Kitchen Project #73: Strawberry Scones
A flaky deep dive with Susan Spungen
Welcome to today’s edition of Kitchen Projects. Thank you so much for being here!
Today’s newsletter is guided by the brilliant Susan Spungen, recipe developer, food stylist and author extraordinaire (inc. her excellent substack ‘Susanality’). We’ll start off by delving into a bit more detail about Susan’s illustrious career before diving deep into the world of flaky US-style scones, with a Q&A with Susan, finishing off with tried and tested recipe for Strawberry Cornmeal scones.
Over on KP+, I have SUCH a scone-related treat for you. Baker extraordinaire Darcie Maher of Edinburgh’s ‘The Palmerston’ has rustled up a dreamy savoury scone recipe for you. Enter: Roast Potato & Taleggio Scones. Click here for the recipe.
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Let me tell you about Susanality!
This week’s newsletter is all about Susan Spungen, food stylist, food writer, recipe developer, cookbook author and fellow substack-er. As the founding food editor of Martha Stewart Living, and the culinary consultant for Julie & Julia, It’s Complicated and Eat, Pray, Love, as well as the author of three books (and another on the way) it’s safe to say Susan is a beloved and experienced voice in the food world and I’m so honoured to be sharing a recipe from her today, along with a Q&A.
I’ve been a fan of Susan for some time; As a biscuit obsessive, nothing gave me more joy than stumbling upon Susan’s NY Times feature ‘12 Christmas cookies that will impress everyone you know’. It has been an annual watch for me since 2019 - the artistry! The creativity! This was my first introduction to Susan’s work - little did I know that her outrageous cookie skills were the tip of a culinary iceberg.
Susan is a kaleidoscopic talent when it comes to food. In a time where social media tries to force people into categories, Susan is a proud, self-proclaimed “generalist” - and we all benefit from it. Whether she is turning her eye to cake or kofte, her recipes are always bright and bold. She’s one of those food writers that somehow manages to always show you exactly what you fancy before you even know it yourself. And that’s what Susan does with ‘Susanality’, her weekly recipe and cooking inspiration newsletter that proves just how much of a multi-hyphenate powerhouse she is.
From seasonal suppers to quick salads, to birthday cake inspo, Susanality has it all! And, of course, there’s baking! Today I’m handing over the reigns to Susan to guide us through the glorious, flaky and jam-packed world of American Scones. Susan loves to celebrate classic Americana baking and her strawberry scones - USA style - are the perfect summer snack and a great way to use up a glut of strawberries.
Getting to know Susan
Before we dive into the scones, I want to tell you more about Susan. We sat down (we connected via zoom, but we were both sitting down, so that counts, right?) to chat. I interviewed (or fan girled?) Susan for about her career that spans food styling, writing, development and more.
After pursuing a fine arts degree at university, Susan started her career 'back of house', spending over a decade working her way through kitchens. As much as she loved being a chef, she remembers dreaming of a career beyond the day-to-day prep and service. “What I really wanted to do was become a food stylist because I’d read this article about it in the New York Times.” Although we are now very used to hearing the term 'food stylist', Susan explains, “Back then”, aka pre-internet and social media, “You wouldn’t really hear about that. But I just thought, ‘that sounds like a good career for me.’”
The universe agreed, and fate came calling, literally. One day, the landline phone in her restaurant kitchen rang. “There would sometimes be calls to this phone”, she explained. “I picked up a call, and it was someone on the staff at Martha Stewart Living Magazine. I knew her a little, so she was ringing to ask if I knew anyone who might want to be their food editor.” Susan recalls “at first, I was actually thinking… ‘do I know anyone?!’” It only took a moment for her to realise, “well… me!” And the rest is history - “It changed the course of my life, for sure.”
So, in 1991, Susan left her role as Pastry Chef and stepped into the world of food media, stepping in as Food Editor at Martha Stewart Living magazine. At the time, the magazine had only published three issues - Susan would go on to shape the magazine over the next 12 years, combining her background in fine arts and her love for food. During this time, Susan figured out how to ‘marry’ her style with Marthas and come up with “something kind of new” - at the time, food magazines had been very formal, but the Martha aesthetic was “more artistic. We had great teams of photographers, prop stylists and art directors. Everybody had this vision that was completely different from what was being done at the time. We had no rules!”
As well as informing the magazine's aesthetic, Susan was building a test kitchen program from scratch. “At first, it was just me, and I hired one other person.” Eventually, Susan was running a team of 15, guiding them through the many highs (and lows) of the recipe development process. “Everyone would march into my office one by one and tell me the problems they were having with the recipe.” And if something didn’t work? “My answer to them was always - there’s only one way to find out! Get into the kitchen and try it!”
