Pumpkin recipes are how the food community officially welcomes the fall, starting with warmly spiced breads and muffins, working into pumpkin stuffed pastas, slowly braised pumpkin stews, and the harbinger of harvest, classic pumpkin pie. Pumpkin is such a darling for seasonal eaters, in fact, that it would be a crime not to embrace the autumn with seasonal baked goods like pumpkin spiced scones. Also, scones are a great excuse to eat icing for breakfast without the wrack of guilt because, you know, pumpkin and all that. Reason enough to start baking, if you ask me.
I generally prefer the art of cooking to the science of baking, despite having a mouth full of sweet teeth. The truth is that, frankly, baking is just harder than cooking, and the threat of failure is always imminent. For example, take something as simple as a scone. A good scone has risen well with nice sharp edges. The top is golden but not brown, the scone is moist and flavorful but not dense, and the crumb is tender and appears flaky, easily pulling apart into a strata of deliciousness. A bad scone is everything else, and the problem is that something destined to be a good scone can easily cross over to the dark side with a smidgen less butter or too much milk, a minute more kneading than you need, or a cool oven that just doesn’t circulate air evenly.
Yes, my friends, I am no stranger to baking bad scones. I have done it before, and I will most likely do it again. However, over time I have managed to learn how to bake fewer bad scones, by bearing in mind just a couple of Golden Rules:
- The butter must be ice cold, and it needs to stay ice cold until the moment those scones go in the oven. Flash freezing the butter for a few moments is certainly not unheard of.
- The oven has to be fully preheated and piping hot when the scones go in or they will not rise properly. If your oven has a convection setting, all the better; reduce the cooking time by a minute or two, and encourage the air to circulate. Don’t dawdle with the door open.
- Work fast.
- Use a super sharp knife and cut the scones straight down. Don’t slice across the scones with a pressing or sawing motion or use a dull knife that will push them down around the edges. A nice clean cut and sharp edge will help the scones to rise and also looks much more attractive.
- Have a light touch, handling the dough as little as possible with your hands and avoid over mixing at all cost. As soon as the dough has barely come together with a few light kneads, leave it at that. When the dough has been over mixed or kneaded too aggressively, it is hard to salvage what will be heavy, dense and rubbery scones.
The other thing to remember is that even if you fall prey to one of the deadly transgressions of scone making, using room temperature fats and kneading until it looks like bread dough, it isn’t the end of the world. After all, we still have frosting! Brown butter icing can truly atone for a litany of sins.
Spiced Pumpkin Scones with Brown Butter Icing
Makes 8 large scones
- 3/4 cup pumpkin puree *
- 1/3 cup + 2 tbsp buttermilk
- 1/4 cup maple syrup
- 2.5 cups all purpose flour
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 3/4 tsp ground ginger **
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp ground allspice
- 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, chilled
Brown Butter Icing
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter
- 2 tbsp maple syrup
- 2 tsp buttermilk
- 1 3/4 cup icing sugar
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp ground ginger
- 1/4 tsp ground allspice
- 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
- pinch salt
* Canned pumpkin puree is such a convenience. Be sure to buy pure pumpkin puree and not pumpkin pie filling, which is sweetened and spiced. If you’re making your own puree from roasted pumpkin it will have the most flavor, but be sure to drain it well. The first time I made pumpkin puree I decided to just wing it and ended up with a soggy excuse for a bourbon pumpkin cheesecake. Pure devastation, really. I’ve been a bit gun shy since, hence the convenience of a can.
** Ground ginger goes stale very quickly and loses it’s pungency and flavor. I try to buy smaller amounts of ground ginger and use it up within a few months. If you haven’t lately, buy new ginger for this recipe because it really does make a difference. The holidays are just around the corner, so don’t worry…you’ll use it up!
Preheat the oven to 400ºF.
Sift the flour into a large mixing bowl along with the sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices. Whisk the mixture together so that the spices are incorporated well into the flour.
In a separate smaller bowl, dollop in the pumpkin, 1/3 cup buttermilk and the maple syrup. Whisk the mixture until it is smooth and combined.
Cut the ice cold butter into small 1/4″ chunks and toss them into the flour.
Cut the butter into the flour with a pastry cutter (or 2 knives) until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs and the largest chunks of butter are roughly pea sized. Work quickly so that the butter stays nice and cold; don’t manhandle the mixture with your hot little paws and remember that you’re cutting the butter, not mashing it. A light touch makes lighter biscuits.
Add the wet ingredients to the flour and use a broad spatula to fold the mixture together a few times until it is almost combined.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead it gently 2-3 times until it just comes together. The purpose here is to combine the ingredients so that it is roughly uniform, while trying not to over mix or activate the gluten in the flour. Gluten is great for tender breads, but not so great for tender biscuits. Pat the dough into a flat circle that is approximately 2″ thick.
Use a thin sharp blade (I use my bench scraper for this) to cut the disc into 8 even wedges.
Space the scones evenly on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a baking mat. There should be at least 1-2″ between scones to allow room for expansion. Brush just the tops lightly with the remaining buttermilk.
Bake the scones in the hot oven for 18-22 minutes, or until they have risen and are starting to brown gently around the edges.
Let the scones cool completely before you frost them.
To make the brown butter icing, start by melting the butter in a wee small little pot or sauce pan set over moderately high heat. Bring the butter to a boil and let it cook for a few minutes until it is golden brown with little scrappy dark and burnt bits on the bottom.
Pour the browned butter into a small bowl and set it in the freezer for 15 minutes to firm up and congeal.
Scrape the dark flotsam off the butter and discard it. Don’t worry about being too precise, just get rid of what you can without losing too much butter. Put the “good” butter into a medium mixing bowl along with the maple syrup, spices and pinch of salt.
Add a cup of icing sugar to the butter and beat until it is smooth and combined. Blend in the buttermilk and add the remaining icing sugar a few tablespoons at a time, beating well after each addition, until the icing is smooth and thick.
You could frost the tops of the scones smoothly, of course, but I prefer a shamefully thick swirl of icing on top.
As far as I’m concerned, pumpkin scones are a perfect excuse to eat frosting for breakfast.
The scones are moist and gently spiced. The scone itself is not particularly sweet, but that’s where the brown butter frosting comes in with it’s decadent nutty flavor. Brown butter icing is an improvement to just about anything, and elevates stodgy little squash scones into something of a treat.