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Wednesday, March 11, 2009 10:03 pm

Use flour au naturel for the tastiest scones


Q. Your recipes always call for unbleached flour. What’s the reason, and is it OK to substitute bleached flour? —Marcia

A.Yes, you can substitute bleached flour for unbleached. But why would you want to?

Growing up in an organic-centered household, unbleached flour was inevitable. Whole wheat was king, but we used unbleached for anything requiring white flour because artificial bleaching destroys most of flour’s nutrients. “Enriched” flour adds them back, but why go through the process of eliminating naturally occurring nutrients, and replacing them with artificially constructed equivalents?

All ingredents are too much the reason most flour is bleached is cost. All “white” flour is bleached. In its original state it’s a grayish-yellowish color. The difference is that unbleached flour whitens naturally by oxidation. This takes time and warehouse space. Decades ago, producers began expediting the process by treating flour with chemicals, taking minutes instead of weeks. The chemicals’ health risks are controversial: the Food and Drug Administration says they’re safe, but they’ve been banned in many European countries. None are considered environmentally friendly. Naturally bleached flour is creamy-colored; chemically bleached flour is dead-white.

Unbleached flour also has more flavor. When White Lily Flour became available locally, I was excited. For years I’d heard this Southern favorite produced the lightest, fluffiest biscuits. But the results were disappointing. The biscuits were noticeably, though not dramatically, lighter and fluffier. But they were also bland. I’d never thought flour had much flavor, but the same held true when using bleached flour for cookies — they just weren’t as tasty.

A 1999 comparison by Cook’s Illustrated magazine provided confirmation: “the four bleached flours… did not perform as well as the unbleached flours and were regularly criticized for tasting flat or carrying ‘off’ flavors, often described as metallic.” Their highest performance and taste ratings went to King Arthur and Pillsbury unbleached flours.

Cook’s Illustrated said that “consumers prefer chemically bleached flour over unbleached because they associate the whiter color with higher quality.” I’m not sure that’s the reason, nor that unbleached flour costs a few pennies more. My guess is that the reason chemically bleached flour sells better is because it occupies a much larger place on grocers’ shelves — and that people don’t understand the difference.

These cream scones are as absurdly easy as they are delicious. They’re fast to make and bake, quick enough to put together for a midweek supper as a savory bread, or a weekend breakfast/brunch treat that will earn you rave reviews with minimal fuss. To make them even easier, combine dry ingredients the day before (go ahead and measure out any fresh herbs, cheeses, nuts, or dried or fresh fruits you’d like, but don’t add them until making the dough; dried herbs can be mixed in with the dry ingredients ahead of time), then in the morning, all you have to do is add those nuts, cheeses, or fruits, stir in the cream, knead for a few seconds, and you’re ready to bake. Traditional triangular scones can be made by patting out the dough and cutting it, but it’s even easier to make drop scones by simply dividing the dough into equal portions, and “dropping them onto the baking sheet. A large ice cream scoop works well for this. Not are drop scones the easiest to make, they also have the advantage of having rough tops, which become deliciously crispy.

1 ¾ c. unbleached all-purpose flour
3 T. sugar
1 T. baking powder, preferably Rumford or other baking powder that does not contain
aluminum salts*
½ tsp. Kosher or sea salt
1 c. heavy cream, preferably NOT ultra-pasteurized
Melted unsalted butter for brushing the tops of the scones
Coarse sugar, such as turbinado (sometimes labeled as Sugar in the Raw) for sprinkling on top of the scones, optional

Preheat the oven to 425º. Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl and stir to combine. Pour in the cream and mix until a stiff dough forms. (If the mixture is too dry, add milk by the tablespoonful.) Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 30 seconds. Pat into a 12-inch by 6-inch rectangle. Cut into 3-inch lengths crosswise, then cut each rectangle into triangles. Place on a greased pan — preferably lined with parchment paper — at least 2 inches apart and brush with melted butter. Sprinkle with the sugar and place in oven. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until nicely browned.

Makes 6 scones
Many variations are possible with this basic scone recipe. The following are suggestions, but don’t be afraid to experiment.

Sweet scones
» Cinnamon raisin — mix ½ tsp. ground cinnamon and 1/3 c. raisins to the dry ingredients (as noted above, if combining dry ingredients the night before, add raisins just before final mixing).
» Other dried fruits — 1/3 c. dried cherries, cranberries, blueberries, apricots and apples (cut larger fruits into bits), etc. Use with or without cinnamon or try other spices — just make sure the spices are not overwhelming (for example, too much clove can be too much of a good thing).
» Cranberry orange — a variation on the dried fruit above. Omit the cinnamon (or use just a pinch) and add 1 T. freshly grated orange peel
» Nut scones — 1/3 c. coarsely chopped nuts (preferably lightly toasted) can be used alone or in combination with dried fruits. If using both, add ¼ c. each. Add an additional ¼ c. untoasted nuts to the sugar sprinkled on top if desired. Nuts can also be added to savory scones (see below)
» Lemon poppy seed — Add 1/3 c. poppy seeds and 1 T. freshly grated lemon rind
» Fresh fruits — fresh fruits can be wonderful, but if they’re too juicy, you can end up with a doughy mess. Blueberries and raspberries work well, but avoid such fruits as diced peaches. Use ½-¾ c.

Savory scones(Don’t use sugar on these!)
» Parmesan and herb scones — Add ¼ c. grated Parmesan and two tsp. dried herbs or 2 T. minced fresh herbs to the dry ingredients (again, do this just before the final mixing if combining the dry ingredients the night before). Use less of strong-flavored herbs such as rosemary. Herbs can be used singly or in combination. Some suggestions are rosemary, marjoram, herbs de Provence (a combination of herbs) thyme and lemon thyme. (Some herbs — minus the parmesan — also work well in sweet scones, such as rosemary, thyme and lemon thyme.) Dill (weed, not the seeds) is excellent. Because it is very mild, use 1 T. dried and ¼ c. snipped fresh dill. After brushing the tops with the melted butter, sprinkle the tops with an additional ¼ c. parmesan
» Cheddar scones — add ¾ c. coarsely shredded cheddar cheese when mixing the dough and sprinkle on another ¼ c. after brushing the tops with butter.

* Most baking powders contain aluminum salts. They can impart a tinny taste, most often discernable in biscuits and scones because they require a larger proportion of baking powder to the other ingredients than, say, cakes. There are some health concerns about aluminum salts, but unless you use a lot, it’s probably not that big an issue. But, as with unbleached flour, why not use something that’s not only healthier, but also makes a better product? Rumford baking powder contains no aluminum salts and is available at Food Fantasies and some local grocery stores. There are other varieties of non-aluminum salts baking powders; check the labels.


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