Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Elephant No. 142: Scones

I needed to bring something to a guild meeting today, so I thought I'd try elephant-shaped scones. I make a pretty good scone, if I do say so myself, but I'd never tried cutting them into recognizable shapes, so I wasn't quite sure what they might look like once baked.

Hard-tack scone-like breads have been around for centuries, originally developed as a food that would travel well. The first true scones were flat and round, and about the size of a lunch plate. Made with oats, they were also cooked on a griddle, rather than in the oven, then cut into triangles. Today, the large round form is often called "bannock", while the triangles are referred to as "scones". In Scotland, the two terms are used interchangeably.

With the invention of baking powder in the middle of the nineteenth century, scones were more often baked in the oven than cooked on a griddle, although both variations are still made today. To add interest to scones, dried fruits such as currants are often added, as are nuts, and even savoury items such as cheese and herbs.

For today's elephant, I'm using a traditional recipe that doesn't include eggs. Many modern scone recipes include eggs, but I find eggs make them slightly heavier, so I prefer the recipe below.


Traditional Scottish Scones


2 cups (500 ml) all-purpose flour
1/4 cup (60 ml) granulated sugar
2-1/2 teaspoons  (12 ml) baking powder
1/4 teaspoon (1 ml) salt
1/2 cup (1 stick, or 125 ml) cold butter, cut into pieces
1 cup (250 ml) heavy cream, milk or buttermilk
1/2 cup (125 ml) currants or other dried fruit—if fruit is particularly dry, soak in boiling water for a few minutes

1. Preheat over to 425 degrees˚F (218˚C).

2. Blend together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl.

3. Using a pastry blender, cut the butter into the flour until it resembles cornmeal. If you have a few larger lumps of butter, it won't hurt anything.

4. Stir currants or dried fruit into the dough. Add the cream or milk and blend quickly, just until ingredients are combined. As with piecrust and shortbread cookies, it's important not to overwork the dough.

5. Transfer dough to a lightly floured board and knead only enough for the dough to hold together well—no more than ten times, and I usually find five times is enough.

6. Pat or roll out dough on lightly floured surface to your desired thickness, which should be somewhere between 1.3 and 2.5 cm (1/2 and 1 inch). Cut into shapes as desired. 

7. Transfer to a non-stick baking sheet, a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, or a lightly greased baking sheet. Brush lightly with milk—mixed with an egg, if you like—and dust with coarse sugar. This last part is optional, as they're just as good without the milk and sugar on top.

8. Bake for 12–15 minutes, depending on thickness. They should be golden brown and firm but not hard when you press on the top. Makes 12–16 scones, based on how thick they are, and how they've been cut.


For today's elephant, I started by measuring out the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar, then mixed them together in a large bowl. A fork or whisk is not a bad idea here, to ensure that the baking powder in particular gets evenly distributed. Next, I broke the butter into rough cubes and dropped it into the dry ingredients. Breaking up the butter is just to make it easier to cut into the flour mixture.

I used a pastry blender to cut in the butter, but you could use two knives or even your fingers for this part. The mixture should resemble cornmeal, with a few larger pieces of butter.

The dried fruit is added next, mixed in well. You don't really have to worry about how much you mix until you add liquid. I used currants, which are traditional, but I've used other dried fruit before, including dried blueberries, dried cherries, dried cranberries, raisins, and even mixed glacéed fruits. A few guidelines for the dried fruits in this recipe: if the fruits are large, they should be chopped down a bit to make them about the size of currants; if they're hard and dry, soak them for a bit in boiling water; if they're moist (as for glacéed fruits), dredge in flour before adding to the flour-butter mixture. My currants were fairly fresh, so I could add them as is.

Once the currants are evenly distributed through the flour-butter mixture, add the cream, milk or buttermilk in one go. I used table cream (18% butter fat) because I didn't have any milk, but usually I use milk. Mix well enough to ensure that it's blended, but not so much that it's beaten to death, as this will make the scones tough. I usually mix only until the dough sticks together and begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl.

