When we were first married, Frank and I would pick a country, pack a map and a Fodor’s, and get on a plane. No real plans or reservations, just ecstatic ideas about all the things we wanted to see. We loved to fly all night and land someplace so totally different. We’d get off the plane groggy, rent a car, and find someplace nearby to wake ourselves up with coffee and a roll with butter. We had little money and would eat and stay cheaply. Back then, you could actually drive all day, stop when you got tired or happened on a nice town, and find a clean room for about $10. They’d charge an extra dollar or so if you wanted to use the shower. (This all sounds totally impossible now.)
I wouldn’t call these trips vacations. We didn’t get any rest, but we did learn and see so much. One summer, we were driving in the English countryside and it was later in the day than we would have liked. B&Bs filled up around dinnertime and we were several hours past that. In search of a room, we turned off the main road. There was nothing that resembled a town—no signs, no lights—just fields divided by neatly-built low stone walls. We were pretty wiped and the prospect of driving in the dark for the rest of the night or sleeping in the car was not sounding particularly appealing.
Just when we were ready to get back on the main road, we saw the Thornton Farmhouse with a sign that said they had rooms to rent. We made the left into the driveway and knocked at the door. A middle-aged, very English-looking woman appeared: Alieen Thornton. She and her husband, Roy, couldn’t have been more welcoming. The house was neat and clean and beautiful. We were the only guests.
Sitting on the sofa, Alieen asked if we had eaten. We hadn’t, and without missing a beat, she disappeared into the kitchen and brought out a big tray of scones with jam and tea. “I hope you like these,” she said as she set them down. Even if we hadn’t been so hungry, we would have thought they were perfect. We ate every last one. We talked a bit, and then they showed us to our room. In the morning, we all ate breakfast together at their kitchen table and talked for hours.
It turned out that they had just decided to rent out rooms only a week or so ago, and if I remember correctly, we were their first or second guests. They told us about their family and farm life in England. We told them about New York and our families, too. Before we left, we promised them that when we had kids, we would bring them back for a visit. After we got home, I wrote Aileen for her scone recipe—email was nonexistent. Her reply was quick. You can see it here.
It was 2003 by the time we were able to make it back with Lee and Ray—quite some time had passed. We made the same left into the Thornton’s driveway and knocked on the door. A woman answered and we asked if Roy and Aileen still owned the farm. She asked us to wait and closed the door. A moment later, she came back with Aileen. She looked almost exactly the same. We told her how we had been there years before and of our promise to return with our kids. There was a slight pause and we were unsure if she remembered us. Then she said, “We thought of you on 9/11 and hoped you were OK.”
Roy had passed away and her son, Richard, and his wife, Lorna, were running the farm now. We talked for a while and they showed us around. They told us we had to take Ray to the nearby Alnwick Castle, one of the film locations for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies. With hugs, we left and headed to Alnwick.
We still think of the Thorntons—they always come up when we talk about the places we’ve traveled and the people we met on the way. To this day, the photos we took during our stay with them in 2003 are still some of our favorites. And of course, we think of them each time we make Aileen’s English Cheddar Scones, always just as delicious as they were on that first summer night.
I hope we’ll make it back to the Thornton’s again—maybe someday with Lee and Ray and their own kids.
These scones really are just perfect. Serve them toasty warm all on their own (or with jam and butter) or alongside a meal. They are so quick and easy to make, they may just become a staple in your house.
You’ll notice there’s something unexpected in the ingredients list: a touch of dry mustard. Instead of a bringing a pronounced mustard flavor to the scones, it lends a background flavor that brings out the cheddar-y goodness of the cheese. It’s genius.
We’ve made these scones for all sorts of days and all sorts of meals: breakfasts, lunches, dinners, snow day snacks, as the foundation for a killer breakfast sandwich, and as the companion to a piping hot bowl of soup. This weekend, we’ll be baking them alongside a big pot of chili for dipping and dunking and scooping during the Superbowl. Cheddar scones and chili? How did we not think of that one sooner? Cannot. Wait.
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Aileen’s English Cheddar Scones
Notes: We used Aileen’s U.S. conversions but we increased the butter just a little bit and doubled the recipe this time. For the perfect scones, be sure the butter and milk are cold and that you don’t handle the dough too much. If you want to make the scones before you’re ready to bake them, cut them out and place on the baking sheet. Lay a piece of wax paper on top then cover with foil or plastic wrap. Refrigerate until you’re ready to bake. They can stay like this for a day. Brush with milk and top with the cheese just before you pop them in the oven.
Since we didn’t have self-rising flour, we made our own (you can do that!) by adding 1½ teaspoons of baking powder and ¼ teaspoon of salt to each cup of flour needed.
Aileen used a 2” biscuit cutter to shape her scones—we used a 3” ravioli cutter because we like the size and shape. You can just as easily use the rim of a glass to press down firmly on the dough. If you go with a smaller cutter than we did, you will, of course, get more than 12 scones. Just keep using the dough up until it’s gone.
When baked, they are very tender and flaky. To ensure you achieve this heavenly texture, work quickly so the butter doesn’t warm up—its cold temperature is what makes the magic happen. As the scones bake, it steams, puffing and flaking the dough.
Scones are best eaten shortly after baking. Store leftovers in a Ziploc bag for a day. Warm them in a 350° F oven before eating. You can also freeze them. Defrost and reheat in your oven for about 10 minutes (our preference) or for 10-15 seconds in a microwave.
– A 3” round cookie or biscuit cutter
– 4 cups all purpose
– 6 tsp baking powder (aluminum-free!)
– 1/2 tsp salt
– 2 tsp dry mustard
– 8 tbs cold butter, cut into small pieces
– 2 cups shredded or grated cheddar, preferably English
– 1 1/3 cups cold whole milk + some to brush the tops (you can substitute 2% milk)
* Pre-heat your oven to 400° F and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
* Sift the flour, baking powder, salt, and dry mustard together into a bowl.
* Work the cold butter into the flour mixture using a pastry blender. If you don’t have one, you can cut in the butter with two knives (though to be honest, we often find this time consuming) or use your fingers (our preferred alternative). You should wind up with small, pea-sized pieces of butter evenly throughout.
* Lightly mix in about half of the cheddar (being careful not to mash the butter).
* Make a well in the center of your dry ingredients and add 1 cup of milk. With your hand, start incorporating the flour into the milk. Once everything is mixed, add the rest of your milk a little at a time as you mix until you end up with a soft dough that can be gently rolled out.
* Carefully roll out the dough to ¾ of an inch thick. Cut out scones using your cookie cutter and place them on your parchment-lined baking sheet. Make sure to leave some space between the scones for them to cook evenly and puff up as they bake.
* Gather up the remaining scraps and re-roll the dough. Cut out more scones. Repeat until you’ve used all the dough.
* Place the scones on the parchment, brush with a little milk, and sprinkle with the remaining cheddar.
* Bake for 20-25 minutes. When they’re done, the scones will be lightly brown and have a hollow sound when you tap the bottom. The dough should be cooked through and flaky. You can always cut into one and take a peek if you are not sure they are done but don’t over bake. If the scones are browning too fast as they cook, lay a sheet of foil loosely over top.
* Remove from oven and serve hot immediately or let cool on a wire rack (if you can stand the wait after you see and smell them).
* Serve with your favorite jam and butter and tea, your favorite soup or chili, or use them to make the tastiest sandwiches.
©2015 Lee and Lou Cook. All Rights Reserved.