BRITISH SUMMERTIME’S MOST CONTROVERSIAL CAKE
I don’t know what it is about the early summer in the UK but it’s always the time that I feel most proud of being British. Maybe it’s our stoicism in the face of a heatwave and 40+ degree temperatures on the tube (the recent five days in June!), our blinding optimism that this will continue until September (it finished after five days), the fact that the countryside is just so green and perfect at the moment – or maybe it’s because it’s the time when quintessential British events and traditions are everywhere – from festivals and fetes to punting and picnics.
As a baker, I am delighted to say that bread, pastries and cakes are an essential part of many of these occasions – and indeed, this summer our products have become a fixture at many of the country’s leading seasonal events, including Ascot, Wimbledon, Lords and the Henley Regatta. We are supplying a wide range of items including brioche burger buns, fresh fruit tarts, cupcakes and meringues – but it did get me thinking about some of our more traditional British products at these traditionally British events.
Cream teas – scones with jam and clotted cream – is a delightful summer treat and we provided scones for the Queen’s Club Tennis Championship tournament – but where did the scone and the cream tea ideas originate?
There is actually quite a bit of dispute over the origin of the scone – and indeed how to pronounce it – but generally, most historians favour a Scottish connection as the first known print reference, in 1513, is from a Scottish poet. Scones are however, related to the ancient Welsh tradition of cooking small round yeast cakes (leavened breads) on bakestones, and later on griddles. One claim, probably not the best, says that scones are named for the Stone (scone) of Destiny, a stone upon which Scottish kings once sat when they were crowned (the Abbey of Scone can still be found, upriver from Perth; but the Stone of Destiny was long ago removed to Westminster Abbey). Other contenders include the Gaelic “sgonn” (rhymes with gone), a shapeless mass or large mouthful; the Dutch “schoonbrot,” fine white bread; and the closely-related German “sconbrot,” fine or beautiful bread. The Oxford English Dictionary favours the latter two. Originally, scones were made with oats, shaped into a large round, scored into four or six wedges (triangles) and griddle-baked over an open fire (later, a stovetop). With the advent of oven baking, the round of dough was cut into wedges and the scones were baked individually. Over time this oats-based recipe was refined to become the more familiar mix of flour, sugar, baking powder, butter, milk and eggs – and items such as sultanas were added.
According to the Cream Tea Society, afternoon tea was first ‘invented’ in 1840 at Woburn Abbey by the seventh Duchess of Bedford. It was the custom then to mostly just have breakfast and dinner and as she ate dinner late – at 8pm – she started to order tea and treats to her room when peckish in the late afternoon.
This soon evolved into a full-blown social affair, with its own dress code and etiquette, as she invited friends to join her in the sitting room at her country and London houses. By the middle of the 19th century afternoon tea was an everyday occurrence for the upper classes and consisted of sandwiches, cake – and of course scones with jam and cream.
The cream tea itself flourished in the West Country following the tourism boom in the 1850s, brought about by the opening of the railways. Capitalising on wonderful local ingredients, clotted cream and strawberry jam soon became the essential partners for scones in a cream tea. And ever since then, people have been debating which to add first. In my view it’s jam, always jam. Jam was made for spreading; cream for dolloping!
Nowadays scones can come in all shapes and sizes and flavours, both sweet and savoury, but I don’t think you can beat the traditional plain or fruit scone. Ours are fluffy and as British as they come: our flour, milk, butter and eggs are all from the UK and my secret ingredient – a pinch of salt – comes from Maldon in Essex.
If you haven’t enjoyed a scone in a while – there’s no excuse. Here’s my simple recipe:
TRADITIONAL BRITISH SCONES
Prep time: 10 mins
Cooking time: 15 mins
Makes approximately nine scones using a 2.5 inch cutter
- 2 cups flour
- 4 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 6 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2/3 cup whole milk
- 1 large egg
- 1/2 cup sultanas (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F/220 degrees C.
- In a food processor, pulse the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar a couple times to combine. Add the butter and pulse 7-10 times until the butter is completely distributed. You shouldn’t see any chunks of butter, and the mixture should have a sandy texture to it. Transfer to a large mixing bowl.
- In a small bowl, whisk to combine the milk and egg. Save 2 tbsp of it for the egg wash later, and pour the rest into the mixing bowl. If using, add the sultanas. Stir to combine with a spatula, until a rough dough forms.
- Transfer to a lightly floured countertop and knead about 15 times until the dough comes together into a smooth ball. Roll the dough about an inch thick and use a 2.5″ cutter to cut about 7 circles. Re-roll the scraps and cut out another 2.
- Place the scones onto a parchment or silicone mat lined baking sheet and brush the tops with the reserved egg wash. Bake the scones for 13-15 minutes, until about tripled in height, and golden brown on the tops and bottoms.
Note: If making this recipe by hand, whisk to combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl, and mix in the butter with a hand mixer. Proceed with the recipe as instructed.