It Rises to the Top

In September, right around the time that my friend Gayle wrote to tell me about a hand-me-down cookie contest in Edible Boston, Nana Parr had a mild stroke. She’s OK, really she is, but she had to move into an assisted living center, which meant giving up her oven, and, with that, her cookies.

cream scones

I’m really thankful I baked with her last fall, and I guess Edible Boston was too, because Nana’s cookie recipe was one of the winners of the contest. I haven’t been able to get my hands on a physical copy that I can bring up to Nana, but we were able to track it down online for you all to see.

As delicious as those sugar cookies are — and I promise you, they really are something — they are a bit involved. There’s the pastry cloth and all the rolling, but they’re totally worth it, a crowd favorite since my husband brought them to kindergarten nearly 30 years ago.

But when I’m squeezed for time and still want to bring a pastry somewhere, I’ve been turning to these scones. I’m embarrassed to admit how simple they are. Let me put it this way: By the time I clean up the food processor and wipe down my counter, they are ready to come out of the oven. It’s a 20 minute recipe, from start to finish. You can keep it proper and use currants, like I did in the photo. I’ve also used chopped candied ginger and some lemon zest, and baked one batch with chopped dried cherries.

making scones

They were a hit at a baby shower I went to a few weeks ago. (Hi Lucas Lee Gideon! Can’t wait to meet you!) You don’t need a pastry cloth to make these, although a food processor does make this recipe a cinch. (And no, I still haven’t found the missing piece.) It’s an ancient recipe from Smitten Kitchen, who found it in The America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook. It’s become a go-to recipe of mine, and now it’s time to share it with you.

A couple notes: Because the recipe calls for chilled butter, I always cube mine and toss it in the freezer as I assemble all my other ingredients and preheat the oven. Also, if I know I’m bringing these for a crowd, I cut each scone in half an additional time so that I end up with 16 cute mini-scones.

Cream Scones

2 cups (10 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour

1 Tablespoon baking powder
3 Tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 Tablespoons chilled, unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1/2 cup currants
1 cup heavy cream

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 425°F.

Place flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in large bowl or work bowl of food processor fitted with steel blade. Whisk together or pulse six times.

If making by hand, use two knives, a pastry blender or your fingertips and quickly cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse meal, with a few slightly larger butter lumps. Stir in currants. If using food processor, remove cover and distribute butter evenly over dry ingredients. Cover and pulse 12 times, each pulse lasting 1 second. Add currants and pulse one more time. Transfer dough to large bowl.

Stir in heavy cream with a rubber spatula or fork until dough begins to form, about 30 seconds.

Transfer dough and all dry, floury bits to countertop and knead dough by hand just until it comes together into a rough, sticky ball, 5 to 10 seconds. Form scones by either a) pressing the dough into an 8-inch cake pan, then turning the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface, cutting the dough into 8 wedges with either a knife or bench scraper (the book’s suggestion) or b) patting the dough onto a lightly floured work surface into a 3/4-inch thick circle, cutting pieces with a biscuit cutter, and pressing remaining scraps back into another piece, and cutting until dough has been used up.

Place rounds or wedges on ungreased baking sheet and bake until scone tops are light brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Cool on wire rack for at least 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Le Tour de Cookie

I’m not sure when it started, but I have developed quite the sweet tooth of late. There isn’t a bakery I can walk by without popping in for a granola bar, a piece of rugelach, or an apple turnover. In fact, when Hi-Rise Bakery opened up a new location on Mass. Ave, I declared my new mission was to sample each and every baked good in their case (save the ham-filled things, of course.) I actually spent most of the winter working my way through the cookie shelf – my Tour de Cookie, as Rich put it. Just last week I raised my hands in triumph as I completed the last lap. “Did you win the chocolate chip jersey?” Rich asked. For the record, their best cookie is not the chocolate chip but the cherry oat one. (Don’t bother with the molasses.)

All this desserting led Rich to observe that I have fully become a Parr, since his family is much more about sweet than savory. This tendency starts with the matriarch, Nana Parr, who is a baker extraordinaire. When I first met Rich, he was excited to introduce me to Nana’s sugar cookies. They’re actually butter cookies, but they get their name from the sprinkling of sugar on top. They’re almost impossibly thin and crisp, not unlike a sugary Pringle. And yes, it’s impossible to eat just one. As Rich put it, they’re like crack.

Over the past seven years, I’ve probably munched on hundreds of Nana Parr sugar cookies. Last fall, at my request, Nana brought me into her kitchen sanctum and showed me how to make them. And for Mother’s Day, I tried as best I could to recreate her cookies as a present for her.

I still need a little kitchen help from Rich.

Nana introduced me to a pastry cloth, which I’d never seen before. It’s a thin, almost gauzy cloth that she layers between the dough and the rolling pin, and it’s what aids her in getting the dough almost paper-thin. Nana also tells me the cloth is ideal for rolling out pie dough. You can buy pastry cloth, which comes with a matching sock for the rolling pin (think Red Hot Chili Peppers), online at Williams Sonoma. I struck out buying it at the actual store, so I found mine at KitchenWares on Newbury Street for $6.

Nana also had a special sugar shaker, akin to a Parmesan shaker at a House of Pizza — I told you, sweet tooth — but we used a sieve for the same effect. Some of my cookies weren’t as thin as hers, and I have to admit that they do taste better thinner. Although the recipe card I have from Nana calls for baking the cookie sheets for six minutes, then a turn in the oven for another six minutes, the cookies are a much darker brown than hers. Hers actually don’t brown at all, and stay the lightest of yellows. I think the tan ones actually have a bit more body to them, but I have to be clear that that isn’t a genuine Nana Parr cookie.

Nana Parr Cookies

Ingredients

1 cup butter

1 ½ cups sifted confectioner’s sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 ½ cups sifted flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

¼ teaspoon salt

Flour for the pastry cloth

Granulated sugar for topping

Directions

Using an electric stand mixer, cream the butter and confectioner’s sugar.

Add egg and vanilla.

Stir in dry ingredients and mix well.

Chill dough for at least 30 minutes.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375F.

Sprinkle about a 1/3 cup of flour on the pastry cloth. Roll out the dough quite thin. Cut into shapes. Using a spatula, lay cookies on ungreased cookie sheets. Sprinkle granulated sugar on top of the cookies. Bake for 6 minutes (or 4 or 5, depending on your cookie preference and oven), turn the sheets 180 degrees, and bake for another 6 minutes. Remove the cookies from the sheets and set them on cooling racks.
Makes about 6 dozen cookies.

Store in an air-tight container. I have learned from Nana that these cookies stay fresh in the refrigerator and freeze well.