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Scones

Proper baking is a form of cookery that requires some serious commitment and practice. Until this past year, if I needed to procure some muffins, cookies, or a birthday cake, I usually just bought some premade dough or a box mix from the grocery store. To my surprise, I have actually grown to enjoy baking’s finicky nature. It contrasts nicely with my ‘anything goes’ attitude with other types of cooking in general.

Rather than getting in over my head trying to perfect complex pastries or cakes, I decided to try baking something new this week: scones. I found an excellent resource from Southern Living that provided a consistent scone base to which a number of different sweet and savory adaptations can be made.

I have to admit that, as a novice, preparing the dough for baking was a bit unnerving. I soon as I had pulled out all of my ingredients and preheated the over, I realized that I had overlooked the need for a pastry blender in the recipe. I frantically called my mom asking for alternatives.

I used two forks instead of a pastry blender to cut in the butter.

I used two forks instead of a pastry blender to cut in the butter.

Although I had seen my mom’s pastry blender collecting dust in one of her kitchen drawers, I had never actually known what this goofy-looking utensil was called. The name seems a bit over-hyped, but maybe I am a product of my generation—immediately assuming that a blender of any kind involves super efficient electric-powered blades. I feel like the only place I’ve seen a pastry blender in action before was at summer camp in the pottery studio. But I digress…

The purpose of a pastry blender is to cut cold fat (in this case, butter) into the dough in order to form layers that turn flaky during baking. This “cut in” or “shortening method” of making dough is actually very important to the consistency of your final baked product, but it turns out that using two forks works just as well as a fancy pastry-blending contraption. According to Sara Phillips at Craftybaking.com:

To “cut in” in serves the function of distributing the fat particles into the dry ingredients, typically flour, and coating and lubricating flour granules. This method greatly reduces the ability of the gluten proteins [gliadin and glutenin] in the flour to create gluten when mixed later with a liquid, such as water or milk.1,2

Pretty neat, huh? Unless you anticipate making a lot of scones, biscuits, piecrusts, etc., then I don’t suggest running out to purchase yet another piece of kitchen equipment. (If you’re anything like me, it’s getting more and more difficult to find places to store everything!)

My first batch of apricot-ginger scones prior to going into the oven.

My first batch of apricot-ginger scones prior to going into the oven.

Another brief warning to you fellow scone novices as well: if your dough is crumbly, difficult to form and/or refuses to be neatly cut into wedges, do not fear! I nearly had a heart attack when making my first batch. They refused to stay in the prescribed triangular shape, and I was afraid that this week’s post would be a complete failure. My advice? Just try your best to shape them (without over-working the dough) and I promise they will turn out delicious and rustic-looking. My co-workers devoured all of the blog goodies I brought in again this week… And they even offered to provide testimonials!

Now that you’ve gotten your daily dose of food science and your baking pep-talk, here’s some background on scones:

Authenticity is a major issue that plagues these flaky treats. Even the pronunciation of “scone” is highly debated—usually between Brits and Americans (skahn vs. skohn). Regardless of how you pronounce it, your scone recipe is probably guaranteed to anger someone on either side of the pond.

The original scones are said to have developed in Scotland as rounds of oat and barley dough that were cooked atop hot griddles, and then cut into wedges.3 Much like today, these quick breads were cheap to make and contained ingredients that were usually on hand or easily accessible. As Julia Moskin states:

They were a simple combination of fat, flour and liquid, which became softer and lighter as wheat, butter and leaveners like baking soda and baking powder became widely available.3

Eventually, British scones were brought to the United States, where they underwent further transformation. With the addition and substitution of a few ingredients, decadent Southern biscuits were born. Chef Andre Geary states that there are a few main differences between British and Americanized scones: butter, sugar, and add-ins. Rather than upping the butter and sugar content in the dough, Brits prefer to eat their freshly baked scones with butter, jams, or clotted cream alongside their afternoon tea.4 As far as add-ins go, the Brits prefer to keep things simple there as well. Chef Geary mentions a few traditional lackluster options such as currants or raisins, but it’s Americans who tend to push the envelope with chocolate, nuts, and other treats mixed into their scones.

My wedges started coming together much easier on the last batch.

My wedges started coming together much easier on the last batch.

