Blueberry Scones

I love scones. Scones are great for rainy or snowy days, when I curl up with tea (and usually a stack of grading). They’re also great for adventure days, when I want to snag something quick on my way out the door.

I was inspired several springs ago by a shelf full of very on-sale blueberry cartons at the grocery store to make blueberry scones. I snagged a couple of cartons and started scouring the internet for recipes. There were a million and three variations, of course! How was I to pick?

Finally I picked one, mostly at random, and tried it out. I found the scones I made were fluffly and buttery; they were utterly delicious and utterly different from my go-to scone recipe. I make Klassika scones frequently; it’s a recipe I learned in Sweden (and  in Swedish!).

The Klassika scone recipe translates (and the units convert) to this:

  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 4 tbsp baking powder
  • 5 tbsp cold butter
  • 1 1/4 cups cold milk

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. Chop the butter into small pieces and cut it in (I use my hands). Add the milk and mix until just combined. Divide into four chunks and place on a baking sheet lined with foil (or parchment paper). Bake at 475F (yes, that’s correct, I promise!) for 10-12 minutes, or until they sound hollow when you tap on them.

These scones come out flaky, crumbly, and can be eaten with jam or with soup. I love them because I almost always have all of these ingredients laying around and they’re super easy to make.

But everything from the texture to the flavor were different than the blueberry scones, and I wanted to know why. I tried to compare the recipes, but too many variables were different. Yes, I’m a scientist even in the kitchen. So what did I do? An experiment! Actually, many experiments.

I started pulling out different scone recipes and trying to find similarities. I looked at British current scones, my mom’s oatmeal scones, Starbucks imitation scones…the list went on. I also baked six different blueberry scone recipes (my roommates were delighted!) in order to gather more data.

I compared the amount of flour to the amount of liquid ingredients to the amount of leavening ingredients (baking soda or powder). I compared the temperatures and bake times. And most importantly, I compared the results!

At the end of all of this, I had several interesting trends in my data, a pretty rich understanding of how to bake tasty scones, and my all-time favorite blueberry scone recipe.

First, the trends in the ingredients.

  1. I tried to scale all the recipes so they had two cups of flour. Once I did that, the amount salt was fairly constant, as was the total amount of liquid.
  2. Some scones have sugar in their recipes. This variation really didn’t affect any other ingredients.
  3. The amount of leavening ingredients varied by how much fat there was from the butter and liquids. More fat (especially if there was an egg in the recipe) meant less leavening ingredients.
  4. There was HUGE variation in the liquid ingredients. Some recipes used all milk. Some used half and half or cream. Some used an egg. Some used yogurt or sour cream or buttermilk. But all the recipes came out to between one and 1 1/4 cups of liquid.
  5. The range of butter was between 5 tbsp and 8 tbsp.
  6. Most scones bake hot, between 400F and 475F, for fairly short times (10-25 minutes). The more fat, the cooler the baking

But most important, of course, are the correlations between this and the resultant scone!

  1. Fat content is hugely important for texture. The less fat, the more dense and crumbly the scone. The more fat, the more melt-in-your-mouth kind of a texture. Fat content is controlled by the amount of butter, obviously, but also the fat content of your liquids. Heavy cream, sour cream, and yogurt all increase the fat content, while milk and buttermilk have less fat.
  2. Eggs are the other major player in texture. Adding an egg to your recipe makes scones fluffier and less crumbly. (1 large egg is a little less than 1/4 cup liquid.)
  3. Varying the liquid ingredients changes the flavor of the scones. Yogurt and sour cream give the scone a tangy flavor that I love with blueberries. Milk and cream are the most neutral liquids.

If you’re curious, there are really fascinating science/chemistry reasons for all of these things. They have to do with the gluten protein and how it gets activated by water and conversely protected by fats, why the butter has to be cold, and also with the albumin protein in egg whites.

So after all of that, I finally have my favorite blueberry scone recipe. It’s not at all static. Sometimes it depends on what I have in the kitchen. Sometimes I feel like a slightly different texture or flavor. The ingredients in bold are the ingredients I vary the most. Ingredients that are not bold are the ones I leave alone.

