Flaky Pumpkin Scones

Scone flowerWhen flaky is a good thing

A month or so ago, the lunch discussion at my office turned to the all-important subject of scones and the eternal question: flaky or fluffy? For me, this is no contest. Fluffy and crumbly are the domain of muffins. A good scone has more layers than the most decadent wedding cake and is light, airy, melt-in-your-mouth…. Can you tell that I love scones? One of my favorite childhood memories is going to the Oregon State Fair every August with my family. One of the best parts, along with cow judging, baby animals of all varieties, the hypnotist show, and the table-decorating contest (I’m not kidding, those tables are awesome), was the warm scones smothered in raspberry jam sold at one of the food booths. Even now, I make a beeline for those scones as soon as I walk into the fair.

Since the fair only comes around once a year and that is not nearly as often as I want to eat scones, I had to figure out how to make them at home. The secret to those flaky layers is simple: layers of butter. Since butter contains not only delicious fat but also water, heating it causes it to melt and then turns the water portion to steam. The production of gas (in this case, water vapor) within the scone dough causes a similar effect to the production of gas (in that case, carbon dioxide) by yeast in leavened bread. It makes the dough expand, rendering the final product light and airy. In scones, though, we want this gas expansion to happen in layers, giving a flaky product, rather than the allover bubbles in bread.

To make sure the evaporating steam happens in layers, we need to keep the butter separated into layers in the dough. Think about making cookies, or a cake. You usually melt or cream the butter and then just mix everything all together. With the butter evenly distributed, its steam bubbles make tiny holes all over the finished product instead of the layers we want in our scones.

The first important thing to think about is temperature: butter starts to soften at 60 degrees F, melts at 85 degrees, and is totally liquid by 94 degrees. To keep the butter in distinct layers, we need it to be solid so we’re talking below 60 degrees. Refrigerated butter fits the bill, but to allow for some warming up while mixing and forming the scones, I usually go for frozen.

Next up, how do we add it to the dough to get the best product? I grew up making pie dough (a similar structure) with frozen cubed butter and a pastry cutter, which gives you small bits of still-cold butter that melt deliciously in the oven to give you the flakes you need. So that was my first approach for these scones, and it was awesome. Those scones had layers, man. But then I read my brand-new (got three, count ’em, three copies of it for Christmas) book, the Cook’s Illustrated The Science of Good Cooking because of course I look at the advice after I’m done baking. And it had some new ideas so I just had to make another batch of scones. Darn. And these bad boys were layered to within an inch of their lives. As my lovely book explains, the rounded bits you get with a pastry cutter have to wait to hit the heat of the oven before spreading into wider layers, and they tend to not get very far. If you start with elongated pieces to begin with, you have wide, thin areas of butter that melt and steam perfectly into beautiful layers.

This book suggests two ways of getting flaky biscuits and scones: work small slices of butter with floured fingers until you have flat pieces the size of a nickel OR grate frozen butter, then toss these pre-formed flakes into the dry ingredients before mixing in the wet. The latter seemed a lot simpler, so I went with it. I will try the hand-shaping at some point in the future, but I do have to say that the grating turned out great.

Flaky Pumpkin Scones

I love pumpkin everything and anything scones, so it’s no stretch to get here. Also there’s been a box of pumpkin puree taunting me from the top of the fridge since Thanksgiving that really needed to be shown its place. Which was, of course, in scones. And then my belly.

Yield: 8 scones

1 ½ c. flour

¾ t. baking powder

¼ t. baking soda

¾ t. cinnamon

½ t. ginger

¼ t. nutmeg

¼ t. salt

6 T. cold butter

1/3 c. milk

¼ t. lemon juice

¼ c. brown sugar

½ c. pumpkin puree

¼ t. almond extract

½ t. milk

¼ t. cinnamon

½ t. sugar

Grate the butter. Yes, with a cheese grater. Then stick it back in the freezer to chill out until you’re ready for it.

Grating butter

Butter curls!

Mix all of the dry ingredients together.

Spice corner

In a separate bowl, mix the milk, lemon juice, brown sugar, pumpkin puree, and almond extract.

I love this color!

Toss the frozen, grated butter with the flour mixture so that every piece is coated. Use your hands and your imagination.

Tossing butter

Pour the liquids into the flour mixture and stir gently. Work in the last of the flour mixture with your fingers, using your hands to knead it 6-8 times until it holds together. Shape the ball into about a 12-inch square and fold it into thirds (as if you’re folding a piece of paper to fit in an envelope). Fold the short ends into the center to create a 4-inch square. Chill in the freezer for 5 minutes.

Shape the dough into a circle about 8 inches in diameter and an inch high.Place the dough on parchment paper and use a sharp knife to cut it into 8 pieces. Brush the top with the milk, then sprinkle with the cinnamon and sugar mixture.

Ready to bake

Bake at 400 degrees F for about 15 minutes, then re-cut and space out the scones. Bake another 10 minutes, until the edges turn golden brown.

Adapted from The Way the Cookie Crumbles and The Science of Good Cooking.

Look at those layers!