Below I have provided the basic scone recipe that I used for this week’s post and the two flavorful adaptations I tried: apricot-ginger and asiago-rosemary.

Best-Ever Scones

(From Southern Living)

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup cold butter, cut into half-inch cubes
  • 1 cup whipping cream, divided
  • Wax paper

Preheat the oven to 450°. Mix the first four ingredients in a large bowl. Cut the butter into the flour mixture with a pastry blender (or two forks) until crumbly. Freeze for 5 minutes.

Add ¾ cup plus 2 Tbsp. cream, and stir just until the dry ingredients are moistened through.

The asiago- rosemary scone dough.

The asiago- rosemary scone dough.

Turn the dough out onto wax paper and gently press or pat it into a 7-inch round (mixture will be crumbly). Cut the round into eight equal wedges. Place the wedges 2 inches apart on a lightly greased baking sheet. Brush the tops with the remaining 2 Tbsp. cream just until moistened.

Bake at 450° for 13 to 15 minutes or until golden.

Variations

Sweet Apricot-ginger Scones:

Apricot-ginger scones after baking.

Apricot-ginger scones after baking.

Stir in ½ cup finely chopped dried apricots and 2 Tbsp. finely chopped crystallized ginger with the cream. (Don’t be afraid to add a little bit of extra apricot or ginger. The flavor is wonderful!)

Savory Rosemary, Pear, and Asiago Scones:

Omit sugar. Stir in ¾ cup finely chopped fresh pear, ½ cup grated Asiago cheese, and 1 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary with the cream. (I omitted the pear in this recipe, added a bit of extra grated cheese and chopped rosemary to the dough, and then sprinkled even more asiago on top to make a nice crust.)

So how do you like your scones? Lots of add-ins? Served with jam and butter?

 Sources
  1. Phillips, S. (2000). Mixing Method – Cut In or Cutting In. Crafty Baking. Retrieved from https://www.craftybaking.com/howto/mixing-method-cut-or-cutting
  2. Castro, J. (2013, September 17). What is Gluten? Live Science. Retrieved from http://www.livescience.com/39726-what-is-gluten.html
  3. Moskin, J. (2014, February 25). Biscuits and Scones Share Tender Secrets. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/26/dining/biscuits-and-scones-share-tender-secrets.html?_r=0
  4. The Difference Between British and American Scones: Test Cook Andrea Geary Explains. (2015) Cook’s Illustrated. Retrieved from http://www.cooksillustrated.com/features/8521-the-difference-between-british-and-american-scones-test-cook-andrea-geary-explains

Savory Breakfast Strata

If you’ve never heard of strata, you’ve seriously been missing out. It is one of the most simple, delicious, versatile, and affordable options for breakfast, brunch, or a potluck. Strata is basically a fancy name for a savory bread pudding so named for its alternating layers (strata) of bread, custard, cheese, and various other toppings. The following recipe is one of my favorites, but strata can basically be made with any coordinating combinations of vegetables, cheeses, meats, and herbs that you prefer.

I assembled this one in a flash after dinner on Monday and put it into the fridge to soak overnight. Tuesday morning I woke up a little earlier than usual to take it out, let it warm up on the counter, and then bake it in the oven before heading off to work. My coworkers loved it, and my boss even washed my casserole dish and wrote me a thank you note! I think I may have to make another one very soon since it was such a hit. (Unfortunately/fortunately, the dish disappeared so quickly that I didn’t have time to take hardly any pictures!)

Now here’s your weekly dose of food history:

One of the earliest known strata recipes supposedly comes from a 1902 cookbook by Juniata L. Shepperd entitled Handbook of Household Science.1 Oddly enough, this cheese strata recipe does not include eggs, which are characteristic of most (if not all) contemporary versions. Nonetheless, I’m bound to fall in love with anything featuring copious amounts of cheese, so I suppose I can find it in my heart to forgive Ms. Shepperd for her omission.

As I mentioned above, strata is basically a variation on bread pudding, which has an interesting history. Like many popular dishes nowadays, bread pudding had humble origins. European lower classes in the 11th and 12th centuries repurposed stale bread into “poor man’s pudding” or bread pudding to make the most of their meager resources.2 Even in today’s recipes for bread pudding and strata, using stale bread is crucial so that it adequately soaks up the custard that is poured over it. Custard has a more complicated background, but many food historians are of the opinion that the custard we are familiar with today originated in the Middles Ages, typically as a filling for pies, tarts, and other pastries.3

Regardless of whether you’re making any version of sweet or savory strata or pudding, remember to let your imagination (and sometimes your pantry) guide you when it comes to choosing toppings. Anything goes!

