Sunday, 16 May 2010

Scone verses Biscuit...

Oh the controversy which surrounds the word 'biscuit'.  'Controversy?' you may question.  Yes, controversy- between the British and the Americans (as our household represents) and what the word biscuit actually represents.  Depending on which culture you are referencing or surrounded by, when asking for a 'biscuit' you might be brought one of two things; a sweet and crunchy accompaniment to your tea or milk- generally served after a meal, or a buttery flaky morsel which often accompanies sausage gravy or fried chicken and takes part in the meal itself.

The controversy surrounding this post all started off quite innocently with my quest to use up the rest of the buttermilk I had purchased for last week's Red Velvet adventures.  I had already make pancakes (American style- thick and served in a stack with maple syrup), and needed something else, something a bit easier perhaps as I had been sick for most of the week, and of course something comforting.  So I went to some of my favorite places for recipes and looked up ones that contained buttermilk.  Low and behold the theme for this week quickly unveiled itself.  The online discussion on whether or not one particular recipe was for scones or biscuits was surprisingly feisty and lengthy!  There was also added controversy when I brought said recipe for 'Traditional Scottish Scones' to my Scottish husband for his thoughts and he added that now-a-days 'traditional' Scottish scones would be made using potatoes and not just flour (as perhaps another intentionally distinguishing difference between the Scottish and the English)- thickening the dilemma and culture clash even further!  So the desired simplicity of my chosen recipe for the week certainly has an underbelly of cultural debates and history I surely must uncover and explain, perhaps negating the simplicity altogether....

To begin with here is a bit of history on the use of the word 'biscuit'- 

What Americans refer to as 'cookies' the British refer to as 'biscuits', for the most part.  I have found the British hold very dear to their definition of biscuits- 'cookies' being much larger than your standard Oreo, and 9 times out of 10 are soft and freshly baked rather than pre-packaged.  Why the rigid definition?  This time it is not just a case of the British being British, but rather the outcome of biscuits being defined in a famous court case in 1991.  I kid you not.  Let me explain.

'Jaffa Cakes' are biscuit-like cake in the UK and Ireland.  McVitie and Price introduced the Jaffa Cake in 1927.  Jaffa Cakes are circular, 54mm (2 1/2 inches) in diameter and have three layers: a sponge cake base, a layer of orange flavoured jelly and a coating of dark chocolate (and are one of my husbands favorite snacks ever).  Under UK law, no Value Added Tax (VAT) is charged on biscuits and cakes. Chocolate covered biscuits, however, are subject to VAT, currently 17.5%, as they then become a luxury rather than a necessity. McVities classed its Jaffa Cakes as cakes, but in 1991, this was challenged by Her Majesty's Customs and Excise and the case ended up before the courts. This may have been because Jaffa Cakes are about the same size and shape as some types of biscuit, and particularly because they are commonly eaten alongside, or instead of, traditional biscuits. The court asked "What criteria should be used to class something as a cake?"

McVities argued that a distinction between cakes and biscuits is, among other things, that biscuits would normally be expected to go soft when stale, whereas cakes would normally be expected to go hard. It was demonstrated after a 12 inch Jaffa Cake was made for the court as demonstration that they were in fact cakes, that Jaffa Cakes become hard when stale. After other factors taken into account it was ruled that the Jaffa Cake is a cake. McVities therefore won the case and VAT is not paid on Jaffa Cakes. 

Moral of this story?  DO NOT under any circumstances call a traditional scone a biscuit when in the company of of the British, they fought long and hard to define their biscuit so just let it be!

But speaking of scones (not biscuits) my mother is coming to visit us in just one week!  I remember my family's last and first visit to London just a few years back, and the way my father took to the scones we had in the cafe by the Tower of London.  It was his first real connection to British culture (outside of my then boyfriend Nick) and it was a pleasure to share in his enjoyment.  Though I know these scones won't last for my mother to take them back with her when she leaves (they may not even make it for her arrival if we're not careful), they are also an acknowledgment of my family's last visit, and of my father and his own appreciation of the controversial scone/biscuit, magnified only by the clotted cream he piled on top of them.

By the way Mom, I'm saving this one for you! 

As for the distinguishing difference between the Scottish and the English... that is for another day.

Easy Scones


400g (14 oz) plain flour
100 g (3 3/4 oz) caster sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
175g butter at room temperature
250ml buttermilk, plus some to brush the top of scones before baking


Preheat oven to 175C *I use a fan assisted oven, if you're not using one you can bump it up to 195 or so...

Combine together all dry ingredients.  Cut your butter into small cubes and use a fork to mix into the dry ingredients until mixture resembles small bread crumbs.

Create a well with your dry ingredients and pour in the buttermilk .  Mix until fully combined and you dough is now moist.

Take half of your dough and roll it into a ball with your hands, then place on a well-floured surface.  Knead the dough for 3-4 minutes before using a floured rolling pin to roll the dough out to about 3/4-1cm in thickness.  Using either a rounded cookie cutter or just the lip of a glass cut 6 rounds out and place onto an ungreased baking tray.  Brush with buttermilk and sprinkle with sugar if desired.

Bake for 12-15 minutes or until rounds have risen and tops are golden.  You can roll out the second half of your dough while waiting for your first set of scones.  Cool and consume with clotted cream and strawberry jam- or whatever you prefer!

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