a definite pro

About this time in March four years ago, I was faced with what felt like a torturous decision. I have to laugh at myself now, or at least smirk a little when I consider what triggered my anguish: I had been admitted to my two top choice graduate programs, and I had to decide which university I would attend.

I know, bring out the violins. And then, feel free to smack me across my bratty little cheek.

Eli and I were living in Seattle at the time. Several months earlier, we had flown down to the Bay Area to scope out my west coast option. We stayed with the parents of a friend of mine and, our first morning in town, we asked where we might grab a quick breakfast.

It's always a pleasure asking folks who are in love with where they live (and in Berkeley, that's everyone) where to find a bite to eat. When they share the name of a restaurant or a beloved cafe, it is always more than just the food that they want you to taste. It's a slice of their lives they're offering up. A scoop of your host's favorite ice cream stands in for smells and sounds and a certain something in the air that he would gladly hand you on a plate, if only he could. In my experience, the question, "Where can we grab breakfast (or lunch, or dinner, or a cup of tea) around here?" is rarely met with a brief reply. There's that place on the corner if you'd like to try the best bagels in town, or the diner on the hill for out-of-this-world pancakes, or that spot with the fresh-squeezed lemonade where you can eat outdoors.

But my friend's father, a caterer, offered no such passionate litany. His marching orders were short and simple:

"Go to The Cheese Board. Have the corn cherry scone."

When a local is that decisive, you listen - especially when he still has flour on his hands from an early morning knead. That morning, Eli and I ate the first of what would amount to three corn cherry scones during our forty-eight hours in town.

Three months later, acceptance letters in hand, I sat anxiously biting my lip. With two bests before me, I hadn't a clue how to choose just one. My dad had sent me a pad of paper pre-printed with blank "Pro" and "Con" columns. Pencil in hand, I began my lists. There was the question of what kind of theoretical training each program would provide, the required coursework in each department, the library resources available, the particular expertise of the professors who would become my advisers, the competing fellowship packages, and the larger issue of east coast versus west coast to consider. As the pros for both universities spilled over onto a second page, I hastily scrawled "Corn cherry scones," at the bottom of Berkeley's cascading list.

Many of my pros and cons were based on conjecture, on what I was pretty sure I wanted to study, or how I sort of thought I wanted to go about it. But those scones? They were a definite pro. Amidst all the uncertainty, it was a relief to have a known quantity, cherry studded, dusted with sugar, and unequivocally delicious.

I soon found that the recipe for the scones had been published in The Cheese Board Collective Works. I could make them myself anytime, from either side of the continent. I wish I could tell you that with the scones no longer in play, the balance smoothly tipped in favor of Boston over Berkeley. But no, I still had some agonizing to get out of my system. Ultimately we did decide to head back east, but not without the scone recipe safely tucked away in my file. At my breakfast table in Cambridge, a corn cherry scone is still a definite pro.

Corn Cherry Scones
adapted from The Cheese Board Collective Works

Medium-grind cornmeal gives these scones a wonderful chewy-crunchy texture. If you don't have medium-grind on hand, finely ground cornmeal will do.

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 t. baking soda
1 T. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
2/3 c. plus 2 T. sugar, divided
1 1/2 c. medium-grind yellow cornmeal
1 c. (2 sticks) cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 c. dried cherries (not Bing cherries)
1 c. (plus a few splashes) buttermilk

Heat the oven to 425 degrees, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Sift the flour, baking soda, and baking powder into a large bowl. Add the salt, the 2/3 c. sugar, and the cornmeal to the bowl, and stir with a wooden spoon until combined.

Cut in the butter with a pastry cutter or two dinner knives, or rub it into the dry ingredients with your fingers, until the butter bits are the size of small peas. (I usually use a combination of pastry cutter and fingers.)

Stir in the cherries. Make a well in the center and add the 1 c. buttermilk. Mix briefly, just until the ingredients come together. Some loose flour will remain at the bottom of the bowl.* Let the batter stand for five minutes.

Using a small ice cream scoop or a 1/4 c. measuring cup, scoop the dough from the bowl and shape into balls. Place them on the prepared pans about two inches apart.

Sprinkle the remaining 2 T. sugar on top of the scones. Place the scones on the middle rack and immediately turn the oven temperature down to 375 degrees. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the scones are golden. Transfer the scones to a wire rack and cool.

Makes 14-16 scones.

*Once I have scooped all of the usable dough from the bowl, I often splash a little bit of buttermilk onto this remaining flour and squeeze a couple of extra biscuits out of the recipe.


Sara said...

I live about 30 minutes from the cheeseboard :). I love those scones, I also love their cheese rolls and pizza!

Shayne said...

Brillant. I wish all hard decisions could be tipped by baked goods. That would make life so much easier. And tastier.

