My life is punctuated by books.
We live in a small flat, with little space for our ever-increasing collection of books. When I moved to London, I was adamant that I would bring only a small number with me. But gradually, even this small number grew and multiplied. When we moved in together, our deep-breath-gulp moment wasn’t the signing of the lease, but the combining of our two book collections and disposing of duplicates. But even that hasn’t prevented the weed-like nature of the beanstacks of books that spring up around our house, seemingly without human attention or intention. Alongside our three large bookshelves which see books wedged into every possible crevice, and placed precariously aloft them, there are piles of books. Books in boxes. Books in trunks. Teetering columns of books.
Sometimes those books are an ellipsis in my life, to be returned to at some stage, like my copy of Infinite Jest, standing proud, almost as wide as it is tall, on my dressing table, the bookmark sticking up so close to the beginning as to mock me every time I brush my hair. At other times, with broken spines and well thumbed pages it is a full stop, like my dog-eared copy of a magistrates’ court guide, that I clutched to my side for the whole of the first year I was a practising barrister, and now cannot bear to part with. There are commas, books I return to again and again, like White Teeth; or an en dash – like The American Wife – a book that demands to be removed from its place, thrust into the hands of another with earnest recommendation, and then temporarily replaced before the same thing happens again.
There are shelves dedicated to my law conversion, to bar school, to previous, abandoned interests; from Middle English to travel guides for long ago visited countries; from cake decorating to knitting and crochet. It shows how I have lived, how I have grown up, what I cared about, how my interests have changed and stayed the same.
This is to say that, when faced with any problem, or query, or new interest, my first port of call is to pick up a book. Books almost always have the answer.
So, when St George’s day rolled around, I was confident that somewhere within those shelves, in one of those many books, would be the perfect combination of a quintessentially English dish that wasn’t simply novelty-value and that I could actually bear to make on a weekday evening.
I rifled through English Food by Jane Grigson, raced through Mary Anne Boerman’s Great British Bakes, looked through old Shakespeare books. I found sussex pond puddings, and thick fruit cakes, steeped in brandy or sherry. I drowned in traditional Scottish and Welsh recipes, and grew bored of references to treacly gingerbread. None fitted the bill: even I balk at the prospect of making a pork pie or sticky toffee pudding and custard from scratch on a working week night. I wanted something delicious that wouldn’t have me (or you) standing over a stove for anything in excess of thirty minutes.
So I sat down, slightly discouraged, and slightly shocked that books had failed me. I considered skipping over St George’s day entirely. I ate a piece of marmitey toast. And then I ate another piece of marmitey toast. And then I realised that I’d inadvertently found the answer. Marmite. Marmite is one of the most quintessentially English products in England today. It is the one foodstuff I take abroad with me on holiday. It evokes hungover breakfasts with pints of tea, and sunday evenings in pyjamas watching songs of praise. And when it’s combined in a scone with english mustard and jaw-achingly mature cheddar, it’s hard to beat. So I have put together what I think is the ultimate cheese scone.
I have written before about how strongly I feel that cheese sauces are frequently insufficiently cheesy. Cheese scones are a subset of my If It Has Cheese In Its Name You’d Better Make It Cheesy anger. These scones, unlike many, will not disappoint. The mustard powder brings the cheese out beautifully, and combined with the tangy buttermilk and the distinctive, salty marmite gives these scones a deeply savoury flavour that means that yesterday I ate them for three meals in a row.
Felicity Cloake (on whose recipe this is based) tops her scones with sunflower seeds. This is a lovely addition, and I heartily recommend it, but I have suggested crumbled walnuts in the recipe below. I justify this on two bases: first, that I adore walnuts; and secondly, that there is a variety of walnut called ‘the English walnut’. Somewhat fortuitously, this variety originated in Persia, and was introduced to Europe by the Greeks; St George was born in Turkey with family from Greece, so I am adopting the walnut as England have adopted St George.
This is also, as ever, an incredibly quick and easy recipe: you mix the dry and wet ingredients until they stick together, and then cut out rounds and bake them. It really is that simple. Please do give this a go: you won’t be disappointed.
- Plain wholemeal flour really is very good in these scones: it gives a rounder, almost nutty flavour to them, which makes them taste less like a plain scone that’s had some cheese chucked into the mix. I know it’s not the easiest to source, but you can usually find it in health food shops or the larger supermarkets. If not, you can either use strong wholemeal bread flour (easier to find) or make the entire mix with plain white flour.
- Buttermilk is available surprisingly widely, but it often comes in what looks like a normal pint bottle of semi-skimmed milk (with a green top), so you may need to be eagle-eyed. If not, you can make your own by putting a generous squeeze of lemon juice into glass of regular milk, waiting a moment, and then stirring. Ta dah! Buttermilk! You’re practically a dairy farmer. Or magician. If you end up with left over buttermilk, I highly recommend this soda bread recipe, which needs buttermilk.
- This recipe happily halves, and in fact was originally half its current incarnation. But I am a greedy girl and whilst I look at the number of scones I’ve produced with saucer-eyes pre-baking, a day later, I am grateful. When it comes to cheese scones, my eyes are never bigger than my stomach.
- Similarly, you can make whatever size of scone you wish. When doing these for parties, I make finger-food-friendly small rounds that could be easily devoured in 2 or 3 bites. When making them for myself, or for packed lunches, greed again takes over and I cannot resist making deep slabs of scone, littered with the crumbled walnut. It is not totally unknown in this household to turn the scones into sandwiches.
- If you don’t have scone/biscuit cutters, just use a glass or mug dipped in flour before you cut each round, and they should pop straight out.
- A final small note: these scones do puff up a little thanks to the raising agents in them, but not a huge amount, so when cutting the dough, you want it to be fairly thick.
It goes like this:
St George Scones
Makes: 12 very chunky cheese scones, or 15-20 of a slightly more decorous size
Takes: 5 minutes (no, really)
Bakes: 20 minutes
300g plain white flour
400g wholemeal flour
2 heaped tsp bicarb
2 heaped tsp cream of tartar
1 heaped teaspoon of mustard powder (or a dessert spoon of actual mustard)
200g chilled butter, cubed
150g grated cheese
2 tbsp marmite mixed into a paste with a little hot water
A handful of crumbled walnuts (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 190 degrees C. Line a baking sheet with baking parchment.
2. Combine your dry ingredients (both flours, bicarb and cream of tartar) in a large bowl. Rub the butter in with your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the mustard powder. Now stir in the cheese.
3. Stir in the marmite paste (and liquid mustard if using) then add most of the buttermilk: you want just enough to bring the dough together.
4. Roll the dough onto a lightly floured surface until about 3.5 cm thick, then cut out scones. Reroll the dough and continue cutting until you have used up the dough. Arrange the scones on your lined sheet and brush with buttermilk. Top with walnuts if using.
5. Bake for 20 minutes until golden, then transfer onto a wire rack to cool.
6. Ta Dah!
Icing on the Cake
The best way to eat these is straight out of the oven, broken with your fingers, with large wedges of cold, salty butter; these should sufficiently thick that when youbite into them, you could use the impression of your teeth for orthadontal braces. These also hold up very well to toasting, if that is your jam, so to speak.
What would you make for St George’s day? Have you found the ultimate English dish? Was it in a BOOK? Please let me know in the comments below, or on Instagram or Twitter if you have a go at these scones. I would love to hear from you.