Roasted Rhubarb, Buttermilk, and Brown Sugar Scones
When I got it into my head that I wanted to make rhubarb-buttermilk-brown sugar scones, I did what I normally do in such situations: I began scouring the internet for a basic buttermilk scone recipe that I could adapt. After a bit of searching, I settled on a recipe from a well-known blog that shall not be named. It did not produce scones anything like what I was looking for: The dough was extremely wet and sticky–even wetter and stickier than the dough one might use for drop biscuits–and could only be cut into triangles after substantial time in the freezer. Even worse, the baked scones, while inoffensive, were basically muffins, without a hint of flakiness. I was not pleased.
I was about to return, with a sigh, to more internet-searching, when I remembered that I owned a bunch of these things called “cookbooks,” including an unassuming but wonderful little volume called The Best Quick Breads, by Beth Hensberger. Long before food blogs were a thing, I’d been baking scones, cornbread, and biscuits from that book, and Hensberger’s recipes never failed me. Her cookbook includes at least two buttermilk scone recipes, one richer, one leaner. I decided to adapt the richer one, which, in its original form, includes dried figs and walnuts.
Granted, I made a lot of changes–including, inter alia, substituting some brown sugar for white, replacing the figs and walnuts with roasted rhubarb, and using a different technique to incorporate the butter. But the basic ingredient proportions in the dough are Hensberger’s.
As a hobby baker with virtually no formal training, it’s the lack of an internalized sense of what those basic proportions should be that leads me to lean on other people’s recipes when developing my own. Here, the primary changes I made included (1) to grate in frozen butter, rather than rubbing in or cutting in fridge-cold butter, and (2) to incorporate the rhubarb by spreading it on the rolled out dough, then doing a business-letter fold to create a sort of laminated effect. I learned this technique from Claudia Brick, on her blog The Brick Kitchen. She in turn had adapted a recipe by Sarah Kieffer, who in turn was riffing on a recipe by Ina Garten. So, while this recipe is a reminder that cookbooks still exist and matter, it’s also a product of the Internet age, and an emblem of all that is great about the baking communities that the Internet has fostered.
A note on technique:
The other significant change I made to the original recipe involves the timing and method for cutting out the scones. For round biscuits or scones, you’ve probably noticed that recipes direct you to press the biscuit cutter straight down, without twisting, when cutting out the biscuits/scones. The idea there is to maximize flakiness–by pressing straight down, you preserve the layers. This instruction is all well and good, but, because scone dough is soft and often a bit sticky, it’s often hard to avoid twisting the biscuit cutter a bit as you pull it out. And even if you do manage to avoid twisting the cutter, the mere acts of pressing it down and pulling it out may compress the dough a bit.
While many recipes suggest freezing the scones once they’ve been cut out, I now freeze the rolled-out dough before cutting out the scones. Frozen or semi-frozen dough slices more cleanly, and the frozen butter is less apt to be smushed into the flour, preventing flakiness. You can then ALSO pop the cut-out scones back in the freezer before baking.
Basically, for scone dough, as for pie dough, the guiding principle is cold, cold, cold. While it can be a bit tedious to keep popping the dough back in the freezer, the resulting goodness is worth the effort:
Roasted Rhubarb, Buttermilk, and Brown Sugar Scones
A rich and flaky scone, bursting with rhubarb. Loosely adapted from The Best Quick Breads, by Beth Hensberger.
- 4 tbsp granulated sugar, divided
- 1/2 lb. / 224 g rhubarb, chopped into approximately 1-inch pieces
- 3 c. / 387 g all-purpose flour
- 3 tbsp firmly packed brown sugar
- 1 tbsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 3/4 c./ 168 g. unsalted butter, frozen
- 1/2 tsp vanilla bean paste or extract
- 1 c. cold buttermilk
- 2 tbsp heavy cream (optional)
- 2 tbsp turbinado sugar
Preheat the oven to 425 F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
Toss the chopped rhubarb with 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, and spread on the prepared baking sheet. Roast the rhubarb for 15-20 minutes, or until the liquid released by the rhubarb is bubbling and just beginning to caramelize.
Transfer the roasted rhubarb to a plate to cool, leaving behind the sticky rhubarb juices. (You can discard this rhubarb syrup or reserve it for another use.)
