Years ago, my parents and I travelled through the Cotswolds. When my father received his credit card bill,, he marvelled that we could have spent so many pounds (in weight and money) on tea and scones. When in England . . .
Really, is there anything more quintessentially English than a cream tea?
Last week, I went to The Ritz to celebrate a dear friend's 50th birthday. The Ritz is famous for their afternoon tea; so much so that you have to book, sometimes months ahead, for a reservation. The colors are all cream and gold, and they bring everyone an individual silver tea service -- with a tiered tower of treats to share. On the ground level are the sandwiches: smoked salmon, egg mayonnaise, ham and cheese. On the top level are the little pastries and chocolate cake. But the true centerpiece of the ritual is the plate of scones, with the obligatory china pots of clotted cream and jam on the side.
Americans and Brits have both been known to ask: What is the difference between a biscuit and a scone? And although I've tried many recipes going under each of these titles, I don't think there is an answer to this question . . . precisely because there is no definitive recipe for either the biscuit or the scone. Really, it's just a matter of language. The essential ingredients are flour, butter/shortening, sugar and a leavening agent -- but the liquid ingredient might be buttermilk, whole milk or cream. The amount of sugar can vary a lot, and as a general rule I would say that scones have more sugar than biscuits -- but I've eaten exceptions to that rule, too. Both biscuits and scones can be cut into rounds, or they can be dropped by a spoon or cut into triangles.
Ritz scones are cut into rounds, and they have what I suspect is an egg glazed top. They are soft, even slightly doughy, with a fine crumb -- and dense, but not heavy. I would have asked for the recipe, but I couldn't get up the nerve. This is the sort of place that won't even give you a doggie bag, and I DID ask for that. The birthday girl had to secret away the left-over scones in a napkin and take them home in her handbag. We had to leave behind, with some regret, the pastries that we couldn't manage. They just weren't hardy enough for handbag transportation.
I have never been able to duplicate the Ritz sort of scone at home, no matter how many recipes I've tried.
For home use, though, I am fond of a recipe that is attributed to Claridge's -- one of the other famous places to take tea in London. It is a more rustic kind of scone, but also very delicious. It lends itself well to add-ins; so while raisins or currants are traditional, you can feel free to add nuts, dried berries or cherries, candied ginger, the zest of an orange or lemon or any other thing that you fancy.
(from Tea and Crumpets, by Margaret M. Johnson)
3 cups self-rising flour
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup (6 ounces) butter, cold and cut into small pieces
1 cup buttermilk
1 large egg, beaten
1/2 cup raisins
optional: sugar crystals or demerara sugar for the tops
Preheat the oven to 350F/175 C. Prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silpat.
Combine the flour and sugar in a food processor. Add the butter, and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. (You can do this by hand, or with a pastry cutter -- but the food processor is faster.)
Transfer the mixture to a large bowl, and stir in the buttermilk and egg with a wooden spoon until you have a soft ball of dough. You may need to add slightly more liquid, but try to handle the mixture as lightly as possible. Knead in the raisins.
Divide the dough in half and form each half into a ball. Press each ball down until it is a round disk about 1 inch thick. Then use a serrated knife to cut into wedges -- six or eight, depending on how big you want your scones to be. Sprinkle the tops with sugar.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes.
These will sprawl out a bit, so don't place them too close together on the baking sheet.
Let them cool for about 10 minutes -- but the sooner they are served, the more tender they will be. (Having said that, I heated up one of the left-overs in the microwave this morning and it was still pretty darn good.)
Now the really critical bit -- and here's where the real line between scones and biscuits is drawn.
While American biscuits might be dressed up by butter, honey, jelly or even gravy, an English cream tea calls for the following critical ingredient: clotted cream. If you've never had clotted cream, I can only attempt to describe it -- really, there's nothing else like it. It is thick enough to cling to an upside-down spoon, silky in texture and slightly yellow -- the color of, well, cream. Apparently it is made by simmering cow's milk until a thick layer of cream can be skimmed off the top. It has to be a certain kind of cow, though -- typically a Jersey or Guernsey who has been grazing on grass and clover year-round.
Believe it or not, there are two "methods" for garnishing your scone: Devonshire and Cornish. For the Devonshire method, which I have long subscribed to without ever realizing that it had a proper name, you split your scone in half and then cover each half with a layer of cream and then a topping of jam. The Cornish method is slightly more fat-soaked: first a thick swipe of butter, then the jam, with the clotted cream on top.
And one more thing about scones: even in the pronunciation they are controversial. Americans (and some Brits) say scone in a way that follows typical phonetic rules for pronunciation: scone, with a long o. Many English people will scoff at this pronunciation, though. They prefer to call this tea-time delicacy a sc-ah-n.
Another novelty is the tea party,
an extraordinary meal in that, being offered
to persons that have already dined well,
it supposed neither appetite nor thirst,
and no object but distraction,
no basis but delicate enjoyment.