I love making scones. When you know that while working as a pastry chef I made scones by the gross on Sundays, and made as many as 150 dozen on Mothers' Day, you might be surprised that I still love making them. But I do, because then I get to eat them. Here's a good, basic guide to scone making, the old-fashioned way, by hand.
Basic Scone Recipe
yields 16 scones
3½ cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon fleur de sel or kosher salt
2 tablespoons baking powder
10 tablespoons (1¼ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small cubes and well-chilled
1 whole egg plus 1 egg white (reserve the yolk for egg wash)
1 cup cultured buttermilk or heavy cream
1 cup dried fruits (optional)
Sift together into a large mixing bowl the dry ingredients. If your sifter can't handle the salt, just add it to the sifted ingredients, then give them a good stir with a whisk.
If you haven't already done so, cut your butter into small cubes. Once you've finished cutting the butter, put it back into the refrigerator for at least 15 minutes if it was cold when you started. If it has warmed and softened, chill it for 30 minutes or more. You want the butter quite cold, but not frozen.
Make a well in the dry ingredients and add the chilled butter cubes. Using mostly your fingertips, rub the flour into the butter until the butter is mostly the size of peas. It may not surprise you that this technique is called "rubbing." You could use a pastry blender, if you prefer, or a couple of table knives, but you'll have much better control with your fingers. Work quickly so the butter doesn't warm up.
What you're trying to accomplish is to encase small bits of fat inside an envelope of flour. Later, in the oven, the butter will melt, releasing steam and leaving behind small pockets of air. The steam helps the dough rise, of course, while the pockets of air left behind contribute to the sensation of lightness you want in a scone, biscuit, or pastry.
Whisk together the buttermilk or cream and eggs until well incorporated. Then make a well in the flour mixture and pour in the milk and eggs. Using a dough scraper or just your hands, fold the dry ingredients into the pool of liquid until the dough begins to come together.
Once the liquid is mostly incorporated, add any dried fruits or zest and continue to fold. I used a combination of crystallized ginger and dried Montmorency cherries for this batch of scones. Other classic additions are blueberries (dried or fresh) or dried cranberries with the zest of an orange. If you're using fresh blueberries, reserve a bit of the flour mixture and toss it with the berries. They're easier to incorporate that way. If you prefer a savory scone use ingredients like bacon and sun-dried tomatoes in place of or in addition to dried fruit. The sugar level is the same whether making a sweet or savory scone, it's the additions and topping that make the difference.
Once everything is nicely incorporated and the dough mostly holds together, turn it out onto a well-floured surface. Be gentle with the dough because you don't want to start gluten formation, which leads to toughness. Pat the dough into a rough rectangle, then fold it in half and compress. Liberally dust with flour, turn 90° and repeat. Continue folding, compressing, and turning, dusting with flour as necessary, until the dough holds together by itself.
Use your dough scraper to cut the dough in half. Pat each half into a flat round about ½" or so in thickness--a little more than ½" is fine, but don't go too thin.
Use a sharp knife to cut each round into eight pieces. Gently transfer each piece to a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Set aside to rest for 30 minutes.
Now is a good time to preheat the oven to 350°F. You'll also need an egg wash.
1 whole egg plus 1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons water
Mix the egg and water thoroughly. Some cookbooks recommend adding seasoning to the egg wash, but I prefer just egg and water. Whatever I have left over gets put into the refrigerator, covered, to be used as part of an omelet, frittata, or scrambled eggs the next morning.
Once the scones have rested 30 minutes and the oven is ready, brush the tops with egg wash. If you wish to top them, sprinkle some demerara or sanding sugar over the egg wash--for savory scones, a bit of cheese does nicely, as does a very light dusting of Fleur de Sel. They'll turn out quite nicely with nothing added, but the egg wash is important for color.
Baking time will depend on a number of factors, including whether you used buttermilk or cream, how much water was in the butter you used, etc. So start checking at 15 minutes and every five minutes thereafter until they're done. You'll know they're done when they are nicely browned on top and no longer squishy. Typically they take about 30 minutes.
You might think that 16 scones is a large batch, but they freeze well. It's best to let them thaw overnight in the refrigerator, because thawing them rapidly in a microwave oven just toughens them. I usually freeze the extra scones individually wrapped in plastic and stored in a large bag so I can take out however many I think I'll need the night before, then give them 5 minutes in a 350° oven or toaster oven before serving.