“I wonder if the sap is stirring yet,
If wintry birds are dreaming of a mate,
If frozen snowdrops feel as yet the sun
And crocus fires are kindling one by one:
Sing, robin, sing:
I still am sore in doubt concerning Spring.”
― Christina Rossetti, “The First Spring Day”
Here in New Hampshire, winters can be rather unpredictable. In the 14 years that I’ve called the Granite State home, I’ve seen quite a variety: long, cold, snowy winters when the first snow covered the ground at Thanksgiving and we didn’t see the grass again until almost May; bitterly cold winters with little snow but temperatures that struggled to stay in the double digits; unforgettable winters that boosted sales of generators throughout the state after epic ice storms knocked out power for weeks; “snowpocalypse” winters full of back-to-back blizzards, frigid temperatures, lots of missed school days, and stir-crazy kids (and their parents) stuck indoors; mild winters with little snow and record-breaking warm temperatures that teased us with an early spring; and confusing winters like this one, when Mother Nature can’t seem to make up her mind— 18 inches of snow, followed by near-70-degree temperatures, followed by rain, and then another major snowstorm, repeat through January, February, March, and (now) April. As I write this post, I’m watching more snow fall, covering the ground yet again, just when we finally started to see the (brown) grass.
As much as I love the snow and cold and all things winter in New England, even I can get a little weary by March and start eagerly looking for signs of spring. One sure sign that spring is on its way is the appearance of dozens of lidded tin buckets hanging from the sugar maple trees that line many of the roads in our small town. When the sun warms the daytime temperatures to above freezing, but the nighttime temperatures plunge back down below freezing after the sun sets, this temperature variation triggers the sap in the maple trees to start traveling up their trunks, sending life to their dormant winter limbs. After a consistent stretch of days and nights like these (usually in late February here), local maple-syrup producers start tapping the trees and hanging their buckets to collect the sap with the hopeful goal of making it into maple syrup.
About a month later, usually the last weekend in March, New Hampshire celebrates the maple-sugaring season with its annual Maple Weekend, when sugar houses throughout the state open their doors to the public and invite visitors to watch and learn about the syrup-making process, and to indulge in all things maple: maple candies, maple donuts, and even pancake breakfasts served, of course, with plenty of thick, rich maple syrup. It’s educational, gastronomical fun for the whole family! And, if you’re anything like me, when you catch a whiff of the hot, sweet maple steam billowing up from the wood-fired evaporators as the sap slowly boils down to syrup, suddenly you’ll want to consume maple everything. For many New Englanders, that distinctive aroma is one of the first smells of spring.
Despite all that maple-syrup knowledge I just dropped there, I’m embarrassed to admit that the first winter we lived in New Hampshire, I had to ask my New England–born-and-bred husband what all those tin buckets hanging from the trees were for. As a young girl growing up in Pennsylvania in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I ate my fair share of Hungry Jack pancakes and Eggo waffles doused with Aunt Jemima “maple” syrup, and I was happy to do so, never questioning what was in that red-capped bottle or where it came from. It wasn’t until well into adulthood when I moved to New Hampshire and I tasted (and learned about) real maple syrup did I realize that what I had been eating all those years wasn’t maple syrup at all, and it paled in comparison to the real stuff. It was also around that time that I started paying more attention to what was in my food and reading nutrition and ingredient labels, and I was surprised to learn that the “maple” syrup made by Aunt Jemima and her friends (e.g., Mrs. Butterworth) was basically high-fructose corn syrup flavored with artificial maple flavor, colored with “caramel coloring,” and preserved with all sorts of other things that I could barely pronounce.
Because of my maple-syrup epiphany, my kids have only ever known the taste of real maple syrup, except for the one time when they each went on a school field trip to learn about maple-syrup production and tasted the difference between real maple syrup and Aunt Jemima’s imposter syrup. (Predictably, they both preferred the real stuff.) With its sweet yet rich flavor, a little maple syrup goes a long way, and it has become my (and the boys’) preferred all-natural sweetener: It gets drizzled over pancakes and waffles, of course, but it also flavors my homemade granola, gets stirred into oatmeal and yogurt, and sweetens some of our favorite baked goods.
