There are a few characteristics that every cheese scone worth its salt should possess. First, height: a good cheese scone should rise in the oven, keeping its shape, not tipping over. It should be tender-crumbed, but with sufficient structural integrity to permit the eater to slather it with a wave of cool, thick butter (of which, see more below). And, crucially, it should be properly, truly cheesy.
So why, then, are so many cheese scones profoundly disappointing? I cannot count the number of times that hope has trumped experience, and I’ve ordered a promising-looking cheese scone for it to be at best, lacklustre, and at worst, actively disappointing: dry, mealy, falling apart under my knife, and as for the flavour? More like ‘memories of cheese’ than cheese itself.
These cheese scones will not disappoint. To ensure both a tall and tender scone, the key is in the way you handle the dough: when combining the butter and flour, stop just short of rubbing to breadcrumbs, as small dots of butter will help with the lift. And avoid rolling your dough too thin before stamping out your rounds: it needs to be at least an inch in thickness. As ever with scones and rubbed pastry, you want to handle it as little as possible, the warmth of your hands and the agitation of the flour will cause gluten development which is the enemy of short, tender dough – but in the past this has often spooked me into failing to bring the dough together properly, or half-heartedly smushing together the off-cuts, rather than re-rolling. Don’t be afraid to manhandle the dough, just don’t knead it into oblivion, and you’ll be a-ok.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer to one of life’s greatest questions – how do you make truly cheesy cheese scones? – is: use more cheese. Perhaps I am naturally inclined towards stinginess, but previous recipes for scones have always seemed a little blah. Not so here. When these scones bake, they are positively golden from the amount of cheese, and the aroma of buttery, cheesy baking will fill the whole house – as it should. To further emphasise the cheese, I grate the cheese coarsely, so there are little pops of cheese as you eat the scone, and I top each scone with an extra sprinkling of grated cheese. These little cheesy hats are far from gilding the lily, but instead take on that bubbled texture and toasted cheese flavour that you find in a grilled cheese sandwich.
The cheese you use should be a hard, strong cheese – punchy, and with a bit of a kick to it. A simple soul, I favour really mature cheddar for this, but a Lincolnshire poacher would be great, or something like a crumbly Cheshire or a Red Leicester would also work. Mustard does a surprisingly large amount of heavy-lifting in cheesy baked goods, making the cheese taste, well, cheesier. Nikki Segnit, author of Lateral Cooking says that even when no cheese is present, the addition of mustard to pastry gives a ‘surprisingly cheesy tang’.
The correct way – and there is a correct way – to eat a cheese scone, is to serve it warm, halved, with a big slab of cold, salted butter. But I’m willing to concede that they’re likely to be delicious however you choose to enjoy them.
Makes: 6-8 scones
Takes: 10 minutes
Bakes: 15-20 minutes
225g self-raising flour
50g butter, cold and diced
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon fine salt
100g strong cheese, plus 20g to top, coarsely grated or crumbled
100ml whole milk
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon mustard powder (or 1 teaspoon mustard)
1. Preheat the oven to 180°C and line a baking tray.
2. Rub together the butter and flour using the tips of your fingers until the mixture is mostly like breadcrumbs, but with a few pea-sized pieces of butter remaining.
3. Stir the baking powder, paprika, mustard powder, and salt through the mixture, then stir through the cheese.
4. Add the milk slowly, just until the dough comes together – you may not need all of it.
5. Roll the dough out to about an inch thickness, and stamp rounds out using a 7cm-wide cutter. Re-roll the excess dough and stamp more rounds until all the dough is used.
6. Place the scones onto a lined-baking tray. Glaze the tops of the scones with leftover milk and distribute the extra 20g cheese on their tops.
7. Bake for 15-20 minutes until risen and golden.