Once the rhubarb has cooled to around room temperature, begin making the scones: In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the remaining two tablespoons of granulated sugar and 3 tablespoons of brown sugar, and whisk to combine. Place the bowl in the freezer for five minutes to chill.
Using the large holes on a grater, grate the frozen butter into the flour mixture, tossing the mixture occasionally to distribute the butter. If the butter or mixture starts to warm up, stick it back in the freezer for a couple of minutes, and then continue. After you have grated in all the butter, place the bowl in the freezer.
While the flour-butter mixture chills in the freezer for a few minutes, pour the buttermilk into a liquid measuring cup or other small spouted vessel, and whisk in the vanilla.
Remove the flour-butter mixture from the freezer, make a slight well in the center, and pour in the vanilla-flavored buttermilk. Using a rubber or silicone spatula, toss and fold the mixture to incorporate the liquid. When the buttermilk is mostly incorporated, use your hands to knead the mixture into a rough mass, then turn the dough out onto a lightly floured piece of parchment paper and knead just a few times to bring the mixture together into an evenly moistened dough. Lightly flour the top of the mound, and press or roll the dough into a rectangle of about 9 by 12 inches.
Spread the roasted rhubarb evenly over the dough rectangle. Now, fold the rectangle into thirds, like a business letter, encasing the rhubarb, then gently press or roll the folded dough back into a rectangle about 1 1/4 inch thick.
Transfer the dough rectangle, still on the parchment, to a baking sheet, and place in the freezer for 30-45 minutes.
Remove the semi-frozen dough rectangle from the freezer, and place it, still on the parchment, on the counter or table. Line another large baking sheet with parchment paper.
Use a lightly floured 2 to 2 1/2-inch diameter biscuit cutter to cut 10-12 scones from the dough. (To cut out the scones, press directly down with the biscuit cutter, without twisting.) Place the scones at least an inch or two apart on the freshly lined baking sheet. Once you have cut out the first 6 or 8 scones, you'll need to press together the scraps to cut out the remainder. After pressing the scraps together (and/or re-rolling with the aid of some parchment), you may want to place the dough back in the freezer for a few minutes before cutting out remaining scones.
At this point, the scones can either be topped with turbinado sugar and baked, or frozen for future use.
If you want to bake the scones later, place the baking sheet with the cut-out scones in the freezer for at least 2 hours, until the scones are frozen solid, and then transfer the frozen scones to a freezer bag for storage. When you're ready to bake the scones, remove them from the freezer, place them back on a parchment-lined baking sheet, preheat the oven to 425 F, then proceed as below.
When you're ready to bake the scones: If desired, brush the tops of the unbaked scones with heavy cream. Whether or not you first brush the tops with cream, sprinkle on some turbinado sugar.
Place the scones in the 425 F oven, and reduce the oven temperature to 400 F. Bake until risen and light golden brown, which will probably take about 23-25 minutes if your scones were previously frozen. Remove from the oven, allow to cool on the pan for a couple of minutes, and then eat!
- In this recipe, the butter is incorporated using a method that is relatively new to me: Rather than cutting or rubbing in the butter, you use the large holes on a grater to grate it directly into the flour mixture. The challenge posed by this method, I’ve learned, comes when you are at the end of the stick of butter–what to do about those last couple of tablespoons? The beauty of this recipe is that it calls for 3/4 cup, which is 1 1/2 sticks of butter. Instead of trying to grate all of one stick and half of another, I’ve found it is much easier to just grate in 3/4 of each of stick, leaving the last two tablespoons as little “handle.”
- I’ve found that the key to flaky scones, like flaky pie dough, is to keep the ingredients very cold at every stage of the recipe until baking. Hence, I’ve recommended that you return the scone dough and dough ingredients to the freezer at multiple points in this recipe. If you’re facing a time crunch or are just impatient, you can eliminate some of this intermediate freezing, but I can’t promise that the scones will be quite as flaky!
- If your dough rectangle sticks as you’re trying to fold it into thirds to incorporate the rhubarb, use a bench scraper to help ease it off the parchment and into the business-letter fold.
- As noted above, brushing the scones with cream before baking is optional. I’ve made the scones both with and without this finishing touch, and they’re delicious either way. (The cream just helps a little with browning and makes the tops of the scones shiny.) However, I wouldn’t skip the turbinado sugar — it adds a nice little crunch and some extra sweetness to balance the tartness of the rhubarb.