Several weeks ago, on a Tuesday, or maybe a Thursday, but definitely a weekday, and most definitely between 3:37 and 4:25, things were going sideways.
We were milling about, at loose ends. For the first time in a long time, no one had a playdate. It was after school, after apples, after cursory accounts of the ways of our different days. Before homework, before refreshed, before restored. Before the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, or legos, drawing, and the day's funnies, a fair proxy. Before we'd successfully negotiated what is commonly called the witching hour, but which I always think of as re-entry: that intense, vivid period when we all re-group, re-braid our lives, re-join each other's atmospheres.
I was doing my best to bring harmony to the situation, which is to say dropping unwanted suggestions like lead bricks. "It's a beautiful early Spring day." [THUD] "Go outside!" [THUNK] "Have fun." [KLUNK] "NOW." [THUD CLATTER THUNK].
This is not a direct quote. But it might as well be. I've developed a few parenting skills over the years, but getting three wildly different personalities on the same page is not among them. I tend to go about it with the grace of a Walrus, the diplomacy of Nero. And on the afternoon in question, I was in top [ungainly mammalian dictatorial] form.
Thankfully, my children have more sense than I.
There we were outside, together, separate, harrumphing around until I let us all back in, when my eldest let drop this lovely line: "I wish I could just have some things. To do whatever I want with. Build, invent, experiment, ruin, whatever. Ten things, maybe. Maybe someday."
***fwoooopkk!!*** (Or whatever sound movie soundtracks make when the whole moving picture thing stops. When time stops, when action stops, when inaction speaks volumes. When a moment's total pause causes you to re-consider the outrageous import of What Just Happened. Yeah, that.)
This surprised me on so many levels, I had insufficient fingers and toes to tally. But suffice it to say, I responded with: "!!!!!!!!" Then: "Right back." Then: "!!!!!!!!" Then I high-tailed it to the garage, before the mood passed.
What followed next was a most extraordinary afternoon.
Well, what actually followed next was that I assembled, crish-crash, a small parcel of stuff in the space of three minutes. A strip of cheesecloth. A roll of masking tape. An empty water bottle. A sheet of dot stickers, a pencil, a plastic spoon. Some wooden clothespins. The requested whatever, within easy reach. Then I gave them over. "There you go."
Him: "Mine?" Me: "Yup." Him: "Really? Whatever I want?" Me: "Go to town." Him: "Like, you don't need this back? Or this? Any of this?" Me: "Nope. Yours now." Him: "??!?!?!!!!" and "O....kay."
Then, the extraordinary afternoon.
Robots were built. Rockets, too. Flags, slings, boats, whales and drums, also. These were the things that could be named. Most of the most important things, couldn't. Most of the most important things weren't things.
There was cooperation and brainstorming and bickering and resolving. Concentrating, problem-solving, laughter, tears, laughter. Finger nails and knees, deeply dirtied. Hours unnoticed. Homework forgotten. Sun sinking. Serious flow.
Much tape was ripped. Heads put together. Messes made. Economies created. Those who had tape bartered with those who had none. The worth of clothespins, hotly debated. The value of S-hooks skyrocketed, then plummeted, as fascination with hanging stuff from trees waxed and waned. It was very Pets.com, circa summer of 2000, a good reminder we're all bubble-prone, regardless of age.
But that water bottle, man. It was the gold standard. Vessel, vehicle, container, weight. Waterfall, wave-maker, centrifugal-force enabler, cap-chaser. It came with a cap! Two things in one. Priceless.
We laid some ground rules as questions came up. Yes, you can do/make/build/try/un-do pretty much anything, so long people and property are respected. Yes, you can use the hose. No, not on your siblings. Yes, you can use any bits of nature. And just like that, our backyard became a treasure chest. Y-sticks, bird baths, tree branches, oh my! Funny what new eyes, new perspective can do.
We learned that sticker dots provide quick color, but that their adhesive is water-soluble. That the pulling of thread can turn cheesecloth into strings, and singular into plural, and that strings can then become fasteners. That tape for some fingers can be tricky. That for others, it's easy. That we need one another.
That the balancing of things, a bottle, a silver and blue bubble-bot, is as much art as science, and irrationally satisfying. And that the satisfaction upon success seems to come in direct proportion to the time invested. I'm not sure whether that makes it a physics problem or a math one. Only that it makes it a very good problem.
That when I equip one kid with ten things, the other two will quickly come running. That scarcity fuels demand, that they'll each want their own ten. That this is a "Me, Too!" I can totally get behind. That tin foil is an awesome addition: waterproof, malleable, shiny. That rubber bands are, also, and L-brackets and screws. Paper plates and sardine labels, not so much. Duds happen. I learned that there is unbearable luxury in giving a child an entire roll of masking tape.
