I hope that you have Netflix (or Amazon Prime or PBS) and watched the one season of The Great British Bake Off (strangely changed to “The Great British Baking Show” on the streaming services) that is available. I hope that you loved it as much as I did. If you did not, we probably can’t be friends, and I’ll just let you know that there’s a very good scone recipe at the bottom of this post. If you haven’t watched it, I strongly encourage you to do so if you have any interest in cooking shows, cooking competition shows, baking, or British culture. This is a great long read for getting into all the reasons why it’s worth your time.
But simply, it’s a baking competition that takes place in the English countryside, wherein each week one person gets kicked off until there’s a winner. Of perhaps nominal prize money. Each episode/week is a different baking theme (cakes, pastries, bread, etc), and three competitions or “bakes” comprise each episode. What pulled me in was how refreshing it was to watch a competition where people wanted to do well for the sake of doing well. Not for a large prize. Not for fame. Not to beat other people. The one incident where someone justifiably was angered by another’s actions turned into an incident where the competitor was regretful and remorseful for letting his anger get to him. You root for all of the bakers as you so happily watch them root for each other.
Top Chef, this is not. Especially because viewers have an opportunity to really learn a lot about baking techniques and history. And like most Old World baking canons, there are so many categories and types that we don’t see on this side of Atlantic and/or terminology we no longer use—although Harry Potter fans might recognize the names of many. My brain and heart gobbled it all up.
Likely related to all the lush English greenery and stately architecture seen on the show, I developed a craving for a proper cream tea. So began a Google rabbit hole to suss out a good scone recipe. A good British scone recipe. I’ve done afternoon tea at a few places here in the city, but I’ve never been anywhere worth falling for. Making my own scones would mean skipping the dry finger sandwiches and focusing on the main event of scones lavished with clotted cream. I would be able to eat as many as I wanted to, while watching some bakes, and most importantly, in my pajamas.
I’ve previously fallen prey to believing American culinary sorts who will tell you that a British scone is similar to an American biscuit. That’s wrong. An American scone is similar to an American biscuit, just with more sugar. British scones rely more on baking powder for leavening and contain eggs. America’s Test Kitchen also points out that British scones contain less butter because they are meant as vehicles for things like butter and cream. Less butter also makes British scones less crumbly and flaky. They are more tea cake than tea (American) biscuit.
After confirming that my local grocery store sold clotted cream, I was all set on making the ATK recipe. That was until some lingering rabbit hole Googling brought me (full circle moment) to Paul Hollywood’s recipe. Paul Hollywood is one of the judges on The Great British Bake-Off. He’s the smarmy, bad-cop-style judge with the good poker face and air of skepticism. But underneath, he’s an accomplished baker who likes to be surprised and impressed by the Bake Off’s competitors. His recipe was quite similar to the ATK one, with the huge exception of using bread/strong flour. Whether British or American, scones, biscuits, pancakes—anything that needs to rise but without yeast—needs a light hand to ensure gluten formation is at a minimum. Gluten = chew and toughness to airy quickbreads and cakes. Smarmy Paul sets forth with flour that is extra high in gluten! WTF. I had to try. To prove he was a phony or a mad genius.
Mad genius. My scones easily doubled in height and revealed the risen break of a proper scone. They were light and a bit fluffy, yet had the sturdiness necessary to hold lashings of cream. They were just sweet enough to be worthy of teatime but were the ideal foundation for the fruity punch of my chosen jam and the richness of the clotted cream.
Some notes on the cream. I’m a believer in clotted cream over Devonshire cream. They are not the same. Clotted cream has a higher fat content (more than 50%) and there’s a stickiness to its texture. It’s got an undeniable dairy, almost metallic, tang, a unique product that straddles cream and butter, and one that I believe few people would enjoy eating straight. Seeing as how I used about 95% of the jar for only four scones, I might be one of those few.
Devonshire cream (less than 50% milk fat) has a lighter mouth feel and is milder in flavour, more reminiscent of thick whipped cream. I believe that most afternoon teas that claim to give you clotted cream (in North America) are actually giving you Devonshire cream. It’s easier to find, and it’s also easier to cut with the more economical whipping cream (which I think a lot of North American establishments are also guilty of doing). That being said, I’m a believer in the Devon method for cream and jam application: cream first, then jam. If you like the reverse, Cornwall style, well, again, we probably can’t be friends.
Paul Hollywood’s Scone Recipe
I followed the recipe exactly, including weighing all measurements, but I did halve it to no ill effect to get four large, round scones. The oddities to this recipe are the use of bread flour (which Paul calls strong flour) and his use of the technique called “chaffing.” The supposed golden rule of making scones (and biscuits) is that you want to handle the dough as little as possible to avoid gluten formation and keep the scones tender. Bread flour has a higher protein (gluten) content than all purpose flour and chaffing requires you to lightly fold, thus handle, the dough a number of times. Chaffing helps add air, but I have no clue as to how his use of bread flour avoids toughness. I have no need to question because they came out extremely tender.
The recipe allows you to re-roll scraps once, but as I got the number of scones that I needed from the first cut, I decided to bake miniature scones cut from the scraps. They’re in my freezer waiting for inspiration, perhaps to be broken up into a soup, or to top a sundae a la Chikalicious.
As well, I baked off two large scones and the minis immediately, and I froze the two remaining large ones. I put the unbaked scones on a parchment-lined plate in the freezer until they were frozen solid, which takes about an hour. I then wrapped each in plastic wrap and placed them in a freezer bag. A few days later (clotted cream is only good for five days once opened), I baked those directly from frozen, adding maybe a minute or two of bake time. No difference in flavour, but they didn’t rise quite as high. I didn’t try this time, but I know a common workaround is to preheat the oven 25 degrees higher than stated, put in your frozen scones, then immediately turn down the oven to the regular baking temperature. That blast of extra heat is supposed to help kickstart the rise in frozen dough.