The Secret of the Irish Scone

At Camp Bread, in San Francisco, a baker rehabilitates one of the most frequently abused members of the pastry family.
More

At summer’s start the Bread Bakers Guild, a society of American artisan bakers, staged Camp Bread, a three-day jamboree of classes and visits to bakeries, restaurants, and flour mills in the Bay Area. The event, only in its second year, sold out the day it was posted on the group’s Web site. This year, I was able to wangle a visitor’s pass for a day and a half. I wanted to be everywhere at once, with so many concurrent classes taking place at the San Francisco Baking Institute, which served as base camp.

Bakers are the most generous of people. Like cooks these days, many have come to their craft as a second career and approach it with special passion. And they happily share their secrets. My neighborhood bakery, Clear Flour, in Brookline, Massachusetts, whose co-owner, Abe Faber, is the director of Camp Bread, sells little hatted rolls that look like Le Corbusier’s church at Ronchamps. I saw French bakers teaching the technique at Camp Bread. Faber’s wife, Christy, helped teach a class on buttery “enriched” doughs (she is a master of brioche) and came home with a recipe for something I’d like to see in every artisan bakery in the land: fresh German pretzels.

I sat in on an all-day seminar on “Irish Ethnic Baking”—an under­appreciated discipline, according to one of the instructors, Derek O’Brien, head of Dublin’s National Bakery School, who led us through the postwar demise and encouraging current revival of the High Street baker.

Also see:

In and Over Scones
Where to find the best scones and toppings.

Jimmy Griffin, a jovial young fourth-generation baker from Galway, kept surprising us with breads well outside the standard repertoire even of Boston’s Irish bakeries. Most dramatic was “batch bread,” the rough equivalent of the French pain de mie—a tight-textured white bread enriched with butter and often milk. The balls of dough are placed side by side in an oversize rectangular pan at least 6 inches deep (Griffin lugged a wooden frame he’d built to bake them in; amazingly, it didn’t catch fire in the oven). Each one becomes a pull-apart square loaf a full 8 inches high, with a dark and shiny domed top and no crust on the sides. It was disconcerting to think that this beautiful sandwich bread, soft and pliant but strong, gave rise to Wonder Bread and the English equivalent, the yet-more-Orwellian Mothers Pride, and to the big commercial bakeries that nearly drove Irish artisan bakers out of business.

There was soda bread, of course, that soft, sweetly nutty excuse for endless amounts of butter and the best possible accompaniment for cheddar or smoked salmon. I can eat soda bread in virtually unlimited quantities, but it’s a terrific challenge to make here, where the available whole-wheat flour produces harsh, tough results. Irish “brown” flour is much “weaker” (lower in gluten) than American whole-wheat flour—good for the delicate texture of Irish brown bread and for pastry, but not so good for yeast breads. Nothing in America is quite like it.

Determined to learn how to make Griffin’s soda bread, a family recipe and a signature of his bakery, I took technical notes on the protein and bran levels of the flour he had brought from Ireland. Maggie Glezer, the author of several books on artisanal baking, who was taking a break from preparations for her own class, was equally focused. But every time we asked just which flours Griffin recommended and in what proportions, we seemed to end up with slightly different protein and bran ratios. I gave up and resolved to order another shipment of Odlums soda-bread mix from Ireland.

At the end of the afternoon, Griffin threw in a bonus recipe he hadn’t put in his handouts: raspberry-and-raisin tea scones. They sounded dainty and dull after the gorgeous trays of hot cross buns and the Celtic whiskey brack, a buttery yeasted cake crammed with whiskey- macerated fruit whose mixing was halted for a spontaneous round of shots of Jameson’s. Instead they were a revelation.

Scones are among the pastry family’s most frequently abused members. Even in England, which you might think would be the home of the tenderest and best, the average scone is a dense and powdery affair, with only a few sad raisins to relieve the monotony—unless, of course, you slather it with clotted cream and Tiptree’s Little Scarlet Strawberry Preserves, which would make anything taste good. Scone is a Scottish word derived from the Dutch schoonbrot, which in turn comes from the German schönbrot. A startling number of the ones I tried on a recent trip to London were hardly schön—they resembled fatty fieldstones. What you usually find masquerading as scones in this country might better be called by the name of another British treat: rock cakes.

Griffin’s scones are so light and moist that they fall between cake and a well-made muffin. They are easy to mix and bake very, very quickly. And they neatly avoid many scone pitfalls.

The trick to making scones—or pie crust, or shortbread, or any other dough that is supposed to be flaky—is to work the fat (butter for scones, lard for the best biscuits and pie crust) into the flour with your fingers, or a pair of table knives, until it forms cornmeal-like crumbs and then to knead the dough practically by stealth. The best bakers have cold, nimble fingers and what Shirley Corriher, an Atlanta cooking teacher and writer, calls a “touch of grace.” Inspired by her grandmother’s legendary biscuits, Corriher embarked on a career of scientific inquiry that led to CookWise, an essential manual for technical-minded cooks. She uses shortening (easier to work than butter) and makes her dough very wet, which always results in lighter breads.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Health

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In