When I was ten, I knew all of the words to Monty Python’s “Lumberjack Song,” though at the time, I probably understood only half of the Brit wit in the lyrics.
The suburbs of Rochester, NY, were, and still are, culturally provincial and gastronomically bereft, so whilst I was singing, “On Wednesdays, I go shopping and have buttered scones for tea,” I had no idea what a scone was. I had never seen one, let alone eaten one. My mom had a cup of tea every day, but she never had a scone, buttered or jammed or clotted-creamed.
Almost forty years later, in bakeries and coffee shops all over the former Colonies, the scone has become just as common as its thoroughly American cousin, the biscuit. History teaches us that the scone, despite its Scottish origins dating to the 1500s, did not truly gain popularity throughout the U.K. until the early nineteenth century, at which time they became vogue with afternoon tea.
Because British bakers have had more time to master their craft with these often sweet and sometimes savory pastries, the run-of-the-mill scones across the pond have every reason to be better than the ones served in stateside coffee shops.
Still, this does not mean that scones in Savannah should be as poor as many are. The majority of the scratch-baked versions at our local sit-and-sips range from good to blah to inedible, with only a few worthy of the cost, the calories, and your tastebuds.
It does not have to be this way. One Saturday a month, I bake scones in my own kitchen, knowing that they will be remarkably better than whatever I might buy elsewhere in town. After I decry the local tea-time treats that you should henceforth avoid, I will give you my basic recipe and three sure-fire flavor combinations, each of which even the novice baker can make in less than a half hour.
From best to not best, scone by scone, here is how the very few house-made Savannah options stack up. Note that some kitchens use egg in the dough, and others use only cream and butter for fat and baking powder for leavening.
Maté Factor (no egg)
It amazes me how many friends and colleagues still have not been to Maté Factor, whose baked goods are among the best and most consistent in the city. The only knock against the scones made by this outpost of The Twelve Tribes is that they are so tasty that you want more. At $2.50 apiece, each scone weighs between 125 and 130 grams, and four varieties are made on particular days of the week: blueberry-almond (Monday and Friday), raspberry-vanilla (Tuesday), maple-pecan (Wednesday), and cranberry-orange (Sunday and Thursday). Because we often visit on Sundays, the latter is most familiar to us. Though a bit flat, these scones are still light and cleave nicely along the interior crumb lines, making it the most reliable scone you can buy in Savannah.
Gryphon (no egg)
Fittingly, the most authentic scone in Savannah can be found at an elegant British tea room. Gryphon rotates the flavors of its tea-time bites, and both the coconut and cherry-apricot are outstanding, super-tall with the flakiest interior.
To complete the proper service, the scones come with jam and homemade Devonshire cream, which really help to round out the sweetness of the otherwise plain coconut version. The only knock against Gryphon’s pastries is size versus price: these chaps are tiny, between 50 and 60 grams but are still $2.50 a pop - because you are paying for the ambience of the fancy tea room. If you want these scones, you might as well go full Miss Marple and tuck into the entire afternoon tea service.
Foxy Loxy (egg)
The first local scone we had eaten before we had even moved to town was at Foxy, and though the shape recently changed, the chocolate-fig remains fantastic, an inventive combination that works.
This wedge has height and a moist crumb that is soft and light and that breaks nicely. The hazelnut-espresso scone rather needs its chocolate glaze because the interior wants for both coffee flavor and more hazelnuts. Notwithstanding these mild critiques, Foxy’s scones remain another best buy: only $2.50 for a pastry that weighs as much as 125 grams.
Like everything made by Auspicious Baking Co., its scones are wicked yummy, especially the orange-walnut; flecked with chunks of nuts and coated in sweet icing, this is one of the best-tasting scones in town, though the vanilla-bean one really needs that icing to have a discernible flavor.
The texture of both nicely baked rounds is somewhere between a biscuit and a too-dry cake with a crispy shell. These are dense scones, smallish but weighing 120 grams each and worth $2.50—even if I would opt for the monkey bread or a croissant nine times in ten visits to this special bakery.
Savannah Coffee Roasters (no egg)
When Savannah Coffee Roasters does not overbake its scones, they are quite good. The coconut in the occasionally offered coconut-chocolate chip and the orange in the cranberry orange help make their respective wedges moist. The latter has an ample rise and is appropriately crumbly. Had it come out of the oven a few minutes earlier, it would have had a perfect texture.
Perhaps the most popular flavor, one always offered, is the lemon-lavender. I admit that lavender in anything edible is a matter of personal taste, and mine asks, “Why am I eating soap?” Honestly, I truly hope that this fad in baked goods is on its last buds. Regular customers seem to love this particular flavor, though even with the mild lavender essence, there is not enough lemon to make it not taste like potpourri. At $2.75, SCR’s scones vary widely in size - from 90 to 125 grams - so you might want to point at the biggest one you see when you order at the counter.
Back in the Day (egg wash only)
Before I rate the Back in the Day scone, allow me to repeat my assessment of lavender in baked goods: ugh. The honey-lavender triangular pastry here is certainly lovely to look at, even if no one will be surprised that this is the most expensive scone in Savannah, decently sized (130 grams) but also a steep and cheeky $3.95.