Inevitably, all of this anticipation of spring and the maple-sugaring season makes me crave a maple scone. Perhaps you might be familiar with the maple oat pecan scones from Starbucks? Those scones and copious amounts of Starbucks coffee fueled me through graduate school in Boston and, later, the 8 a.m. writing classes I was assigned to teach to incoming freshmen. (Admittedly, the scone-and-coffee breakfast was not the most, um, nutritious way to start my day, but as I was still in my 20s, I could get away with it sans consequence.) Many years later, no longer living or working within walking distance of Starbucks, but craving a maple scone, I decided to try making them at home. I found the list of ingredients for Starbucks’ maple scones on the company’s website, and, to my surprise, I discovered that they didn’t actually contain any maple syrup, just a lot of “natural flavorings.” So I turned to a cookbook from one of my favorite kitchen gurus, Ina Garten (aka The Barefoot Contessa), for a recipe. Her maple-oatmeal scones contained real maple syrup, and they were delicious, of course, but, like the Starbucks scones, they were roughly the size of my then-toddler’s head (and he had a larger-than-average-size head!), and they used a pound (a POUND! 4 sticks!) of butter to yield 14 oversized scones. Now, I am not one to shy away from using real butter, but between all the butter plus lots of white flour, I couldn’t in good conscience make them more than once or twice a year as a special treat. So I told myself that someday I’d attempt to make a more healthful version of maple scones.
This past month, like clockwork, when the tin buckets appeared on the maple trees and the local sugar houses fired up their wood-burning evaporators, I started craving maple scones again. So I headed to the kitchen, this time determined to make a better-for-you maple scone. I tested and retested recipes with my young kitchen assistants, and I’m excited to report that I think I’ve created a maple-oat scone that rivals that of Starbucks, not only in taste but especially in healthfulness. I replaced the white flour with whole-wheat flour and added some rolled oats. I was able to reduce the butter to one stick (I tried reducing it further, but my taste-testers agreed that any less butter resulted in a less flavorful, more dense/cake-like scone), while also adding some yogurt for tenderness (and added nutrition and protein). I sweetened the scones with real maple syrup, of course—just enough to add maple flavor without making the scones too sweet. I cut the dough into 12 small scones—a reasonable portion for an afternoon snack that goes perfectly with a cup of tea or coffee. And finally, to dress them up a bit and add a touch of extra sweetness, I mixed up a coffee-maple glaze to drizzle on top (because, let’s be honest: the best part of that Starbucks scone was the sweet, maple-flavored icing). That coffee-maple combination transported me right back to graduate school and my early teaching career in Boston, but the appreciative “mmms” and “yums” from my young taste-testers brought me right back to present-day New Hampshire and my current (and favorite) job as mom and family cook/baker.
I think these maple-oat scones just might become our new “Welcome, Spring!” ritual. Thankfully, they also freeze well, because as I glance out my window now, the snow is still falling, the local meteorologist is forecasting up to a foot of snow, and clearly winter isn’t over just yet. This winter is a stubborn one, still hanging on, loitering past its welcome. It will pass though and spring will come; it always does. In the meantime, make these scones, share them with your favorite people, and celebrate the spring that is to come… eventually.
1. Keep your cold ingredients (butter, yogurt, cream) as cold as possible, especially the butter, because when the cold butter meets the hot oven, that’s when the scone magic happens: As the butter melts, it creates little pockets of steam that then create flaky layers within the scone.
2. Handle the dough as gently and as little as possible. Don’t overmix or overknead the dough, or you will end up with tough, dry, and/or dense scones.
Like most scones, these taste best the day they are made, fresh and warm from the oven. However, if you want to make them ahead but still maintain their freshness, you can freeze the scones before baking or after baking. To freeze them *before* baking, place the cut scones on a parchment-lined baking sheet and freeze them until firm. Once they’re frozen, place the scones in a plastic resealable freezer bag, press out any air, seal the bag, then return them to the freezer for up to a month. When you want to bake a few—or all—of the scones, take them out of the bag and place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet while the oven is preheating, then bake as directed. They don’t need to be fully thawed before baking, but you’ll probably need to add a few minutes to the baking time. To freeze the scones *after* baking, just bake the scones as directed, cool them completely, then freeze any leftover scones in plastic resealable freezer bags. When you get a scone craving, thaw them at room temperature (keep the scones in the bag to keep the moisture from evaporating and drying out the scones) or—if you’re in more of a hurry—in the microwave. These scones taste best when served warm, so once they’re thawed, I recommend heating them up in a warm oven or in the microwave just before serving. If you plan to glaze the scones, freeze them plain without the glaze, then mix up the glaze and drizzle them after thawing and baking/reheating, just before serving.
One last note: Although I think these scones are incomplete without the coffee-maple glaze, you can certainly omit the glaze if you prefer. If you omit the glaze, I’d recommend brushing the tops of the scones with milk or cream (or half-and-half) and sprinkling them with either maple sugar or coarse-grained turbinado sugar before baking. Or, leave them plain; my kids happily eat them this way. It’s totally your call.
Yield: 12 scones.
- -- 1 cup white whole-wheat flour, plus more for forming the scones*
- -- 1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour**
- -- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- -- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- -- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- -- ½ cup old-fashioned rolled oats
- -- ½ cup chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)***
- -- ½ cup cold unsalted butter (1 stick/8 tablespoons/4 ounces), cut into small cubes and chilled (I cut up the butter then put it back in the refrigerator until I’m ready to use it.)