After leaving Martha Stewart Living in 2003, Susan went on to work on much-loved food films like Julie & Julia, Eat Pray Love, and It’s Complicated, as both a stylist and consultant, as well as writing several books. Her most recent book ‘Open Kitchen’ is a series of simple yet elevated modern classics that work just as well for quiet suppers-in as entertaining friends. Her next book, which is vegetable and fruit-focused, comes out in Spring 2023. On developing her recipes, Susan tends to ‘do a lot of research ahead of time and think about all the different ways to do it.’ How often, on average, I ask, does she knock it out of the park the first time? “Sometimes I breeze through in one go, or it could be six times, and I still don’t get it! You just have to walk away and come back.”
So, how does Susan stay inspired with so many years of recipe development and seemingly endless creativity and ideas? “In my early days at Martha, I used to think, how am I, how are we gonna keep this going? I like to think of creativity as a font you need to nurture. It’s about evolving ideas you’ve already had into new ideas.” It all comes full circle - Susan draws on her fine art background for all her cooking, but you can see it clearly in her cookie designs. “I like to paint! That’s why I like to smear icing around. You know, I used to paint with a palette knife before I started doing it with frosting. There are so many parallels between art and food.” she explains, “Creativity has always been something that feeds me!”
To get your weekly dose of inspiration from Susan, sign up to Susanality here:
Enter the scone zone*
*I realise I am totaaaallly giving away my pronunciation right now!
So, shall we talk about scones? We’ll begin with a Q&A with Susan to go deeper into the world of flaky, US-style scones and delve into her recipe development mind. After that, you can put all of your newfound wisdom into practice with Susan’s best-ever Strawberry Scones recipe. Let’s do it!
So what exactly is an American scone?
SS: I think because Americans don't have the tradition of classic scones, we feel free to play fast and loose with the concept. Because they're known and loved as a vehicle for clotted cream and jam in the U.K., they mostly conform to a certain size and shape. In the U.S., they became popular in the (80's? 90's?) as a delicious baked good that you could buy at a bakery and eat on the run (as Americans are wont to do). Americans like to load things up and flavour them! Adding fresh and dried fruit in myriad combinations is more the rule than the exception here. We also like to sprinkle extra sugar on top!
What is Americana baking to you? Is the scone part of it?
SS: When I think of Americana baking, I think mostly of old-fashioned layer cakes like this one or pies, which are especially American. Biscuits (not cookies) too, of course, which are not very far off from a scone. Cookies, especially chocolate chip and oatmeal, are typical of Americana baking too. Also, simple fruit desserts like crumbles, cobblers, crisps, buckles, grunts, pandowdies, and all the rest are really typical of the simple, homespun style of American baking.
What is the intersection of scones and US ‘biscuits’?
SS: Truth be told, it’s a very fine line! Usually, scones have eggs, and sugar and biscuits don’t. But, both have butter cut into flour and then brought together by liquid. I went down an internet rabbit hole in an effort to answer this question accurately, and the question has been taken up by many a writer! I’ll try to sum it up for you. A scone is essentially a sweeter, richer version of biscuits. Biscuits often strive to be flaky, while scones tend to be more crumbly and tender, as well as a bit dryer. The most important thing to remember is that both of them will be much, much better if eaten warm soon after baking. The texture just isn’t the same after a few hours, and definitely not after a day. Freezing either a scone or biscuit right after cooling will preserve its freshness, though, and when gently reheated, they will taste almost as good as freshly baked.
The base ingredients
Is there a particular dairy that you use? Can this be substituted?
SS: I developed the recipe with heavy cream, but I found that buttermilk could be used too without affecting the recipe very much. Milk could probably be used too, but you would probably need less of it. Use just enough to bring the dough together, but not so much as to make it wet.
Are raising agents used? Which type? Also, how do you feel about self-raising flour?
SS: Yes! I use baking powder only in this recipe, but some people use both baking powder and baking soda. I never use self-raising flour personally, because I prefer to control the amount of leavening.
Do you have one base recipe that you use for both sweet and savoury scones?
SS: I rarely make savoury scones, but you could omit the sugar in this recipe, keep the cornmeal (or replace it with an equal amount of flour) and add whatever savoury ingredients you like, herbs, scallions, parmesan or cheddar, jalapeño would all be good additions. This is my new base recipe!
For a take on savoury scones, check out Darcie Maher’s Roast potato, taleggio and polenta scones over on KP+. Click here for the recipe!
How do you deal with wet fillings like fresh fruit?
SS: It’s slightly tricky to add something like strawberries because you have to be careful not to crush them as you handle the dough. I don't find that a wet-ish fruit like strawberries wreaks any kind of havoc with the dough itself though, and because the baking time is short, they don't completely break down. Blueberries are better at containing their own juice since you don't have to cut them, and are a popular addition to scones here. If you’re lucky enough to find tiny strawberries, I would recommend adding them whole.
How do you get the right amount of filling without structurally damaging the scones?
SS: I wouldn’t push it beyond the one cup of fruit I call for in my recipe (sorry, I don't have that in grams!) KP note - 1 cup = 240ml FYI . After that, I think you wouldn’t have enough dough to hold the fruit together. I’m going more for a scone that’s “studded” with fruit, and has flavour and juiciness throughout.
