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Scones made with a baker's gentle touch

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I watched intently as Katie Novotny, owner of St. Paul Classic Cookie Co., dumped dry ingredients into a large metal mixing bowl. She used a knife to slash chunks of chilled butter into the same bowl. It seemed making perfect scones would be quite simple.

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Novotny had graciously agreed to share some of her baking expertise with our group of seven food-and-fun-loving females in her small shop on Territorial Road in St. Paul. After running her bakery in the skyway in downtown St. Paul for 3½ years, she moved to her current location and opened up shop in January 2010. Besides taking special orders for custom cakes, she keeps the glass bakery case full of made-from-scratch muffins and pies, scones, brownies, cupcakes and a variety of cookies, including her snickerdoodles that were named the best in the Twin Cities by Minnesota Monthly magazine in 2011.

"I love the smell of flour and butter," said Novotny as she dug her fingers into the bowl, her fingertips working the butter into the dry ingredients. "Hands are the best (kitchen) tools. You can feel the mixture changing. I want this mixture to feel like sand."

I appreciated Novotny's home-style baking techniques. My grandmother taught me years ago to use my hands to mix bread dough, pie crust and dumplings. It was the only way to learn how the dough should feel to get the best result.

Next, Novotny used a light touch to blend cold milk into the flour and butter mixture. "A scone is just a biscuit. It's totally how you handle the dough," she said. She stressed the importance of working quickly and handling the dough as little as possible.

When the dough felt just right, Novotny patted it into a rectangle on her work surface. She pushed chunks of frozen rhubarb and strawberries into the soft dough, then folded each long side into the center, covering the frozen fruit. Like an experienced surgeon with a scalpel, she sliced through the dough with precision, forming four squares, and then cut through each square to form eight triangular shapes.

Katie Novotny can't share the recipe for the scones that fly out of her bakery. She makes at least four dozen a day to keep her south St. Anthony Park neighborhood customers happy. But I sent her an email message from home after I'd used my own tried and true recipe for scones that I shape by dropping them onto a baking sheet with a measuring cup. When I tried her flatten, fill and fold method, my tasty scones did not hold their perfect triangular shape as they baked. I asked for her help.

On the next try, I drastically reduced the liquid and cut back on the sugar as Novotny suggested. I don't remember ever making a decent biscuit, but I gently mixed and patted, filled and folded. I had high expectations. Novotny's expert tips for creating the perfect scones were clear in my mind - be sure the butter and the liquid are cold, work quickly and handle the dough gently. Use frozen fruit. It will hold its shape during baking and won't color the dough as soft fruit can do.

Novotny is a good teacher. My Strawberry-Rhubarb scones were puffy, moist and light. Next time I know they will be even better. Novotny assured me great scones come from lots of practice. She speaks from experience.

For more information about St. Paul Classic Cookie Co., click here.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Scones

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) cold butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

2/3 cup cold half-and-half or whole milk, plus extra for brushing

1/2 cup frozen strawberry chunks

1/2 cup frozen rhubarb chunks

Sugar for sprinkling, about 1 tablespoon

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Set aside.

Use a whisk to mix flour, baking powder, salt and sugar together in a large mixing bowl. Add butter cubes to the bowl. Use fingers to mix butter into sugar until mixture resembles sand. Pour in cold half-and-half. With a gentle touch, mix until just combined.

Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface. Pat the dough into a rectangle about 12 inches long and 4 inches wide. Evenly distribute the frozen chunks of fruit over the dough. Press the fruit to embed the chunks into the dough. Fold one long side into the middle. Fold the other long side over to cover the fruit. Pat to seal.

Cut the rectangle into 4 squares. Cut each square in half diagonally to form 8 triangles. Place triangles on parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush the top of each one with half-and-half or milk. Sprinkle with sugar. Bake scones in preheated 425-degree oven for about 15 minutes, until done. Remove from oven. Transfer scones to wire rack to cool slightly before serving. Makes 8 scones.

Tips from the cook

--I used my bench scraper to loosen the dough from the work surface to make it easy to fold over the fruit. I used it for cutting the dough, too.

--These scones are best eaten the same day they are made.

--Try adding a pinch of cinnamon or nutmeg to the dough along with some grated citrus zest for a tasty twist.

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