  • 2 cups of flour
  • 3/4 tsp salt (never more than 1/2 tsp, or more than 1 tsp)
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 1/4 cup sugar (sometimes I go a bit less than this, but typically not more)
  • 8 oz (1 stick) cold butter, chopped
  • 1 to 1 1/4 cups blueberries
  • 1 egg
  • Equal parts sour cream and heavy whipping cream, totaling 3/4 cup, plus another 1-2 tbsp cream (I don’t like to go more sour cream than this because then there isn’t enough liquid to hold the dough together. I’ve done all heavy cream, and I’ve used yogurt in place of the sour cream, but this combination is my favorite.)
  • 1 tsp almond extract
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp dried orange peel

Mix the dry ingredients together in one bowl and cut in the butter. Mix the blueberries through (check for stems and dried flowers first). In a second bowl, mix the egg, liquid ingredients, and flavorings. Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry ingredients and mix just until combined. I use my hands so I don’t completely mash the blueberries. The dough sticks as much to me as it does to itself! Divide it into eight parts and place on a lined baking sheet. Bake at 400F for twenty to twenty-five minutes, until the tops are light gold.

Mixing in the liquids is the most do-by-feel part of the whole thing. I know what the finished dough is supposed to look like, so I can figure out if I need to add more or not. The only way to learn that is by practice. Trust me, your roommates/family/colleagues will be more than happy to help you in your pursuit of the perfect scone!

I will also add the disclaimer that I really don’t care what my scones look like. You can shape them to make them more round, or make one giant round and cut it into triangles, if pretty food makes you happy. I’m just not motivated enough for these to make them beautiful.

My blueberry scones are total indulgent decadence. They are moist and fluffy and you can totally tell two of the three main ingredients are heavy cream and butter! There is a time when I want these, and there is a time when I want something different. The thing I enjoyed learning from this escapade was how to vary the scones so I can make nearly exactly what I want. I spent a long time learning the details and intricacies of this particular art, and I appreciate the depth than brings.

My homework for you: What’s your favorite kind of scone (or other baked good)? Why is it your favorite? Have you ever thought about the chemistry behind your baking or cooking?

Hej då,

Jamie

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The Art of Fika

I’ve seen a lot of articles and Facebook posts in the last couple of years about the idea of hygge. Hygge is a Danish word (koselig is the Norwegian version) that means a sense of coziness, comfort, and warmth. It’s a mindset that many people in Scandinavian countries have in response to the very dark winters. It is particularly prevalent in Tromsø, one of the farthest north towns in the world. Tromsø is 350km north of the Arctic circle, which means the sun remains below the horizon for a portion of the winter.

Over the winter of 2014-2015, Kari Leibowitz, psychologist from Stanford University spent 10 months in Tromsø studying the effects of light on people’s psychology. She devised a ‘winter mindset questionnaire’ to assess people’s attitudes about winter. She also administered the assessment Oslo area, which is one of the southernmost points of Norway. Her results were fascinating. The farther north they went, the more positive people’s mindsets towards winter were. People in Tromsø make a point of creating light – whether floodlights on the sledding hill or an incredible number of candles – and of enjoying the soft colors of twilight at midday.

In many ways, this reminds me quite a bit of the other bit of Norwegian wisdom I shared with you: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” Rather than  falling prey to circumstances outside their control, many Scandinavians simply do their best to adjust and move on. One town called Rjukan, Norway adjusted by building giant mirrors to reflect the sun to their town, which is at the bottom of a deep canyon. (This being said, a lot of Swedish literature, songs, and humor have fairly dark and depressing themes, so make of that what you will.)

But wait, you’re thinking. Didn’t you study abroad in Sweden? Why are you talking so much about Norway? Truth be told, I never learned the Swedish word for hygge or koselig. But one of my favorite words and ideas that I did learn about in Sweden is the idea of fika.