- -- 5 tablespoons (1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon) real maple syrup (I like to use Grade A Dark Color, for the most maple flavor, but Grade A Amber Color will also work fine. Read this for more information about the current maple-syrup grades.)
- -- ½ cup plain low-fat yogurt (I like Stonyfield’s organic plain low-fat yogurt. Greek yogurt should also work fine, but you’ll need to add 1 to 2 more tablespoons of milk or cream. I would avoid using nonfat yogurt though, because scones need the fat to bake up tender and not dry.)
- -- 3 tablespoons cream, milk, or half-and-half (I use half-and-half), plus more for brushing the tops (if omitting the glaze)
- -- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- -- Coarse sugar (e.g., maple sugar or turbinado sugar) for sprinkling on top (optional, if omitting the glaze)
- -- ¾ cup confectioners’ sugar
- -- 1 tablespoon strong-brewed coffee (decaffeinated, if you prefer), cooled to room temperature
- -- 1 tablespoon salted butter, melted
- -- 1½ teaspoons real maple syrup
- -- 2 teaspoons cream, milk, or half-and-half
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon, then stir in the rolled oats. Add the butter to the bowl, and use a pastry cutter (or a fork or two knives) to cut the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture looks like coarse sand with some larger, pea-sized chunks. (The smaller pieces of butter will tenderize the scones, while the larger ones will create flaky texture. So it’s okay—preferable, in fact—to still have some larger pieces of butter visible; you don’t have to fully incorporate all of the butter here.)
- Add the nuts (if using), and stir gently with a fork or rubber spatula to mix them in.
- In a small bowl or a large glass measuring cup, whisk together the maple syrup, yogurt, cream or milk, and vanilla. Add to the dry ingredients and stir gently yet quickly with a fork or rubber spatula until evenly moistened and a dough just starts to form. Don’t overmix!
- Gently gather the dough into a loose ball with your hands, then divide it into two halves of equal size. (If you have a kitchen scale, it will come in handy here to help ensure the dough is divided evenly.) On a lightly floured work surface, gently pat and press each half of the dough into a circle about 6 inches in diameter and about ½ inch thick. Use a baker’s bench knife or a sharp knife to cut each circle into 6 wedges. (If you are baking these scones on a warm day in a warm kitchen and you find it difficult to keep the butter cold while you are mixing the dough, put the cut scones on the parchment-lined baking sheet and then in your refrigerator—or even the freezer—for 15 to 30 minutes to chill the fat again before baking. This will help ensure that the scones bake up light and tender.)
- Transfer the scones to the parchment-lined baking sheet. If omitting the glaze, brush the tops of the scones with cream or milk (or half-and-half) and sprinkle with coarse sugar; otherwise, leave them plain. Bake until the scones are puffed and light golden brown, about 15 to 20 minutes. (I like to rotate the baking sheet front to back halfway through the baking time, to help ensure even baking.) Transfer the scones to a cooling rack and cool just enough to eat—they are best served warm—or, if glazing, cool a little longer (about 10 to 15 minutes) so the glaze doesn’t melt off the too-warm scones. Enjoy with a hot cup of tea or coffee!
- In a small bowl, whisk together the confectioners’ sugar, coffee, melted butter, maple syrup, and cream or milk until smooth. (If the glaze is too thick for your liking, add more cream or milk.) Use a small spoon to drizzle the glaze over the cooled scones. Sprinkle with toasted walnuts or pecans, if desired.
** Whole-wheat pastry flour is another flour I reach for when looking to bump up the nutrition and fiber content of muffins and other pastries without turning them into heavy, dense baked goods. Finely milled from lower-protein “soft” wheat, whole-wheat pastry flour has a finer, softer texture than regular whole-wheat flour, which is milled from “hard” red wheat.
If you have trouble finding white whole-wheat flour and/or whole-wheat pastry flour, you can certainly substitute all-purpose flour for either or both of these flours in this recipe and still turn out delicious scones.
*** I usually omit the nuts because my kids are not fans, but if you want to more closely replicate those Starbucks scones, feel free to add them. You can also sprinkle some nuts on top of some or all of the scones after drizzling them with the glaze, depending on your family members’ levels of nut acceptance/aversion. If you do choose to add the nuts, I’d recommend toasting them first (in a 350-degree oven for about 5 to 8 minutes, depending on their size, or in a stove-top skillet over medium heat for about 3 to 5 minutes) to bring out their flavor.
Sources consulted when developing this scone recipe: King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking and Megan Gordon’s whole-wheat maple walnut scone recipe. Glaze recipe inspired by this one.
Did you make this recipe?
I’d love to hear how it turned out for you! Leave a comment below and/or share a picture on Instagram with the hashtag #wholesomefamilykitchen!