As I am something of an Anglophile, I love the tradition of afternoon tea and all the wonderful foods served at High Tea. The idea of taking a moment in the afternoon to enjoy a cup of tea and delicious food with friends is very appealing, maybe because it is not something that happens often in modern life. However, when I do get the chance to enjoy a tea break, I almost always make homemade scones. There is nothing quite as tempting to me as fresh, homemade scones, hot from the oven and piled high with jam and cream. They are the perfect accompaniment to a cup of hot, black tea. I have never had a good scone that came out of a pastry case, and even homemade scones are not nearly as delicious the second day, which leads me to believe that scones are best served hot and fresh.
For my scone comparison, I decided to use a bagged scone mix as the time-saving alternative to homemade scones. Since I could only find scone mixes at a specialty store, I also picked up a container of small, blueberry scones (the only kind available) from the bakery department at Safeway, so as to add an easily available store-bought scone to the comparison. I heated the store bought scones up in the oven before serving them, just to make them taste a little more like the other two varieties. For the homemade scones, I made my usual recipe of cream scones studded with juicy, tart currants. These are not a healthy treat, by any means, but the butter and heavy cream makes these scones extra flaky and light.
Cream Scones with Currants
Makes about 12 medium scones
1/2 cup dried currants
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
6 Tablespoons cold butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 Tablespoons sugar, plus extra for sprinkling on top of scone
1 egg, well beaten and mixed with 1 Tablespoon water for brushing scones
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the currants in a small bowl and pour enough boiling water into the bowl so that they are just covered. Set aside while you mix up the scones dough.
2. In a large mixing bowl, stir together the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda until well combined. Using your fingers or a pastry blender, blend the butter into the flour mixture until it is the texture of fine crumbs. Drain the currants and pat them dry then stir them into the flour/butter mixture.
3. In a liquid measuring cup or medium bowl, whisk together the cream, egg, vanilla extract, and 3 Tablespoons of sugar. Pour the wet ingredients into the flour mixture and stir with a wooden spoon just until combined; be careful not to overmix.
4. Place the dough on a lightly floured surface and knead for about 12 strokes or just until the dough comes together into a ball. Using floured hands, pat the dough out into a circular shape, about 1/2-inch thick. Cut with a biscuit cutter into rounds, or just cut the circle into wedges using a sharp knife. Place scones on a large baking sheet and brush with the egg wash; sprinkle each scone with a light sprinkling of sugar.
5. Bake scones for 15 to 20 minutes or until they have risen and the tops are lightly browned. Serve immediately with jam, lemon curd, clotted cream, or whipped cream (or all of the above!).
After mixing up a batch of homemade scones and putting them in the oven, I turned to the just-add-water store bought scone mix. When poured into a mixing bowl, the mix looked remarkably similar to homemade scone ingredients, after the butter has been cut in. This gave me high hopes that the scones might taste somewhat similar to homemade. The mix could not have been easier to prepare and took only about 5 minutes to mix up and get in the oven. You literally just add a little water to the dry mix and stir it in then scoop the dough, by tablespoons, onto a greased sheet and bake! The catch came during the baking time. The scones from a mix took about 8 minutes longer to brown on top than the package directions indicated, bringing the preparation time up to about 25 minutes. The best thing about the scone mix was that it only made one bowl dirty making cleanup very fast. Homemade scones are fairly quick to prepare and baked much faster than the scones from a mix because I bake them in a hotter oven than the scone mix directions called for. This meant that the homemade scones took about 30 minutes to make, only 5 minutes longer than the packaged scones! The bakery scones were, of course the easiest as they take no preparation, but I did wrap them in foil and add them to the hot oven for a few minutes.
Which scone tasted best? The homemade scones really were much tastier than either the scones from a mix or the bakery scones. They were flaky and light with an appealing buttery flavor while the scones from a mix tasted heavy, dense and kind of salty. The bakery scones were surprisingly good and not as sweet as I had expected, but they had the cakey texture of muffins rather than the flakiness of a scone. Also, the bakery scones were the least attractive of the bunch, partly because the blueberries lent them a greenish tint.
Bottom Line: If you are planning on taking the time to pause and enjoy tea with friends, then I would suggest taking a few extra minutes to make homemade scones from scratch. The homemade scones were much tastier than store bought or scones from a mix, took only a few more minutes to prepare, and were significantly cheaper than either other option.