I once took a work trip to do nothing but learn about Irish milk, cheese, and butter. Lucky for me, the first thing I ate when I arrived, jet-lagged and haggard, was a scone. I still remember this particular scone because it was fluffier and richer than any scone I'd ever had. After spending a few minutes under the spell of this little morsel, I pulled myself together and asked the chef if it wasn't in fact a biscuit. He insisted, these were his Irish scones, made with Irish butter and milk, and served with a soft pat of butter on the side.
If it really was a scone, it was the best scone I'd ever had, so I asked the chef for his recipe and I spent the rest of the trip trying to figure out 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 unique. 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 used "self-raising" flour ("self-rising" if you're stateside), though some used "cream flour" (all-purpose) and some use cake flour. Some said the butter should be cold and others said to work softened butter into the mix. Those who insisted a traditional soda scone was the only way to go had no butter in their recipe at all.
My understanding of the difference between a biscuit and a scone is that a scone has a little sugar (this recipe has sugar) and an egg. But not everyone I spoke to in Ireland put an egg in their dough.
There are a few things all the Irish people I spoke to 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 in Ireland. 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 most easy to track down in the States. I met many of 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.)
Sure, these 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 now the most true Irish scones. Slathered with unsalted butter, honey, and a pinch of sea salt, and I'm pretty much transported to another plane right here in my stateside kitchen.
Real Irish Scones
Makes 8 to 10 (1 1/2-inch) scones
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon fine salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1/2 to 3/4 cup milk, cream, or a combination
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Place a baking sheet 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. Slice the dough into triangles with a floured knife or bench scraper, or dip a biscuit cutter in flour and cut out the individual scones.
Remove the baking tray from the oven and arrange the scones on it. Bake 8 minutes, turn the scones over, and bake another 4 to 6 minutes, or until just barely brown.
Serve with butter, preserves, and freshly whipped cream.
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.
To reheat leftover scones, warm them at 350°F for 2 to 3 minutes or until warmed through.
To freeze leftover scones, wrap the completely cooled scones in plastic wrap, then place them in a zip-top 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.
(Image credits: Sara Kate Gillingham)