By Alison Boyd
Does the humble scone originate from Scotland, Ireland or Wales? Whatever the provenance, this ultimate quick bread, with its short baking time and simple ingredients, was a gift to the early cook with limited resources. These qualities are precisely what endears the scone to the time-pressed modern cook, and no more so than around the holidays.
The American take on the scone is far fancier than the humble British version, which is typically served either plain or with raisins and spread with butter, clotted cream and jam.
As a transplanted Brit, I must admit I turned my nose up at these sweet imposters, which had no business including touches like chocolate and cinnamon in their ingredient list. I now admit, I have developed a grudging respect for these more luxurious versions; a move that would certainly have made my Irish farm grandmother shake her head at the sheer extravagance. She was never so happy as when she had a leftover pint of milk on the counter that had soured, (she would say turned), ready to leaven a batch of scones.
Strata, our featured main dish, would certainly appeal to my grandmother’s thrifty soul and is an absolute crowd-pleaser. This savory bread pudding is packed with ingredients that are readily to hand, with bread, eggs, cheese and milk as its main components. It can be easily assembled ahead and baked just before serving. Trust me, once you have served this crowd-pleasing menu for brunch or lunch, your family and friends will be requesting a repeat for many years to come.
This dish is very forgiving. I have given exact quantities, but you can vary the amounts of cheese and fillings to your taste. My version is loaded with local greens, leeks and red bell peppers that offset the richness of the cheese. You can add either cooked sausage or bacon, or serve them as a side. After sautéing the swiss chard, spinach and leeks, drain thoroughly on paper towels to remove excess liquid. Be sure to use cheese that melts easily. I prefer a combination of sharp cheddar, gruyere and a little parmesan for flavor. You can prepare and assemble the night before and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature for thirty minutes before sprinkling with grated parmesan and baking.
3 Tbs. butter
4 Tbs. olive oil
I large yellow onion minced
2 red bell peppers, seeds removed and sliced into thin strips
2 large bunches of Swiss chard or spinach,
(about six cups) washed, dried and shredded
2 medium leeks, cleaned and sliced
A large, slightly stale, sourdough loaf, cubed. (about 8 cups of bread)
Large handful Italian parsley, washed, dried and minced
1 cup grated gruyere cheese
1 ½ cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
1/3 cup plus two Tbs. finely grated parmesan cheese
6 large organic eggs
3 ½ cups whole milk
½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
2 tsp paprika
3/4 tsp salt (for egg mixture)
Freshly ground black pepper
Prepare the vegetables. Heat 2 Tbs. olive oil in a large heavy pan. Add the spinach or swiss chard, sprinkle with a little salt and sauté over medium heat for about five minutes until wilted.
Remove from pan and place on paper towels to drain. Wipe out pan and repeat process for the leeks and bell peppers, making sure vegetables are drained thoroughly of excess liquid.
Melt 1 Tbs. of butter with 1 Tbs. of oil in a heavy pan and sauté onion gently until softened. The vegetables can be cooled and stored in the refrigerator for up to 12 hours before assembly.
Whisk together eggs, milk, 1/3 cup parmesan, parsley, nutmeg, paprika, salt and black pepper to taste.
Grease the bottom of a 9 x 13-inch casserole dish with 2 Tbs. butter. Layer half of each of the vegetables, bread and grated cheese in the dish. Pour half of the milk and egg mixture over it.
Add the remaining bread, grated cheddar and gruyere to the bowl containing the rest of milk and egg mixture and mix thoroughly before adding to the casserole dish. Sprinkle with two Tbs. grated parmesan cheese and bake in a 350-degree oven for about 75 minutes until golden. Allow to rest for 30 minutes before serving.
To add richness to my basic scone recipe I have replaced half of the buttermilk with heavy cream. If you prefer yours plain, serve with clotted cream and jam. The dried fruit version is delicious served warm with butter, while the ginger and chocolate variety need no embellishment.
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
5 tsp. baking powder
½ cup sugar cut into chunks
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter (2 ½ sticks)
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup buttermilk
Raw sugar crystals for sprinkling
Choose from one of the following or make your own mixture:
1 1/2 cup mixed dried fruit, such as raisins, cherries, currants and cranberries
¼ cup finely chopped crystallized ginger together with ¾ cup of dark chocolate chips
Not a fan of ginger? Substitute 1 cup dark chocolate chips
Place the flour, salt, sugar and baking powder in the bowl of the food processor and pulse to blend. Add the butter and process until the pieces are pea-sized. Add the sugar and pulse lightly to mix.
Transfer the flour and butter mixture to a large mixing bowl. Add any additions such as dried fruit, ginger and or chocolate chips if including.
Whisk the eggs, cream and buttermilk (reserving 2 TBS. to glaze tops) together in a separate bowl, then stir into the dry ingredients to make a moist dough.
Turn mixture out onto a floured surface. The trick here is not too handle the dough too much. Carefully shape into a round and roll out gently to half-inch thickness. Cut into rounds using a sharp metal cutter. Place well-spaced apart on a heavy baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush the tops of the scones lightly with the reserved egg and cream mixture and sprinkle with raw sugar.
As an extra touch, if you are using crystallized ginger, add a pinch of grated nutmeg and cinnamon to the glazing mixture.
Bake in the center of a 485 degree for 15 minutes until tops are lightly browned. Place on a cooling tray, before serving warm or at room temperature. Makes about 18 scones.
Scones are best eaten the day you bake them. As a bonus, they freeze well and can be reheated in a 350-degree oven wrapped in tin foil.
Alison Boyd ran a catering business in her native London before working as a private chef in Bridgehampton. She has since decamped to the North Fork.