I recently spent some time in Ireland, stuffing myself silly with food that far-exceeded my expectations. I was brought to Ireland with a group of other food journalists by the Irish Dairy Board to learn about Ireland's food, and in particular, its milk, cheese and butter.
Lucky for me, the first thing I ate when I arrived was a scone — fluffier and more biscuit-like than I'm used to — made with Irish butter and milk, and served with a soft pat of butter on the side. After spending a few minutes under the spell of this little morsel, I pulled myself together and asked William, the chef at Longueville House, "Are you sure this is a scone?" He insisted. These were his Irish scones.
If it really was a scone, it was the best scone I'd ever had, so I begged William for his recipe. He showed me the ropes, but there was still work to be done to decode the mystery of what, in fact, is a real Irish scone.
In the days that followed, I probably ate a dozen scones made from different recipes, and each was different. I asked chefs, innkeepers, grandmothers, and dairy owners for their methods, tips, and secrets.
Some said buttermilk is key. Others said, "Absolutely no buttermilk!" Most use "self-raising" (self-rising if you're stateside) flour, though some use "cream flour" (all-purpose) and some use cake flour. Some say the butter should be cold and others say to work softened butter into the mix. Those who insist a traditional soda scone is the only way to go have no butter in their recipe.
There are a few things all Irish people agreed on about scones: they are best served freshly baked, warm from the oven, with butter, homemade preserves, honey, and even some cream. No one seemed particular about the shape or the time of day best for a scone. Sultana (raisin) or plain scones for breakfast, savory scones with soup at lunch; and sweet scones at teatime.
So back home, I put together a recipe, using all the information I'd collected, plus my own bias for those first scones I gobbled up at Longueville House. They're easy to make — from pulling out the ingredients to that first hot bite only about 20 minutes will pass — but they rely heavily, in my opinion, on the quality of the ingredients, so choose wisely. I made my own self-rising flour by adding baking powder to fresh all-purpose flour and opted for softened Irish butter. (Kerrygold is the brand and it's pretty easy to track down in the States.)
If you've tried Kerrygold butter, you've had real Irish butter and you know it's different. I met the cows that are responsible for this butter and I can tell you they have a pretty cushy life: there is no confinement farming in Ireland and all of their cows are 100% grass-fed, which explains the vibrant yellow hue of the butter.
In the end, I'm still asking myself, what is that Irish touch? One thought: it's the butter. Even the butter-less soda scone purists are apt to smear a pat or two across their hot scones.
Sure, my scones are more biscuit-like than what you might expect from a traditional Irish scone, but what I learned is that there are infinite definitions of what a real Irish scone is. The memory of those very first fluffy dream-cloud scones I had when I sat down to my first Irish meal is so strong, that to me, these are the true Irish scones. Slathered with unsalted butter, honey, and a pinch of sea salt and I'm pretty much transported to another plane right in my stateside kitchen.
"Real" Irish Scones
Makes about 8-10 small scones
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon fine salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1/2 - 3/4 cup milk, cream, or a combination
Preheat oven to 350° F. Place a baking sheet pan lined with parchment paper or a Silpat in the oven.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt into a mixing bowl. Use your fingertips to work the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture just holds together.
Working the mixture as little as possible, add 1/2 cup milk and mix until it forms into a soft, slightly sticky ball. Add more milk if needed to reach desired consistency.
Place the dough on a very lightly floured work surface. Using a floured rolling pin, gently roll the dough to a 1-inch thick slab. Dip a 1-2-inch biscuit cutter in flour and cut out the individual scones, or slice the dough with a knife of the blade of a bench scraper.
Remove baking tray from the oven and arrange the scones on it. Bake 8 minutes, turn over, and bake another 4 minutes or until just barely brown.
Serve with butter, preserves, and freshly whipped cream.
If you have leftovers, reheat at 350°F for 2-3 minutes or until warmed through, or freeze by wrapping completely cooled scones in plastic wrap, then placing in a zippered bag or freezer-safe storage container. To reheat, thaw at room temperature in the plastic wrap, then unwrap and re-heat as above at 350° F.
• Herb - add a few tablespoons chopped fresh thyme, rosemary, chives or sage to the dry mixture.
• Cheese - add 1/2 cup grated cheddar or Parmesan cheese to the dry mixture. Brush the tops with beaten egg or cream and sprinkle with more grated cheese.
• Currant - add 1/2 cup currants (or raisins) to the dry mixture.
• Chocolate - increase the sugar to 2 tablespoons, add 4 ounces chopped semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate, and sprinkle each with a pinch raw sugar before baking.