IMG_4470Sausage, Fontina, and Bell Pepper Strata

(adapted from Bon Appétit, June 2009)

  • 6 large eggs
  • 2 ½ cups whole milk
  • 2 cups sliced green onions
  • ½ cup whipping cream
  • ½ cup finely grated Romano cheese
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh oregano
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 pound hot Italian sausages, casings removed
  • 1 large red bell pepper, halved, seeded, and chopped
  • 1 1-pound loaf rustic French bread, cut into ½-inch slices and allowed to sit out briefly
  • 2 ½ cups coarsely grated Fontina cheese (or even more, if you prefer things extra cheesy)

Butter the bottom and sides of a 13×9-inch baking dish. Whisk the first 7 ingredients* together in a large bowl, and season well with freshly ground pepper.

The assembled dish, prior to setting and baking.

The assembled dish, prior to setting and baking.

In a large nonstick skillet, sauté the sausage and bell peppers, making sure to break up the meat well. Once the sausage is cooked through and the peppers are brown in spots, remove from the heat.

In the prepared baking dish, arrange half of the bread slices in the bottom, and then pour half of the egg mixture over the top. Sprinkle with one cup of the Fontina, then add half of the sausage/pepper mixture. Repeat this layering process once more. Use the final ½ cup of grated Fontina to sprinkle over the very top.

Allow the ingredients to stand in the dish for at least 20 minutes, occasionally pushing on the bread to encourage it to submerge. (I recommend covering it with plastic wrap and placing it in the fridge overnight with a few small plates on top to aid the bread in soaking up the custard.)

When you are ready to bake the strata, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and bake until golden brown, approximately 1 hour. If you let the strata set in the fridge, you may want to remove it to the counter prior to baking in order to take the chill off the dish and reduce the baking time. If the top begins to brown too quickly, cover the dish with a GREASED sheet or two of aluminum foil so that the cheese doesn’t burn or stick to the covering.

* I have noticed that when I buy bigger loaves of bread, the designated amount of custard in this recipe (first 7 ingredients) may not be enough. If your strata seems dry after soaking briefly, just whisk together another couple of eggs and a few splashes of milk and cream and pour it over the top. It won’t hurt anything, and it’ll ensure that your strata will turn out moist and not so bready.

Sources
  1. Shepperd, J. L. (1902). Hanbook of Houshold Science. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=HTRDAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA241#v=onepage&q&f=false
  2. McFadden, J. (2008, January 23). Bread pudding originated in 11th century as frugal dish, but has become trendy dessert. The Daily Gazette. Retrieved from http://www.dailygazette.com/news/2008/jan/23/0123_pudding/?print
  3. Olver, L. (1999) The Food Timeline. Retrieved from http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodpuddings.html#bread

Cherry Clafoutis

This rustic French dish is an easy and elegant option for dessert, breakfast, or brunch.

This week has been an exciting and dizzying experience. Monday marked the beginning of my first full time job (hello, adulthood!), and I couldn’t be happier with my current situation right now. However, I have to admit that I have been scrambling to balance work and experimenting in the kitchen. When I found this recipe during my research, I thought it would be a perfect dish to add to my repertoire. Although it has a fancy-sounding French name (I mispronounced it horribly when trying to explain this week’s post to my mom and co-workers), the recipe is very simple—only a few steps!

As much as it pained me to come home from work earlier this week and start littering my kitchen with sugar, flour, and cherry juice (aka baking), it was well worth it. The result was a flavorful, mildly sweet custard full of ripe, warm cherries, and it totally hit the spot. Cherries are in season and at their sweetest during the next couple of weeks, so get them while you can!

I brought the leftovers in to work this morning, and by the end of the day, only one piece was left! I’d consider that a success, especially since this recipe was the first time I had ever used a cherry pitter, and I accidentally missed a few of the stones…

Cherry pitters are magical, but I learned the hard way that you still need to be extra thorough when removing the pits.

