This blog post is dedicated to Olga Boikess, a food journalist from the USA whom I met in May 2016. Olga came to my home and wanted “make scones the way they were made by Vanessa Bell at Charleston”. Her request has opened up my eyes as to how recipes evolve.
My first step was to read the Bloomsbury Group Cookbook: recipes for Life, Love and Art by Jans Ondaatje Rolls. Under the heading of Savoury Scones, is a recollection of the kitchen at Charleston by John and Diana Higgens , the children of Grace Higgens (née Germany), housekeeper at Charleston for over 50 years:
“ Tea was at five o’clock, and at about half past four, the kettle was set to boil on the Aga …. Sometimes, Vanessa would make scones to go with Grace’s seed cake. Standing in at the table in the poor lit kitchen with its concrete floor, she would hook her rings onto a convenient nail by the sink and slowly, carefully, sieve flour into a bowl, rubbing in the minimum of butter. Her scones were plain, unglazed and surprisingly good, like the perfect cottage loaves that her sister Virginia (Woolf), impractical as she too was, taught her young cook Louie Mayer to make.”
Paradoxically, the two scone recipes listed in this cookbook did not followed the recognised technique for scone making employed by Vanessa Bell in the above description!! See below.
Savoury Drop Scones
Vanessa Bell’s daughter’s recipe
for savoury drop scones
¼ lb plain flour *1 teaspoon baking powder * salt * pepper * 1½ oz margarine or butter * Just under ½ gill water * 4oz grated Parmezan (sic) * (Lard, for frying)
Melt marg & water in a saucepan. Sieve flour and baking powder together. Add (pinch of) salt & pepper. Stir in marge & water & cheese. Fry spoonfuls in hot lard. Serve hot. (Makes 16 – 18)
Drop Scones are also known as Scotch Pancakes here in the UK. They are delicious served hot, fresh from the pan and drowning in butter. The drop scone is like a thick mini pancake.
Helen Anrep’s Soda Scones
” To four pounds of flour add two large teaspoonfuls of salt, half an ounce of soda,
and a quart of milk, in to which half an ounce of cream of tartar has been well stirred.
Mix the whole well but lightly. Cut into round cakes and bake in a quick oven, or on an
iron frying pan over a clear fire. About 15 minutes are sufficient. The scones should
rise well; they need to be turned once. Wheaten meal cakes can be made in the same
way and make an excellent breakfast bread, both delicious and nutritious.”
I found a more up-to-date Soda Scone Recipe at Oaken.co.uk, who hand-make cast iron griddle plates (another item for my wish list) under the heading of ‘Buttermilk Scones’. I did not achieve the lovely hot/warm stable heat that I would have got with a cast iron plate – thus they got a little burnt! The pictures below are of my soda scones cooked in the frying pan.
I baked half the dough in the pan and the remainder in the oven. Despite slightly burning the pan scones, I preferred their texture over those baked in the oven. I think we often forget that our equipment will have a part to play and I wonder if this is how butter began to be added to the oven scones to provide a richness that I found lacking in my oven-baked soda scones, despite being fluffy and light?
My ‘traditional’ Scones
The scone recipe that I follow does follow Vanessa’s technique of rubbing the butter into the well-sieved flour (the rubbing in can be done in less than 30 seconds using a food processor). Then deftly fold in milk/ buttermilk/yoghurt/appropriate liquid into the crumb mixture in a few mindful movements and work your dough as little as possible. The key for me is to follow a technique that embraces the chemical reactions that occur during the process.
My new discovery! Griddle Bread (or is it a large soda scone?)
Similar to the Oakden Soda Scone recipe, this ‘bread’ has baking powder (in the self-raising flour) rather than Bicarbonate of Soda. Possibly this is closer to the Margaret Anrep recipe that calls for the addition of Cream of Tartar ( found in home-made baking powder) to the milk which almost ‘turns’ it into buttermilk (a future blog will cover the nuances between different raising agents used in baking!). It takes 20 minutes from my first thought to taking the first mouthful of warm bread – pretty much as for a scone recipe. I have adapted the recipe to use wholemeal flour and you may wish to experiment with adding some herbs or spices.
225g good quality Wholemeal Self Raising Flour (or 220g flour/2teasps baking powder)
1 teaspoon ground Sea Salt
250ml – 300ml buttermilk (or full fat milk with about a tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice added)
Heat your (medium sized) frying pan or iron griddle plate on the hob until the base is evenly hot. Then turn the heat down to about half way. Sieve your flour and salt into a large bowl, add the buttermilk and, in quick strokes with a large metal spoon or palette knife, cut and fold the mixture to form a wet dough ball. Sprinkle some flour into the hot pan. Scoop your wet dough into the pan. If necessary shape slightly with wet hands. Cook for about 8 minutes on each side to make sure it cooks through in the middle, remove from the pan and cool on a rack. ENJOY with some good quality salted butter or even thick cream and home made jam.
This Griddle Bread could easily be cut into small rounds before baking rather than a large round – perhaps then they would be called scones! My next test is to bake the dough in the oven to see how it varies and whether it is as good as that baked in the pan.
Please let me know how you get on and your thoughts about transferring from hob to oven and back again. Also – do you have a favourite take on the perfect scone for you? I’d love to hear from you. And, if you have a spare cast iron pan or plate, please let me know!