Next, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead briefly. You should knead only enough to smooth it out a bit. I kneaded this by folding it over a total of five times, and I didn't push as hard with the heel of my hand as I would if it were bread.

Because I had doubled the recipe, I divided the dough in half before rolling it out. Roll out on a lightly floured surface with a rolling pin, or simply push it around with your hands until it's between 1.3 and 2.5 cm (1/2–1 inch) in thickness. Thickness is totally up to you; I tend to like them a bit on the thick side, so I think I rolled the dough out a little over 1.3 cm (1/2 inch) thick.

I was now ready to cut out the elephant shapes. I used the same cookie cutter I used for my sugar cookies. To cut out scone dough, it's a good idea to dip the cookie cutter in flour, as the dough is slightly sticky.

I cut about five elephants from this first batch of rolled dough, took the scraps and rolled and cut again a couple of times. I then added whatever scraps were left from this first batch of dough to the second batch, kneaded them together with a couple of folds, then repeated the cutting and re-rolling process. The reason I don't go beyond a couple of re-rollings is that the dough gets tougher the more it's worked. If you have weird small scraps left over at the very end, just make little round cookie shapes and bake with the rest.

Because I wanted them to look pretty, I brushed the tops lightly with a bit of leftover cream, and sprinkled them with coarse sugar. The sugar I used is the same as the coloured sugar you'd use to decorate cakes and cookies.

I baked these for about 13 minutes. I set a timer for 12 minutes, then checked them and left them for another minute just to brown a little more. You don't want them to get too brown, but if the edges aren't a little browned, they're not quite done. The tops should give but not sink when you press gently with your fingers. I ended up with 18 elephant scones from a doubled recipe, along with two leftover-dough cookie-shaped things.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect with these. I thought the trunk might do something weird, or that they'd end up looking more like little pig balloons. Luckily, scone dough expands mostly upwards, rather than outwards, so when I took them to the potluck today, everyone recognized them as elephants right away. Phew!

Making scones is actually quite easy, and doesn't take much time at all. The most time-consuming parts are cutting in the butter, which took me about ten minutes; and rolling and cutting, which took me about 15–20 minutes. The main thing to remember is not to overwork the dough once the liquid has been added, but even tough, these taste pretty good. To me these have a vague resemblance to obese hamsters with teeny trunks, but as long as other people recognize them as elephants, that's what counts.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In 2006, scientist Neil Clark, curator of palaeontology at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, thought he might have solved the mystery of the Loch Ness monster—at least partially. According to Clark, it was entirely possible that sightings of Nessie were actually sightings of circus elephants out for a swim. 

Dr. Neil Clark's interpretation of what people might really have
seen in the most famous photograph of the Loch Ness monster.
Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/4779248.stm

During the 1930s, travelling circuses often stopped along the banks of Loch Ness to give the animals a break, sometimes allowing them to take a swim. The humps and "neck" seen in some of the most famous photographs of Nessie actually bear a resemblance to the back and trunk of a swimming elephant.

The most famous picture of Nessie, later proven to be a hoax.
Photo: Dr. Robert Wilson
Source: http://www.hauntedamericatours.com/museum/NESSIE.htm

Another purported photograph of Nessie.
Source: http://theparanormalguide.com/crypto.htm

Although Dr. Clark says that some of the sightings might have been swimming elephants, most sightings are probably waves or logs. Since at least the sixth century A.D., people have reported seeing "something" in the lake, and there have been many fuzzy photographs and eyewitness accounts over the past 100 years. Scientists have suggested everything from oarfish to prehistoric amphibians as the lake's denizens, and Clark himself believes that there is something alive in Loch Ness. Despite researching Nessie for a number of years, however, he—like so many others before him—has yet to discover what the creature might be.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation
Elephants Without Borders 
Save the Elephants 

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