Cherry pitters are magical, but I learned the hard way that you still need to be extra thorough when removing the pits.

I’d like to think that they simply added some extra flavor to the dish since the original recipe calls for unpitted cherries. (At least that’s what I told my new guinea pigs/colleagues!)

Lastly, though clafoutis is considered a dessert, I think that this dish could easily be the star of a breakfast or brunch table as well. Not to mention it is easily adaptable for whatever fruit happens to be in season. So, read on to learn a bit more about this versatile dish, hit up the grocery store for some fresh fruit, and get your clafoutis on:

First of all, let’s start with the pronunciation. Here’s a quick recording of how to say the name of this dish without sounding completely silly like yours truly:

Clafoutis first originated in the Limousin region of France, where, due to the unique geography of the area, farming is particularly successful. Historically, the cuisine of this region is reliant upon local ingredients, making for simple, rustic dishes.1 The name clafoutis can supposedly be traced to the Occitan dialect word claufir, to cover or fill.2 Traditionally, a Limousin clafoutis is prepared with unpitted cherries, but when it uses other kinds of fruit instead, it is called a flaugnarde.

Cherries are a member of the genus Prunus, which belongs to the Rose family (Rosaceae).3 These small stone fruits are actually closely related to peaches, apricots, and even almonds. It is said that the original clafoutis recipe included the cherry pits in order to provide a subtle almond flavor to the dessert. Surprisingly enough, this distinct flavor comes from a natural poisonous compound that plants in the Prunus family produce in order to discourage herbivores from chowing down on them. This toxin, amygdalin, is a precursor to a chemical I’m sure you all have heard of: cyanide.3

Now, before you jump to the conclusion that I’m trying to poison you with a delicious French dessert, it’s important to know that cyanide gas is a miniscule byproduct of consuming ingredients like cherry pits that contain amygdalin. I would suggest eating around the pits if you choose to leave them whole in your clafoutis, but you certainly won’t experience any detrimental effects from accidentally swallowing or nibbling on a few of them. (The difficult part would be trying not to break a tooth!) Another less potent and more enjoyable byproduct of amygdalin is benzaldehyde, which is responsible for that lovely almond flavor.IMG_4263

(Later this week I plan to experiment with adding a dash of almond extract to the custard in order to more closely replicate the traditional recipe’s flavors. I’ll post an update with my conclusions!)

As for the unpitted vs. pitted decision, for me, it boiled down to when and how I wanted to work around the pits: either before baking with a cherry pitter or after baking with my teeth. Personally, I’d rather get them out of the way so I can enjoy my dessert without risking an emergency trip to the dentist. I’m also still contemplating what the proper etiquette for consuming an unpitted clafoutis would be… a clafoutis spittoon?

Cherry Clafoutis

(adapted from Saveur at http://www.saveur.com/article/Recipes/Cherry-Clafoutis)

  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 1/4 cups whole milk
  • 6 tablespoons sugar (adjustments may be necessary depending on the ripeness of your fruit)
  • 2 tablespoons kirschwasser
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract
  • 6 eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 3 cups ripe cherries, pitted or unpitted (or other fruit of your choice)
  • Powdered sugar for dusting

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Thoroughly grease the bottom and sides of a 9″ cast-iron skillet or baking dish with butter. In a blender, combine the butter, milk, sugar, kirsch, vanilla, eggs, and salt to form the base of your custard. Blend these ingredients together, then incorporate the flour and process until smooth–about 1 minute.

Clafouti just prior to going into the oven.

Clafoutis just prior to going into the oven.

Pour the custard into the greased skillet, then evenly distribute the cherries atop the batter. Bake for approximately 30 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the batter comes out clean and the top is golden.

Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve with a dollop of whipped cream on the side.

  1. Limousin: the “château d’eau”. (n.d.). France.fr. Retrieved from http://www.france.fr/en/regions-and-cities/limousin-chateau-deau.html
  2. Cloake, F. (2013, August 29). How to cook the perfect cherry clafoutis. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2013/aug/29/how-to-cook-perfect-cherry-clafoutis
  3. Preston, K. A. (2012, August 30). The Stone Fruits of Summer [Web log]. Retrieved from https://botanistinthekitchen.wordpress.com/2012/08/30/the-stone-fruits-of-summer/#more-65
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