Have It Your Way Homemade Scones - No. 186
Whether gluten-free, vegan, or budget-friendly, how to bake orange-scented drop scones to please your pantry, diet or sudden cravings.
AS I FLIPPED THROUGH COOKBOOKS in the David Walker Lupton African American cookbook collection at the University of Alabama last August, I stopped at Eggless Batter Cakes in the Fisk Club Cookbook, published in 1912.
You combine 1 1/2 cups flour, a heaping teaspoon sugar, 1/2 cup cornmeal, and a teaspoon salt. Then enough sour milk (or buttermilk) for a batter ‘’that will pour.’’ And enough soda so the milk foams (I’d say 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon). ‘’A pinch of Royal baking powder adds greatly,’’ says Mrs. C.O. Hadley who contributed the recipe.
It was customary to make cornbread or little corn cakes without eggs. In fact, if a cornbread recipe contained eggs, it might be called ‘’egg bread.’’
A century earlier, Emily Wharton Sinkler of South Carolina’s Lowcountry had stirred rice into a batter for scones. She sifted 1 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon leavening (probably saleratus because baking powder hadn’t come along) with a half-pint (about 2 cups) flour. She added 1 cup cooked rice and 2 tablespoons butter, and rubbed it into the flour mixture, then stirred in milk, about 3/4 cup, until the dough pulled together. She dropped it by spoonfuls onto a greased pan and baked the scones in a ‘’quick’’ (425ºF) oven until browned (about 15 to 20 minutes).
This was just the way people baked—without eggs because they didn’t have them or with rice because they did. Those recipes were stuck in their heads, and we only know about them now because these two women wrote them down. Long before Instagram amazed our friends at our baking prowess, no one really cared unless the bread was hot and there was plenty of it.
Today a simple scone of buttermilk and candied orange zest goes for $5.25 at Tartine bakery in San Francisco. A savory version with white cheddar and thyme commands 50 cents more. But I want you to know that even if groceries are sky-high, you can make terrific scones in your own kitchen by following a blueprint recipe and adding what you’ve got. Plus, the recipe yields about 16, plenty for freezing or sharing.
Let’s lean into the baking of previous generations as we weather this recent egg price spike.
As inflation has pushed up the price of groceries, even if you can find eggs, they seem the price of gold. Butter is higher and berries are crazy-expensive. I don’t know about you, but I walk into the grocery ready to take out a second mortgage.
I’m open now more than ever to be told what I’m going to cook or bake based on what’s on special and what’s in season. At the same time, why should I stop baking just because prices go up?
We learned how to madly search for flour during the pandemic. Wasn’t flour and yeast on everyone’s shopping lists? I was reading just this morning how the only flour available to ship to some West Coast markets in 2020 was White Lily. There’s a part of me that would have liked to have seen the Pacific Coast bake with bleached white flour!
Now we are being challenged to bake eggless or to cut down on dairy because it’s more expensive. But the simple beauty and consolation of baking is that it can be adapted to what we like and can afford. It just takes some practice.
Cooking by substitutions has been around for generations, and it’s something you get better at either by instinct or because you have to based on your budget, diet, or the diet of someone you love.
Take flour. You can make a lot of recipes gluten-free or add interest with just a little buckwheat or pecan flour.
Switching to a gluten-free flour blend is pretty easy to do, too, thanks to King Arthur’s Measure for Measure and Cup4Cup flour created by chef Thomas Keller and The French Laundry’s restaurant team in 2010. I began writing about gluten-free baking at the insistence of some of my more vocal readers, and I am so glad I did! It taught me what wheat flour brings to a recipe and how to work around that should you want to remove it.
I will often test a cookie or scone recipe with gluten-free flour or maybe half gluten-free blend and half rice or pecan flour just to see how it works. Nut flours are amazing substitutes and bring color and depth to a recipe. They meld beautifully with chocolate, lemon and orange, Parmesan, black pepper, and cinnamon. And without even thinking you can add a little ground almond or pecan flour to a pie crust, a dredge for chicken or fish before frying, or to bake a favorite cake.
Eggs. As I mentioned last week about the high prices of eggs, look at what eggs bring to the recipe. In a pound cake and angel food cake, they bring rise, and so they’re awfully hard to swap out. In custards, they provide richness and thickening from the yolks, but you can make an eggless pudding called Natilla using cornstarch for thickening. And in simple cakes and cookies, the leavening takes care of the rise and the butter or oil is there just for richness. So it’s possible to substitute 1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce for each egg you are removing. And yes, applesauce has long been a skinny alternative to oil in baking. No wonder applesauce cakes, like the one my friend Susan Puckett wrote about last week for CNN, are perennial favorites.
Butter. This is where substituting gets a little personal. I love the flavor of butter, and I won’t substitute margarine for it unless it’s the Coca-Cola Cake or Texas Sheet Cake which often call for a melted stick of margarine in the cake because the icing is so laden with butter! So I buy butter on sale or in bulk at Costco and freeze it for up to six months. You can always substitute vegetable shortening (Crisco) for butter in pound cakes that call for the creaming of butter and sugar, but honestly, Crisco has its own issues and is no flavor match for butter. When melted butter is called for in a recipe, then it’s easier for a swap-out, and I’ll add half melted butter and other half a light olive oil, coconut oil, or canola.
