Scones: Prep School for Pie Crust

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett

For me, happiness really is as easy as pie. Few desserts please me as much as a well-made slice, though these are devilishly hard to find these days. As I’ve written on Sweet Memories, I’m aiming for the title of Pie Mom, a high honor.

While I do find pie easy, I know the fear it stirs in others, and I know how often I put off making pie if I’ve used up the last of my freezer stash of homemade dough. There’s nothing hard about pie crust, but it does require a bit of time, some planning ahead, an acceptance of a well-floured kitchen and a careful hand. Practice does make perfect — but how many new bakers are willing to put in that practice time without some promise of success?

Here’s my promise: Put yourself  to perfecting scones first, and your next crust really will be a piece of … pie.

Scones need pie skills, but they forgive the many mistakes of a new baker. Scones and crust both ask a baker to cut in the butter properly and figure out the right amount of liquid (regardless of how much a recipe specifies). But with scones, if you don’t cut up the butter enough, you can break it up a bit more with your fingers as you mix in the cream; cut it up too much, and you’ll have heavier, but still edible, biscuits (especially if you distract your diners with add-ins — chocolate chips, dried berries, praline, herbs). Add too little cream, and you may overmix the dough a bit as you add more; add too much, and you’ll have to heavily flour your board to keep the goo from sticking — either way, you’ll again be able to correct the mistakes without disaster. And after one attempt, you’ll know what to fix next time, without having exhausted yourself or your budget.

A simple scone formula:

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (I like to use a Southern flour, such as White Lily, but any will do)

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt (I now use fine sea salt for baking, but also like coarse salt, sometimes called kosher salt — if you use coarse salt, use 1/2 teaspoon)

about 1/4 cup granulated sugar — you choose the sweetness, from 1/4 to 1/3 cup

1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces

about 3/4 cup to 1 cup heavy cream (light cream or half-and-half also works)

add-ins: about 1/2 cup chocolate chips, dried cranberries, toffee bits, chopped praline, a tablespoon or so of mint or other herb (I like to grind these first with the sugar), any chopped nuts, a tablespoon vanilla extract or a 1/2 teaspoon orange or almond extract, the zest of one orange or a lemon or two, a teaspoon or so of cinnamon, or espresso powder, or candied orange peel … you get the idea

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Put all the dry ingredients in a food processor and whiz to combine well (if you use citrus zest or an herb, grind it first with the sugar, then add the remaining dry ingredients). Add the butter and pulse it in until it’s in pea-size pieces. (If you don’t have a processor, then whisk the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Add the butter and use your fingertips to press and break the butter into small pieces mixed with the flour. It’s good to do this by hand once just to know how and to really get familiar with the feel of it — but unless I, a fairly lazy baker, am stuck somewhere without equipment, I always use a processor or mixer to cut my butter in.)

Dump into a large bowl, add cream, mix in briefly with a spatula, add the add-ins, and mix gently with your hands until the dough just begins to come together. Press gently into a ball; if it doesn’t hold together, mix in more cream a bit at a time until the dough holds together but is not sticky.

Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface, cut in half, and gently press each half into a round about 1/2-inch tall. If you like, brush rounds with cream or a beaten egg — a nice touch but optional. Cut each round into 8 wedges.  Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or lightly greased, and bake for about 12 minutes, or until scones are golden and set on top and golden on the bottom.

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