One of my sad, sad weekend hobbies is wandering around National Trust properties, buying a sack of books at the inevitable second-hand bookshop and then visiting the tea-room for a handsome cream tea, with fluffy scones, strawberry jam and plenty of clotted cream to slather on top. If you’re in East Anglia, the exquisite Oxburgh Hall, where you’ll find a number of embroideries worked by Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick, a priest hole you can clamber into and a very fine garden, has a really fabulous tearoom. Ickworth House (English wines, fantastic gardens, wonderful collection of fans) and Wimpole Hall (organic farm, hot-dogs made from the pigs you have just fed pig-nuts to in the barn) also do a very good line in cream teas – but to my mind Oxburgh’s intimate tearoom, housed in the hall’s old kitchens, complete with antique bread ovens and blue and white crockery displaying pictures of the hall itself, still takes the…cake. All the same, while it’s nice to visit Oxburgh once or twice a year (those gardens change gorgeously in character over the seasons), I can’t really justify driving an hour just for a cup of tea and a scone more regularly than that. Time to get baking.
I usually choose a pot of Earl Grey to go with my scones. So when, in the absence of a National Trust tearoom, I decided to prepare my own cream tea at home this weekend, I decided to use some very strong Earl Grey to soak the sultanas in before adding them to the dough. With a pot of tea, a jar of good strawberry jam (try Tiptree’s Little Scarlet or Duchy Originals Strawberry) and some clotted cream (increasingly available in supermarkets and delis – if you can’t find any, use extra-thick double cream rather than whipped cream, which has exactly the wrong texture), you’ll find yourself in possession of one of the finest things you can eat in the afternoon.
A quick note on the egg in the dough. I was lucky enough to have a box of bantam eggs a neighbour had given me, and used two – bantam eggs are tiny, very yolky and rich, and two are approximately the same volume as a single large hen’s egg. If you can find bantam eggs, I’d recommend using two in this recipe.
To make about 16 scones, you’ll need:
225g plain flour
2½ teaspoons baking powder
25g caster sugar
1 large egg OR two bantam eggs
Milk (enough to make up 150ml when added to the beaten egg)
1 large cup strong Earl Grey tea
Start by brewing the tea (make yourself a cup to drink while you’re at it) and preheating the oven to 220°C (425°F). When the tea is nice and strong, pour it over the sultanas in a bowl and leave them to plump up for half an hour while you prepare the dough for the scones.
Sieve the flour and baking powder into a bowl, and cut the softened butter into it in little chunks. Rub the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar.
When the sultanas have had half an hour in the tea, drain them in a seive and add them to the flour mixture. In a measuring jug, beat the egg. Top the beaten egg up with the milk until you have 150ml of liquid, and stir it gradually into the flour mixture (you may not need all of it), mixing all the time with a wooden spoon, until you have a soft dough that holds together but is not sticky. Try not to over-handle the dough so that your scones are light and fluffy. Roll the dough out on a floured surface to a thickness of about 1cm, and cut out rounds with a 5cm circular cutter.
Place the rounds onto greased baking sheets and brush the tops with any remaining milk/egg mixture (if you have none left, plain milk will do). Bake for 10 minutes until golden brown.
These scones are at their very best served as soon as they come out of the oven, split in half, spread with jam and cream. Once cooled, they’ll keep for a couple of days in an airtight tin.