Sugar. Again, buy this on sale. And experiment with recipes by gently pushing back on some of the sugar in a recipe to suit your palate and budget. Do cakes always need frosting? Could you make a quick glaze instead? What about using honey or maple syrup if you have a local supply? I just bought 3 quarts of sorghum from an East Tennessee farmer and can’t wait to use it in baking. The same goes with sugar as with the butter—it gets more complicated to substitute or reduce the sugar when it’s creamed with butter at the beginning of the recipe to aerate and lighten the cake.
Milk. Some of the best cakes and pies rely on canned milk, and what with shortages and dairy price hikes, I’d advise you stock your pantry with canned evaporated milk if you do much baking and can tolerate dairy. It’s a lot cheaper than buying a quart of whole milk that will sour before you have time to use it. And canned milk has the fat needed to make icings and cakes rich, something that dairy-free ‘’milks’’ can never do. It also has a faint caramel flavor, which is lovely in a chocolate icing or sauce.
What’s your favorite baking substitution?
Let’s bake some scones, but flexibly…
Scones, unlike biscuits, are more cakey thanks to the egg. And they’re more fun to make because you just stir together the ingredients and drop the batter right onto the pan.
This recipe calls for buttermilk for tang and to activate the leavening so they rise. We’ve always got a half gallon of buttermilk at the back of the fridge, but if you don’t:
Make your own buttermilk by stirring 1 tablespoon white vinegar or lemon juice into 1 cup of whole milk and let it sit 30 minutes, or until it curdles a bit. You can even make your own crème fraîche at home by pouring 2 tablespoons buttermilk into a cup of cream and let it sit partially covered at room temperature overnight, then refrigerate up to a week.
As for the rest of the recipe, you need one egg (or substitute), plus some flavorings and add-ins like orange juice and zest. Oranges are in season right now, so let’s revel in them!
I chose blackberries when I last baked these scones at the end of summer because that’s what I had on hand. But you can add 1 cup of blueberries, fresh or frozen, as well as strawberries. And if berries are just too pricey, omit the fruit and add 1/2 cup of raisins, dried cherries, Craisins, or chocolate chips. Or nothing at all! Fresh orange scones sound lovely to me.
Once you get more proficient at baking with what you have, you decide what stays and what goes. You’re in charge. And like those ladies centuries before us, don’t let anything stop you from baking!
And Coming Thursday for Paid Subscribers…
A deeper dive into the African American cookbook collection at the University of Alabama. What a treasure! And the buttermilk pie recipe I brought home. Plus a cookbook giveaway! Not a paid subscriber? Join us!
I hope everyone is off to a great week. Snow and ice are predicted for Nashvillle as I write this letter to you, reminding us on this last day of January that winter is far, far from over.
Happy winter baking!
- xo, Anne
Orange Drop Scones
John Fleer was the first chef at Blackberry Farm in the Smoky Mountain foothills of East Tennessee, and he shared this recipe when I was writing about Blackberry Farm’s opening. I’ve kept it close all these years because it is a recipe that works with whatever fruit or flavors are in season and what you’ve got on hand to use so you don’t have to run to the store. To make these scones savory, cut the sugar in half. Omit the citrus and use fresh herbs like rosemary or thyme leaves. Omit the vanilla and orange juice, and let all the liquid come from buttermilk. And then, use 1 cup shredded sharp cheese or a mix of cheese and diced ham. Sprinkle the scones with Parmesan, not sugar, before baking.
Makes 16 scones
Prep: 15 to 20 minutes
Bake: 20 to 25 minutes
3 1/2 cups unbleached flour or gluten-free flour blend
1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar (you decide)
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon grated orange, lemon, or lime zest
8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces, or margarine, or 4 ounces vegetable shortening
1 large egg or 1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/2 cup (4 ounces) fresh orange juice (from 2 oranges) or carton orange juice
1/4 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract, if desired
1 cup chopped fresh blackberries (unless they are small and don’t chop), if desired
2 tablespoons sugar, for sprinkling, if desired
Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 400º F. Line an 18- by 12-inch baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and citrus zest in a large bowl. Scatter the butter across the top and with your fingertips, mash the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles big crumbs. Make a well in the center and crack the egg, and add the orange juice, buttermilk, and vanilla, if using, and stir with a fork until it pulls together. Fold in the berries if you like.
Drop the batter by big spoonfuls onto the prepared pan. Sprinkle the tops generously with sugar if desired. Bake until deeply golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove to a wire rack to cool, then serve, or freeze for up to 3 months.
I don’t remember much White Lily flour here in Southern California early in the pandemic or now, except at a specialty kitchenware shop I like, where it was quite popular.
The price of most baking ingredients has skyrocketed lately, with eggs (if you can get them!) and flour being the worst offenders.
I made some blueberry scones over the weekend that were very close to your recipe but without the egg. They used both cream and buttermilk and were delicious but quite crumbly, probably because of the missing egg. I’m going to give your recipe a try next. Thanks for another excellent post!
Great post! And looking forward to the deep dive into the African American cookbook collection. I’ve found that a “flax egg” (1 tablespoon ground flax seed plus 3 tablespoons water stirred together and allowed to sit for about 10 mins) can take the place of eggs in a lot of baking recipes - quick breads, pancakes, some cakes - though not all.