A little dry and a little overbaked, it still has a nice crumb, but the lavender is too soapy to enjoy. Not a horrible scone but not worth four bucks. The lemon-poppy seed version is far more more palatable, also gorgeously presented and with plenty of lemon zest, a good crumb, and a delicious icing. Regardless, if you go to Back in the Day, forgo the scone and stick to the biscuit: still overpriced at $3.50 each, it is a big, flaky 150-gram square, buttery and salty in perfect balance.
Gallery Espresso (egg)
This unique and cozy Chippewa Square bijou is home to some of Savannah’s best desserts, namely an amazing brownie that is thick as a glorious brick and several luscious cakes. Strangely, Gallery’s scones are not remotely as well-executed or as tasty. At $3.25 and 200 grams, these are mildly more pricey but are also the heaviest scones in town, which is more bad than good.
The blueberry and the cranberry-almond I sampled, though similar in size and roundness, could not have been more different: the former was full of blueberries and flavor but was raw in the middle; the latter had no appreciable flavor and was overbaked, a crumbly sedimentary rock. It is strange that a kitchen that turns out so many outstanding baked goods has scones that are, quite simply, not good.
Both of the sweet scones I tried at Coffee·Deli lived down to my general impression of the Habersham Village mainstay. These pastries were among the least expensive ($2.50) but were also some of the smallest by weight, barely tipping the scales at under 100 grams. Even though they are made with an egg, the chocolate chunk is particularly and oddly flat, more like a thick triangular cookie than a scone.
The flavor is fine but not enough to make up for the somewhat moist but also rubbery, doughy texture. The brown sugar scone also tastes good and has better shape and rise, but it, too, is rubbery with no flaky layers in the crumb. I finished this one purely out of economic principle with a dusting of spite.
The Sentient Bean (egg wash only)
A baked good has to be particularly poor for me not to finish it. I did not finish The Sentient Bean’s peanut butter-banana scone. The flavor, had there been any, was not the issue, nor was its traditional yet unappealing blob-like form, somewhat round but not shaped purposefully. Though cheaper than every other scone in town ($2.25), the 150-gram rubbery puck was dry, dense, and too heavy, and it was not sweet enough for a sweet scone. Altogether, a sloppy and unappetizing effort that I did not want to eat. I could have given The Bean another taste with its sweet peach-almond or the savory sun-dried tomato and feta or cheddar-chive versions, but I had had enough.
If you are hankering for a scone while out and about, trust Maté Factor, Foxy Loxy, Auspicious, and Savannah Coffee Roasters over others. Better yet, go online right now for a recipe that will make you a scone pro at home.
Do it yourself
With just a handful of baking ingredients, amateur skills, and thirty minutes, stay at home and make your own scones. Save yourself a few bucks and a drive out on a Sunday morning. As promised, here is a tried-and-true basic recipe for sweet scone dough, followed by three flavor combinations that are winners.
Preheat an oven to 400°. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Gently whisk these dry ingredients together in a large bowl:
2 cups (260 grams) all-purpose flour
¼ cup granulated sugar
2 t. baking powder
½ t. Kosher salt
Into the dry mixture, finger-press or pastry-blend in 6 tablespoons (85 grams) of cold butter until the floury mass looks like tiny pebble-like crumbs. With a fork, lightly mix one egg into ¾ cup of heavy cream. Add these ‘wets’ to the dough, followed by one teaspoon of either vanilla or almond extract: if you are making the chocolate-coffee scones, dissolve one tablespoon of instant espresso powder in the vanilla before incorporating both into the dough; use almond extract if you are making the cherry-almond scones.
For chocolate-coffee scones, add ½ cup chopped chocolate, preferably dark or bittersweet - and even up to a ½ cup of toasted chopped pecans or hazelnuts.
For cherry-almond scones, add ½ cup of chopped dried cherries and up to a ½ cup of sliced (not slivered) almonds.
For lemon-currant scones, add ½ cup of dried currants, the zest of one lemon, and one teaspoon of lemon juice.
Once your dough has all of your chosen flavor’s ingredients, turn the mass out onto a lightly floured counter. Without overworking it, shape the dough into a square or a circle about an inch thick. Use a bench scraper or a sharp knife to cut it into wedges or whatever shape you like, understanding that the size will affect the cooking time. If you opt for the traditional triangles, this recipe yields six 130-gram scones. Place the scones on the parchment-lined baking sheet.
Brush the tops with a little heavy cream and dust with turbinado or coarse sugar crystals. Bake at 400° - between 12 and 18 minutes, depending on the size. For a finishing touch on the fruit scones, mix up a simple glaze of ½ cup confectioners’ sugar, one teaspoon vanilla or almond extract, one teaspoon lemon juice, and one tablespoon heavy cream and drizzle on the baked beauties once they have cooled down a bit.
Add a cup of tea or a latte, and you can eat a still-warm scone, an added bonus to making your own - and you haven’t even changed out of your jammies.
Someday, Neil and his wife will be living in a tiny town in the south of France, eating, doing crosswords, and playing Scrabble. For now, when he is not grading papers, baking bread, or watching EPL soccer, he builds furniture and writes.