When you're cooking, it's all about a dash of this and a splash of that. But baking is another matter, an exact science. In this series, we're going behind the bakery case and into the kitchens of some of Phoenix's finest purveyors of sweets (and some savories). Fresh out of culinary school, Chow Bella contributor Mabel Suen will work with local chefs to learn their tricks for making perfect pastries, baked goods and desserts. Stay tuned for findings once the flour settles.
The Baked Good: The Scone The Chef: Candy Lesher The Place: Her home kitchen in Tempe, AZ
"It's time to get sconed," says Candy Lesher as she pulls a tray of warm apricot scones from the oven. They were what she referred to as "chef's scones," made from dough scraps leftover after rolling out a special order.
She initially greeted me with a smile at her front door wearing a black apron and contrasting bright red jewelry to match her lipstick. The sound of three excitable chihuahuas yapping from the other room didn't seem nearly as welcoming.
After asking what kind of tea I wanted, she pulled out a clear jar of fragrant leaves to smell when I responded, "vanilla oolong." Initially, I answered that my own bottle of water would suffice, but she wasn't about to have any of that. Scones were going to be made, so tea had to happen.
An elaborate kitchen stood out proudly in her small home, with enormous double door floor-to-ceiling Viking fridges, a double oven and a correspondingly large island with sparking, speckled concrete countertops. Lesher is like everyone's favorite aunt -- happy to entertain and eager to please with specially made treats that she's perfected over time.
Lesher's Web site touts a long, decorated resume that includes everything from heading up Food and Life magazine and television to being a James Beard panelist. Lately though, she's laying low in her home kitchen teaching cooking lessons for charity groups and developing her new business Baci d'Amore Truffles and Scones (Italian for "kisses of love").
To Lesher, the perfect scone is meltingly tender and moist. The color for a standard vanilla scone should be very pale gold around the edges with a kissing of gold on the top. It is crumbly and almost flaky (not cakey) with almost discernible layers, like a true Southern biscuit but softer. The flavor should be like a perfume for your mouth. She's keeping her secret scone recipe to herself, but read on for her advice on how to achieve these qualities. The tools: A bench scraper, parchment paper, a cutting board, a large rubber spatula, a box grater and a French rolling pin.
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Terminology: For scones, butter is cut in to dry ingredients until evenly distributed in small pea-sized pieces to create a flaky product.
Technique/s: Instead of cutting butter into flour with a pastry blender or your hands, take ice cold butter to a chilled box grater to make curls of butter that can be easily stirred into dry mixes. This keeps butter at optimal temperatures for handling and helps with making the dough consistently marbleized.
The most important aspect of scones is handling the dough gently. The dough should be just moist enough to pull together well without crumbling or big flecks of flour and should be firm enough that it can stand up. Here's a video of Lesher demonstrating the proper hand-mixing process:
Troubleshooting: Make sure to use cane sugar, not beet sugar. Replace baking powder often. Try using coconut cream instead of dairy. Overmixing in appliances and the resulting stretched gluten strands can cause scones to be tough and dry. Scones are best made carefully with hands-on love!
Recommended reads: Cook's Illustrated Magazine to learn about the science of perfect recipes, even though you might not always agree with them.