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Martha's Column: Scones

Sweet and savory variations on a familiar breakfast bread make for morning meals the whole family will enjoy.

There are three favorite "breads" served for breakfast in America: muffins, scones, and biscuits. (I am omitting sliced-bread toast, which is something very different.) Each of these has unique characteristics, of course, but defining exactly what they are is somewhat confusing. When I mentioned to a friend that I was writing my column on scones, he immediately asked, "What is the difference between scones and biscuits?"

The basic ingredients are essentially the same: flour, butter or shortening, milk or cream, leavening, and a bit of salt and possibly sugar. The method of preparation, too, is pretty similar: sift the dry ingredients, cut in the fat, and add the liquid. As with biscuits, the scone dough is rolled and cut into shapes. (Generally, muffins are made the way a cake is, by creaming butter and sugar, and then adding liquids and dry ingredients.)

I told my friend that I thought the difference was really just cultural and creative variation. Scones, which originated in Scotland, are associated with British high tea. They are leavened, fluffy or crumbly breads, once rather plain, that over time have been embellished with fruits and grains and even nuts and mashed potatoes. Scones have become a common and desirable breakfast bread that can be eaten simply with coffee and tea or topped with butter and jam for a bit more substance.

Biscuits, on the other hand, are American and have been made in pretty much the same way for centuries. Home cooks have very particular ways of dealing with the simple ingredients, and while some vary the ingredients -- substituting buttermilk for milk or cream, or butter for shortening or lard -- the result is usually a light, layered high-sided bread that can be used to soak up gravy or the soft yolks of poached eggs, or split open and eaten with butter and jam.

We decided for this column to focus on the different techniques for making scones. Rolled and cut, or patted into rounds, squares, or triangles, scones now are made in an interesting array of flavors. Home bakers are always adding something new to the dough -- chocolate chips, raspberries, pureed pumpkin, dates, dried cranberries or sour cherries, and even cheese -- to entice the family.

Whether you eat flaky scones for breakfast or serve them as a lovely after-school snack, the following recipes are worthy, I think, of inclusion in your baking repertoire.

Recipes

Apple and Oat Scones with Cinnamon and Nutmeg
Candied Orange and Golden Raisin Scones
Potato Scones
Rich Cream Scones

3 Tips for Delicious Scones

No matter which recipe you decide to try, follow these tips for professional results.

Folding: For this process, you fold the dough as you would a letter, and then roll it out to distribute the pieces of butter through- out the layers of dough. The butter pieces form pockets of steam in the oven and give the scones their light and flaky texture. See our Scones 101 guide for a step-by-step how-to.

Sugaring: Sprinkling on sugar adds an extra element of sweetness and crunch. You can use one of the wet ingredients from your recipe -- egg, egg white, buttermilk, cream -- to adhere the sugar. Try granulated, sanding, and raw sugar for different textures and finishes.

Cutting: This technique can be used for almost any scone. Form a rectangle, and use a long chef's knife to cut the dough into squares. It's quick, requires no special cutters, and leaves no waste behind. There's no rerolling, which can diminish the texture of a scone. Remember to dust your knife with a little flour.

Honoring a Classic
A freshly baked rich cream scone served with butter, jam, and Devonshire cream conjures up afternoon teatime in a great English hotel.

Time-Saving Tip
I often use a food processor to cut the cold butter into dry ingredients; it works fabulously. This technique was used for the candied orange and golden raisin scones.

Healthier Take
Apple and oat scones feature fresh fruit and buttermilk instead of cream. They are high in fiber, too.