I learned that there is great value in limits, that parameters and creativity go hand in hand. The simple fact of ten things (so brilliant, so not my idea) was the spark they—we—needed to fire up eyes, minds and fingers. Knowing there would be no more, no less, we could focus. For three hours. All together. [!!!] I consider myself a fairly focused person. I'm not sure I've focused like this, before or since.
I know this, studied this, considered a Ph.D. in this. This way constraints have of marshalling attention, the apparent paradox of rules igniting imaginations. Odes, sonnets, claymation, the evidence is of course everywhere. But I'm forgetful. And human. The same old lessons keep sneaking up on me. It's like breathing, I guess. Inhale, exhale. Learn, re-learn.
And then, there were the things themselves, bits and bobs, the lot of them, mostly culled from the recycle and tool bin marked "Misc." Background stuff, there everyday. All of it, always there for the using, for anyone, no permission necessary. (They never get used, never get asked after.) I didn't buy them, make them, prepare them, pre-meditate them. But something about assembling and presenting these cast-offs made them thrilling, desireable, beyond any toy.
Learn, re-learn. Round two.
I am not suggesting you try ten things (mind you, you may; just credit Max, not me). I'm not even suggesting I try ten things, again. Extraordinary is, by definition, difficult to repeat. (Though of course I'm ready, if they ask. I'm particularly excited about the twisty ties. And the shoe box. And the laundry detergent cap.)
I simply set it down here, because I'll forget. Because simplicity's not my strong suit. But I'm not done, yet.
Which brings me to scones. Plain, simple scones. White flour, white sugar, buttermilk, butter scones. These scones have no whole grains, no ground oats or spelt. No zaps of candied ginger, no chew of dried cherry. No tip of chocolate, no glug of crème fraîche. No spice, no fruit, no nut, no health check. (I love complicated. But not always.) No redeeming value, save delicious. I could tell you ten things about these scones, that they are tender, flaky, buttery, Monday-Morning-simple scones. Porcelain-crusted, melting-crumbed, Platonic scones. Unassuming, excellent, crisp-where-it-counts scones. But really, they are just simple scones. And sometimes, simple is very, very good.
adapted ever so slightly from Molly Watson
Molly's original recipe is four-star; my tweaks have mostly to do with details and technique. I like salted butter here, and also, full-fat buttermilk, which has less water and therefore less likelihood of toughening. Also, on top, I love turbinado (raw) sugar, for its crunch.
As to technique, two notes: I prepped my dough, up through cutting the butter, the night before, then refrigerated it and finished it off in the morning. Quick enough for a weekday breakfast. I'm tempted to prep them completely and refrigerate, but wonder whether the buttermilk/soda reaction will wear off. Let me know if you try it.
Finally, after the original 12 minutes' baking time called for, my scones still had dough for centers. They took 16 minutes, likely because the dough was cold (see above). Bear in mind that this will affect baking time, and as always, bake by cue over clock: toasty smell, golden edges, and flaky centers (snap one in half to confirm).
3 cups all-purpose, unbleached flour
1/3 cup granulated sugar, plus more for sprinkling (or use turbinado, on top)
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
12 Tbs. salted butter, well chilled
1 cup full-fat buttermilk, well shaken
Preheat oven to 425°. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Over bowl, cut butter into small bits, dropping them into the flour mixture as you go. With clean hands, work butter and flour together, sliding and noodging with your fingers, until you have a heap of flaky butter-flour. You want bits of butter still visible, and a smidge of loose flour, but mostly, a pile of cornmeal and shaggy flakes. (You can refrigerate the dough at this point, and complete the making in the morning.)
Give buttermilk a good shake, then pour into the flour-butter mixture, using a rubber spatula to fold together (or a fork to stir loosely). Stop stirring while it's still inelegant; you don't want homogenous yet. Dust a clean surface with flour (or, if you don't want to muss up a surface, lay a piece of parchment down), and tip the still-shaggy dough and bits onto the surface/paper. Gently, quickly, pull the dough into a rough ball, with a few confident kneads, until it mostly holds together.
At this point, I divide the dough in half, and pat each half into a rough circle, about 1/2" thick. Cut each circle into six or eight triangles, and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Alternatively, you can roll out the dough, and cut into circles, hearts, stars, whatever suits, keeping in mind only that different sizes will affect baking time. Sprinkle generously with sugar, and bake until golden on the bottom and all around the top edges, 12-16 minutes.
Serve warm, with butter, and/or raspberry jam, and/or clotted cream. Even simple takes well to jam and cream.