The Best Thing About My Day

tools of the 'ol trade
I had a handful of post-college jobs before I found my way into the warm embrace of public radio. Some I took seriously--like my pastry kitchen gig--and some I took not-so-seriously, like my employment with a certain chain coffee shop with a cult-like following. Emphasis on the "cult." Of course, selling an addicting product ensures a certain amount of return business. But many customers had such bizarrely specific demands for their coffee, there must have been something else going on. One guy came in every day to write. He was clearly on a budget, because he brought his own toast. His drink was just an americano, but he liked it in a ceramic cup that had been warmed for a little under a minute in hot water. Another guy got a large mocha valencia (a mocha with orange-flavored sugar syrup) with "8 pumps of mocha." That's twice the usual amount and translates to about one cup of mocha syrup. Another guy liked two pats of butter in his regular coffee. The craziest drink belonged to a very skinny woman who got a large latte with half soy milk and half low fat milk, 1 shot of regular espresso, 1.5 shots of decaf espresso, two Equal and a tablespoon of whipped cream on the top. I'm not making that up. She would take a sip and, assuming you had made it correctly, say, "this is the best thing about my day." I believed her.

A couple of pastries inspired the same devotion as the coffee. Exhibit A: The pumpkin scone. All the food items tasted the same to me after I'd worked there a few months, so I never understood what was so great about the pumpkin scone, other than that it was drenched in frosting. I found it one-note: sweet.

But last fall, before The Great Pie Incident of 2009, when I was still interested in baking with pumpkin, I decided to try my hand at pumpkin scones. These guys don't have a half inch of frosting on the top and they don't need it. They taste like fall and the texture is lovely.

Like a pie crust, scones come together best if the ingredients are cold. Cut 6 tablespoon of butter into small pieces and put in the fridge while you prep the rest of the ingredients. In a medium bowl, combine 1 cup of AP flour, 1 cup of cake flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons of of baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon of salt,1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon of allspice and 1/4 teaspoon of ground ginger. Whisk to combine and put the bowl in the freezer. In yet another bowl, combine 1/3 cup pumpkin puree, 1/3 cup of cream, 6 tablespoons of brown sugar and 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract (or vanilla bean paste!). Whisk together well and put bowl in the freezer.

Take the flour bowl out of the freezer and dump in the butter pieces. Grab little handfuls of flour and butter and gently massage with your fingertips so the butter and flour combines into coarse crumbs. You could also put the flour and butter in a food processor and pulse a couple of times until it looks crumby. It's worth it to do things totally by hand once in while. I think it helps you gain a muscle memory that can guide you when you are using machinery. If you like raisins, you can add 1/2 cup of them to the flour/butter crumbs.

Take the pumpkin mixture out of the freezer and pour it into the flour mixture all at once. Stir with a wooden spoon until the dry ingredients become moist. The dough will still be pretty crumbly.

Dump the dough onto a kneading surface. If you're like me, you have tile counter tops (Or if you are really like me, counter top, singular. Oh how I dream of counter space.). Tile is not a great kneading surface. I used to have a big wooden board for kneading, but it went walkabout during one of my many moves. I also used to lay a damp towel across the tile and put my largest baking sheet on top. The damp towel keeps the baking sheet from moving around too much and it's a decent set-up for kneading. But the tides turned (is that a phrase?) when my parents gave me a piece of marble, measuring a little over a foot on each side. This is the ideal kneading material, it stays cold and it looks pretty. If you don't have an easy kneading surface in your kitchen, ask my parents for a piece of marble.

Anyway, push your dough together into a lump and knead it until it just comes together, meaning you can move it around and it stays generally in one piece and doesn't leave a trail of dough bits splintering off in its wake. Form the dough into a circle about 3/4 inch thick. Cut into 8 wedges and place the wedges on a baking sheet lined with parchment. Put them as far apart as your baking sheet will allow, so they don't run into each other during baking.

Bake for 15 minutes in a pre-heated 425 degree oven until they are light brown on the bottom. Yes, the bottom. Usually you look for tops to brown, but if you waited for tops of your pumpkin scones to brown, the bottoms would burn.

If you must have an icing, you can mix 1 cup of powdered sugar with 2 tablespoons of milk and 1/4 to a 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon and pour it over the cooled scones.

Pictured are a few tools that make my life easier/better. At the bottom there is my marble slab. The jar is Vanilla Bean Paste. It's not actually a paste, more like a syrup and it has the flavor of extract, but deeper, because it's packed with vanilla seeds. I love the look of them in my baked goods as much as I like the flavor. The white thing is a bench scraper. When I worked at the pastry kitchen, my boss and I both had bench scrapers dyed in our signature color with food coloring. We got pretty territorial about them because they come in so handy. For these scones, you could use the scraper to gather your dough, to cut the wedges and to lift the wedges from the kneading surface onto the pan. I have two go-to jelly roll sheets... baking pans with sides. And for both of them, I have a cooling rack that fits inside the pan. This is a great set-up for frosting. You can cool your scones on the rack, then put the rack into the pan and pour over the icing. The excess runs through the rack into the pan, where you can scrape it up with your bench scraper and use again if you want. I have a couple of cookies that I like to finish by drizzling with chocolate. I line my sheet with parchment, set the rack on top, drizzle melted chocolate over my cookies and wait while everything that's going to run off the cookies runs off. Then I lift out the rack and put the pan in the fridge until the chocolate hardens. And then I can just peel the chocolate off the parchment, melt and repeat. Good chocolate is expensive, so why waste any of it?

If you have any tips for cleaning well-loved baking sheets, please enlighten me. I do wash mine with soap and water, but no amount of scrubbing will get them shiny and new looking.