Jess said...

Sara - Lucky you!

Shayne - Agreed.

megan said...

Is this my permission to eat as many bakery items as possible in the coming weeks? This will definitely make me feel better!

Jess said...

Ha! Yes, Megan, it is. I only wish I could tell you for certain that it will help... You're the best!

Colin's Mom said...

What a tough decision you faced - east versus west! Hopefully you feel you made the right decision. These scones look great and I'm anxious to try them. I'm actually going to be coming to Boston soon and wondered if there were any fabulous bakeries you'd recommend where I could get a scone, a good piece of cake, etc. Thanks!

Jess said...

Hi, Colin's Mom

I would be happy to suggest a few places for some tasty Boston treats. My personal favorite is Hi-Rise bakery. They have two locations, both in Cambridge. Hi-Rise specializes in rustic-y treats, breads, and sandwiches, and offers the best almond macaroons I have ever tasted. Their vanilla bean cake is also very special, but watch out - it's super-rich. And then there's the banana bread... Yum. As for their cookies, for whatever reason they don't really do it for me, except for the oatmeal ginger cookie, which is worth a try.

If you do end up at the Hi-Rise bakery on Brattle St. in Cambridge, don't forget to stop into Burdick's, right next door, for some chocolate or a buttery croissant. Oh, and across the street you'll find Upper Crust Pizza. They do fabulous thin crust pies that remind me of the pizza I ate in Rome.

If you want something a little more formal, stop in at the Finale Desserterie. There is one in Boston, one in Cambridge, and one in Brookline. They offer eye-poppingly gorgeous - and delicious - plated desserts.

In Boston's South End you'll find Flour Bakery. I've actually never been there, but I have friends who swear by their cinnamon buns.

For an incredible view of Boston with your dessert, I would recommend the Top of the Hub, the restaurant on the top floor of the Prudential building. They have a dessert called "An Array of Freshly Baked Cookies," served with seasonal fruit and chantilly cream. You can go there just for drinks and dessert if you'd rather not splurge for a full meal.

Finally, I'll suggest Sofra, a relatively new Middle Eastern bakery and cafe. I haven't been in yet, but I plan on it - Sofra was created by the chefs and owners of my favorite restaurant in town: Oleana. If you want a terrific Mediterranean meal, Oleana's your place. I love the vegetarian tasting menu (which I always have to share because it is WAY too much food for one). For dessert: almond cremolata, served with little grilled chocolate sandwiches.

Whew! I guess I play the part of enthusiastic local very well! Enjoy your time in Boston. If I can be of any further assistance, feel free to e-mail me at sweetamandine@gmail.com.

Anonymous said...

I just made these, but with dried cranberries. I love the crunch of the cornmeal! I see why you had the dilemma...

Next time, I think I'll add lemon zest and decrease the amount of sugar. Slightly too sweet for me, but it's all subjective, of course. Thanks for posting!

Jess said...

So glad you liked them! Great idea to try the recipe with lemon zest next time.

Anonymous said...

Can this dough be made ahead and stored in the fridge/freezer? Sorry if that's an obvious question, I'm new to all this! Thanks!

Jess said...

Hmmm, I have a hunch that storing this dough in the freezer would mess with its texture in some not so desirable ways. Some scone recipes produce a drier dough that is cut rather than “dropped” into biscuits. I believe that the biscuits made with those recipes can be cut, frozen, and then baked directly from the freezer. (But don’t quote me.) I’m not confident that the super-wet consistency of the corn cherry scone dough would lend itself to freezing in this way.

I've never refrigerated this dough overnight, but one time I prepared the dough and - because my oven was otherwise occupied - stored it in the fridge for about an hour before forming and baking the biscuits. They still came out great. Here's an idea for an overnight method: The night before, put together the entire recipe, but leave out the buttermilk. Refrigerate. In the morning, stir in the buttermilk, form into biscuits, and bake. If you do give this technique a try, let us know how it turns out.

Andrea [bella eats] said...

Jess, I just found your blog after the many comments recommending it on Bitten. I am in love. And I completely understand what you mean about recommending restaurants in a city you love. My favorite question for newcomers to ask about "my" Charlottesville is "are there any good restaurants here?" Are there ever....

Your writing is lovely, I can't wait to read more!

Jess said...

Hi, Andrea. It's very nice to meet you. I'm grateful that you found me over here and thought to leave a note, because now I have found you! The blog love mutual, my dear! Enjoy the weekend.

Anonymous said...

I have been dreaming about these scones since Tea posted this: http://teaandcookies.blogspot.com/2007/11/mornings-in-sunset-with-cherry-corn.html

Thank you SO much for the recipe.

Jess said...

Anonymous - My pleasure!