For my husband, vacation means one thing: Time away from the city, preferably in mountains that have views of the sea and the smell of sage. Last summer we decided to go whole hog and guzzle up the concentrated beauty of northern California, with a swing through Big Sur, quite likely one of the most extravagantly lovely places in the world. And there I met my Vacation Scone, the scone for weekend mornings and special breakfasts, the scone that doesn't pretend to be anything more or less than a massive fluffy treat, craggy and crisp, laden with summer fruit and stained with juice.
If you're going to make just one scone, let me explain why this should be the one.
Last year my husband and I looked each other in the eye and said, "We need a vacation." We travel quite a bit, but these are almost never trips of leisure, as we travel for work and squeeze in a good meal here, a museum there. These trips are crazy fun, but patently not vacation. We're both at a point where we find it comically hard to take time off. A normal evening goes like this: "What are we doing tonight?" "Working." I am not faux bragging; it's really joyful and a privilege to have work we love. But there is also the spiritual necessity to regularly let go, let down, and do nothing, to remember your work may be pleasant but not essential. This sabbath doesn't require travel, of course, but as we were extra stressed-out last summer, we took the nuclear option of California, with a few days on a bay in Marin, and a short stop in Big Sur, that serrated landscape of cliffs, ocean, and mountains that is so lavishly over-endowed with beauty it feels like a unicorn should come prancing out of a cloud of rainbows at any moment.
In Marin I found myself with a bad case of the vacation blues. Taking time off, for me, is a fast track to realizing that I am too wrapped up with my role in the world, and to discomfiting realizations that I can mask my days with busy work. I was bored, itchy, unable to relax. It took four days to detox, and by the time we left Marin for Big Sur I was just beginning to think that I could maybe go twelve hours without checking my email.
There aren't many places to eat in Big Sur. If you've ever driven through, you know how there's really only one road, hemmed in by the sea on one side and the mountains on the other. I had been looking forward to stopping at The Big Sur Bakery, a local institution — and much more than a bakery. This restaurant perches on the side of the road like a convenience store or casual lunch diner, but it boasts a very good restaurant, with wood-fired pizza and fresh California cooking. We ate there for dinner and looked out over the mountains as they put on a show, turning violet in the sunset, and it felt like I had been handed an enormous gift, with beauty dumped over my head from a bucket. I sat up straighter and relaxed at the same time; it would be wrong to squander it.
The next morning we fueled our hiking plans with a breakfast visit to the bakery, and it was then, as I was finally now in true vacation mode and a worthy frame of mind, The Vacation Scone presented itself. The scones at Big Sur Bakery loom up from the glass pastry case, big enough you might need two hands to hold on, and a third to catch the juice dripping from the fruit. They're not dry or crumbly or only good with tea — all worthy qualities in leaner scones. They are buttery and rich, and crunchy on top from baked sugar, unpretentious in their generosity of sugar and butter.
We ate peach scones and blueberry scones that day and the next, marveling at their fluffy texture and terrific crust, and, conscious of our vacation eating, climbing just a little faster to the top of that sage-covered hill.
If I could have my way in Congress, a subsidized trip to Big Sur would be wrapped into everyone (everyone's!) health insurance. It's like mainlining the outdoors, a shot to the veins of mountains and sky and ocean. For me and my husband, lining up like every other tourist for our little dose of dramatic nature, it was restorative, and I came home clutching the photos and this recipe for Vacation Scones, which is happily shared in the excellent Big Sur Bakery Cookbook.
This year we're not traveling anywhere for vacation. Instead, we're staying at home next week, with the doors closed and the windows open, computers off and books open. It's my favorite way to take time off, with no planes to board and not a lot of money to spend. But we'll still have Vacation Scones, which came home with us and always take me back. They're rich enough for a vacation treat, generous like the beauty of the landscapes we love, and I can think of no better platform for fresh summer fruit.
Adapted slightly from The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook by Michelle Wojtowicz, Phillip Wojtowicz, Michael Gilson, and Catherine Price, and published by William Morrow Cookbooks.
Makes 2 dozen.
A few notes on the recipe and my changes. The authors are precise about keeping everything very cold. They instruct you to freeze the fruit for a little while before adding it, which helps it stay distinct in the scones (a very smart technique). They also have you chill the bowl of dry ingredients and butter before mixing. Don't skip this; it gives great results.
The original recipe specifies huckleberries or blueberries, but the authors say they rely on what's in season to guide them in the day's flavors. Peach is a favorite here, and blackberries are in season right now for me so that's what I use.
Also, the recipe instructs you to form the scones by packing the dough into a round cookie cutter, then lifting the cutter away. This creates very large scones — small cakes, practically — and I prefer smaller scones that I create by pressing a handful of dough into a thick puck. With this approach, I get over 2 dozen scones from this recipe, although the original yield is 1 dozen.
1 cup fresh huckleberries, blueberries or other fresh ripe fruit
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cubed
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
3/4 to 1 cup well-shaken cultured buttermilk
2 to 4 tablespoons turbinado sugar
About 2 hours before making the scones, scatter the berries or fruit on a cookie sheet and put it in the freezer. (If using large berries, cut them in half.)
Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt, and drop in the cubed butter. Put the bowl in the freezer and leave it there for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 375°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat and set it aside.
Using a pastry cutter or two knives, work the chilled ingredients together in the bowl until the butter cubes are the size of peas. Make a well in the center. Combine the vanilla and 3/4 cup buttermilk in a separate bowl, and pour the mixture into the well. Mix the ingredients with a wooden spoon to form a shaggy, slightly crumbly mass. Let stand for 3 to 5 minutes to let the flour absorb the liquid, then fold one more time. If the dough seems simply too dry to come together, add 1 tablespoon buttermilk at a time until it just barely comes together. The dough should not be too wet; the scones will spread too much.
Add the frozen fruit and gently mix them in, trying not to crush them.
To shape the scones, scoop a small handful into your palm and press it into a tall, fat puck and put it on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat, leaving enough room for the scones to double in size. Sprinkle the tops of the scones with the turbinado sugar. Bake for 15 minutes or until they are golden brown around the sides but still tender in the middle.
Carefully transfer the scones to a cooling rack and let them cool for at least 10 minutes before serving. Cool completely before storing in a loosely covered container. Store for up to three days.
(Images: Faith Durand. Recipe courtesy of William Morrow.)