Fika is one of those awesome words that really doesn’t translate. Even though Swedes are known for having some of the best English in a non-English speaking country, they don’t bother to translate it and just use it the way it is. Literally, fika translates as a verb: “to coffee.” But it’s used in a lot of different ways. People have said to me, “Let’s have a fika,” “It’s time for fika,” and “Would you like to fika?” Fika can mean to take a break, to grab a cup of coffee on the go, or to meet up with coffee and pastries and friends. Fika could be at a coffee shop, on a walk, or at someone’s home. (I keep saying coffee even though I don’t drink it. Even under many, many evil eyes, I stuck with my tea. Swedes are coffee OBSESSED.)

One important distinction that was made clear to me very early was that fika was a personal, intimate invitation. Asking someone to get coffee was much more formal. Especially in the winter, fika is a really important way for people to create a cozy, comfortable space where they can reconnect with important people. Sound familiar? Even though fika is an activity rather than a mindset, it feels a lot like hygge and koselig.

Fika is central to Swedish life. In my neuroscience class, we had four hour lecture blocks scheduled. At first, I was a bit worried about focusing for four hours, but our professor quickly made it clear that there would be frequent fikas, and we could bring our drinks and snacks back to class. My apartment was on a corridor with four Swedish girls and we all shared a kitchen; they were almost always having a fika when I got home. Perhaps it has something to do with Swedes’ constant need for caffeine (and in the winter, warmth), but I loved the constancy of people connecting with their friends.

I feel like fika is an art form that not as many people have discovered in the US. We have a huge coffee shop culture, that is true, but it feels really different to me. For one thing, we don’t often have fika at home. And when we’re in coffee shops, we’re there to work or to meet people for various productive purposes, rather than to get together with an old friend. It doesn’t have the same intimate feel as fika did while I lived in Sweden. And the US has a very interesting culture surrounding breaks and productivity, which could be a whole different blog post.

I recently read this article on the BBC. It’s about US cafes that are removing their WiFi and/or banning screens. In the article, the writer describes current cafe culture as feeling “more like open-plan offices than centres of community.” Some of the cafe owners interviewed cited the need for relief from technological imbalance as the reason for getting rid of WiFi, while others cited the desire to create a place of discourse and connection. The article explores societal, psychological, and economic impacts of creating spaces like this. It is a completely fascinating article (and links to a 69 page history of the purposes of cafes!) so I highly recommend reading more than just my little summary here.

Now, I spent a quite ridiculous amount of time sitting in Brewing Market throughout my college career. One semester I totaled it up; I wrote over 100 pages of graduate-level education papers in that coffee shop. The guy who worked on Wednesday mornings, my favorite time to go, started recommending teas to me based on what he knew I usually ordered. My other favorite place to work was in the engineering center, which also had easy access to tea and snacks. I still go to coffee shops sometimes to grade or plan because I like having the energy of other people talking and working around me to help keep me motivated.

But when I think about fika, I also think about this description of the original purposes of cafes. From that same BBC article, the purpose of cafes was “to act as places for lively debate and intellectual discussion and, above all else, social interaction.” In fact, the idea of a cafe without any technology is hugely appealing to me. If people actually talked to each other, I feel like it would ameliorate quite a lot of loneliness, feelings of being disenchanted, and isolation.

I still have lots of questions in my head about this kind of a cafe. I certainly don’t want to lose the ability to work coffee shops; some of my most productive work times have been in coffee shops around Boulder. And I also wonder about notebooks and books. When newspapers came out, people bemoaned the lack of connection lost to reading on the subway or time not spent listening to the radio. Will these older technologies (yes, printing is ABSOLUTELY a technology) still create gaps between people and isolation?

All that being said, I would welcome a “No-Fi” coffee shop in Boulder. I think perhaps it might be more popular than most people would expect. And I think it might help give us a way to start learning the art of fika.

Your homework: Have you ever experienced a cultural idea that you wished you could bring home? How do you connect with your most important people? What do you think about “No-Fi” coffee shops?

Hej då,

Jamie