I discovered scones when I was in high school. My mother and I had stopped at Zingerman’s Bakehouse in Ann Arbor. I didn’t know what scones were at the time, but I knew they were delightful as soon as I tried one. Sweet and light, a cross between bread and cookies. They were a miracle, and I wanted more.
I found a few recipes to try out, and I started baking. I baked scones on Saturday mornings. I baked them at my friends’ houses. I got up early and baked them before school or work so I could deliver them to hungry acquaintances while the scones were still warm and fluffy.
When they’re perfect, scones are golden, sweet wedges. Like miniature cakes, they have moist and springy insides. On the outside, the crusts are beautifully toasted. They can be accompanied by butter, jam, cream or cream cheese.
Scones aren’t terribly difficult to bake, and they are delectable. They are in the same realm of baking as pie crusts. The ideal version is light and fluffy, and it can be difficult to achieve.
Some kind of fat, usually butter or lard, is worked into the flour mixture until it resembles crumbs. It can be worked for ages, as long as no liquid is added. The moment liquid is added, like eggs or water, the dough can start toughening up. The best results are when as little mixing is done as possible. That is the only halfway complicated thing about making scones.
I like them best when they are straight out of the oven. Then they steam when I break them open. The butter I like to slather on melts and runs over my fingers. They emit enticing scents throughout the house. Even after they cool down, though, their delectable flavor remains.
Scones can come in any number of flavors and shapes. I’ve made plain scones, orange scones, jam scones and many more. One of my favorites, especially during the winter months, is a cranberry-orange-pecan scone. Cranberries can work surprisingly well with sweet baked goods, considering how they are intensely bitter and tart.
My first voyage into making this particular kind of scone was after encountering cranberries in the wild. I was taking a class on aquatic plants with Eastern Michigan University’s own Gary Hannan, and one of the plants we found on our field trips was a large cranberry. I was fascinated by how the fruits were large but the plants themselves looked delicate, with tiny leaves.
So, of course, I made cran-orange scones for my class. Scones are adaptable to so many flavors and so many occasions. They might seem perfect for an elaborate English tea, but I tend to find they work well for breakfast, snacks or special occasions. Anytime, really. Cranberry, orange and pecan is a combination that balances and showcases the tang of the cranberries, the sweetness of the orange and the nuttiness of pecan. Eating them on a winter afternoon feels almost like a vacation from the cold and snow.
Cranberry Orange Pecan Scones
½ cup chopped cranberries
¼ cup sugar, plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup butter
3 tablespoons orange juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon zested orange peel (optional)
½ cup chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
The cranberries are the first thing. Either fresh or frozen cranberries will work. They should be chopped up, and then mixed with 2 tablespoons of sugar. Set aside for about five minutes so those two ingredients can get acquainted.
Meanwhile, start with the dry ingredients. Mix the remaining sugar, flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Add the butter. I usually chop it up into tablespoon increments to make the next part easier. The butter has to be worked into the flour mixture. This can be done with a pastry blender. If you don’t have one handy, there are two easy solutions: use a fork to mash up the butter or, if the butter is slightly soft, you can get right in there with your hands. The goal is to integrate the butter with the flour mixture until it resembles bread crumbs.
When that stage has been completed, make a dip in the center of the flour mixture. Put the eggs, orange juice and vanilla (and zested orange peel, if you are including it) in the dip. Use a fork to whip up the eggs and orange juice, then fold the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Stir just until the dough holds together for a lighter scone. Then use your hands to shape it. I usually find I need to fold the dough over once or twice to make certain all of the last crumbs are picked up.
Shape it into a flat circle about nine inches in diameter. Place on a greased baking sheet, and cut into wedges. Bake for 20 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out completely clean. Serve warm.
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