday, he was completely awestruck at tea time.

“My god, X-Man!” he exclaimed with the same jovial theatrics he had exhibited for as long as I had known him. “My bird never made her scones taste like that. What the hell did you do?”

Of course, I immediately sent the recipe back to him and his “bird” with my final adjustments; they were the only ones outside my immediate family that I had shared this recipe with… at least at that time. For I had also shared the recipe with the kind Japanese couple at the Hokkaido bed and breakfast as further gratitude for their extra hospitality. The couple in turn offered a significant discount on our stay and on future stays for my allowing them to add the scones as an item on their rotating breakfast menu.

And, as you may have guessed, I am sharing the recipe with you now, to give back for your time spent wading through my latest batch of self-serving claptrap this week. Enjoy.

Scones Daisuki!
(Makes about 16 2-inch scones)

300g (2 cups) flour, plus a little extra for working the dough
55g (1/4 cup) sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
80 g (about 1/3 cup) of cold butter (do not use margarine and heaven forbid put the shortening away!), cut into small cubes
250 ml (1 cup) heavy whipping cream 

  1. In a medium-sized  mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.
  2. Cut in the cold butter (pastry cutter is best; fingers work too, as long as you work quickly so you don’t melt the butter), the mixture should look like cornmeal when you are done.
  3. Add whipping cream, and stir until just moistened (be careful not to overmix).
  4. Turn dough out onto a slightly floured surface and lightly knead it a half-dozen or so times to smooth it out.
  5. Use a rolling pin to flatten it to a ½-inch thickness, and cut with a 2-inch round cookie cutter (a flour-coated drinking glass works in a pinch).
  6. Place cut dough on a lightly greased or parchment-paper-covered cookie sheet, spaced 5 cm apart.
  7. Bake in a 190 degree C (375 degree F) oven for about 13-15 minutes or until golden.
  8. Serve warm with preserves, clotted cream, or our favorite, lavender honey.

I should warn you that these scones are very rich and should be enjoyed occasionally. In fact, the next time I had seen my British mate he was about 10 kilos heavier, and I’m sure it was not due to his long-time penchant for crisp sandwiches. There was a reason the royals allegedly used eggs and milk instead of all this cream and butter, after all. Oh, and the scones' effect on human libido may vary.