Can you give us a few flavour ideas/easy adaptions to get us started?
Blueberries and lemon zest
Fresh apricot or peach (cut into small pieces)
Pecans and cinnamon
Raspberries and sliced almonds
Dried cherries or cranberries and orange zest
Sage or rosemary and gruyere
Jalapeno, scallions, and cheddar
Moist dried figs (I know this sounds like an oxymoron, but I mean the kind of dried figs that are soft and supple, not dry and hard). You could add hazelnuts here too, and even a little black pepper, which I love with figs.
Egg wash - Yes or no? And if you’re using it, what is your preferred?
SS: No, no egg wash for scones for me. I usually use the cream or whatever liquid I used in the dough to brush the tops. Just enough for a sprinkle of sugar to stick and create a crunchy, glistening top.
What are your best tips in ascertaining ‘done-ness’? Sometimes I feel scones are too dry but then sometimes they end up being underbaked and doughy inside!
SS: They definitely can be dry if over-baked. I think judging the colour both at the bottom edges where the scone comes in contact with the parchment, and the colour in the very centre top of the scone are your best indicators. Both should be golden brown, the edges and bottom perhaps one shade darker than the top centre.
What are our options with finishes for our scones?
SS: Well, glazes are completely superfluous (even though my recipe has one, haha). Honestly, they're sweet enough, but a simple confectioners' sugar glaze made with the sugar and heavy cream (but milk works too. I used freeze-dried strawberries to tint the glaze pink and add another layer of strawberry flavour. It's tasty and pretty, but definitely not necessary! I prefer some coarse sugar (not sure what you call it there, but sugar in the Raw, demerara sugar etc.). Even just a bit more granulated sugar.
Prep & storage
Can you prep in advance and bake from frozen?
SS: You definitely can! It may not be as successful with strawberries, as they may be too wet, but blueberries or just about any other flavour will work fine. Cut the scones into triangles, and freeze until hard on a sheet pan. Then you can transfer to a zip-top bag and bake one at a time or all at once later. Bake them straight from the freezer, adding a few minutes onto the baking time. Always use the colour as your guide to know when they’re done. You can also refrigerate the dough overnight and bake them off in the morning for a breakfast treat.
What’s the shelf life of these?
These will always be best eaten as close to baking time as humanly possible. A good scone is a fresh scone! If not eaten within a few hours, freeze them! Defrost at room temperature for a while, and then reheat, loosely wrapped in foil in a 300F/150c oven until warm, about 10 to 15 minutes.
Alright, let’s get onto the recipe!
Strawberry cornmeal scones
by Susan Spungen
Original recipe appeared in Susan’s substack ‘Susanality’. Susan’s recipe also has the original US volumetric measurements, if that is your bag!
135ml heavy cream or buttermilk, plus more for brushing
1 large egg
256g all-purpose flour
80g cornmeal (or finely ground polenta)
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
113g ice-cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
Zest of one lemon
Approx 125g sliced strawberries (1 US cup, according to this website)
For the optional glaze:
55g confectioner’s sugar
5g (1/4 cup converted according to this website) freeze-dried strawberries, pulverized (or a few drops of red food colouring)
2 tbsp double cream
Combine the cream/buttermilk, egg, and vanilla in a liquid measuring cup or small bowl, beating thoroughly with a fork. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Toss the butter cubes in the flour mixture to coat them and rub them between your fingers until there is nothing larger than a pea. If the butter has softened, put the bowl in the freezer for a few minutes to firm up.
Zest the lemon into the bowl with the flour mixture and toss in the strawberries, coating them with the flour. Drizzle in the cream mixture, stirring as you go with a large fork, evenly distributing the liquid. Knead mixture a few times in the bowl to bring it together.
Turn dough out on a lightly floured surface and knead a few more times, incorporating any dry bits, but trying not to squish the berries too much.
Lightly flour the top, and pat into a 7-inch circle. Transfer to a wax paper-lined plate, and chill until firm, about 30 minutes (but as long as overnight, tightly wrapped).
Heat oven to 400°F. Brush the top with more cream, and sprinkle with the turbinado sugar. Cut the disc into 8 equal triangles (see tip below) and space them evenly on a parchment-lined sheet pan. Bake in the center of the oven for 18 to 22 minutes, turning the pan around halfway through, until golden brown on the top and edges. Let cool for a few minutes on the sheet pan, and transfer to a cooling rack or platter for serving.
Serve warm, if possible, with strawberry preserves and mascarpone. Alternatively, to make the icing, mix together confectioner’s sugar, freeze-dried strawberries, and cream. Add drops of water until the icing is a drizzling consistency and drizzle over the scones.
Cutting tip: To cut your dough into 8 even triangles, make a cut all the way across the disc of dough, dividing it in half. Make another perpendicular cut all the way across. The dough will now be divided into 4 equal pieces. Then cut each quarter into 2 equal pieces.