When Vivian Hernandez-Jackson invited me to come back scones with her at her Ocean Beach eatery, Azúcar, I wondered how that thoroughly British pastry related to her Cuban heritage. A first-generation American whose parents settled in Miami, where she was born and raised, Vivian turns out magnificent casual Cuban dishes like traditional Cubano sandwiches with rich, slow-roasted Cuban-style pork, sliced ham, and Swiss cheese served with plantain chips and a remarkable mojo dip--a blend of sour orange juice, canola oil and pureed raw garlic. Her Cuban meat pies are reminiscent of empanadas--a sweet meat filling that goes back to the picadillo santiaguerro her mom made wrapped in a flaky dough.
To get the scones you have to dig a little into Vivian's background. "I started cooking at age seven and was obsessed by cooking shows," she reminisces. "I loved watching The Frugal Gourmet, Nathalie Dupree, and Jacques Pepin."
As she grew up, she knew she wanted to bake for a living but dutifully attended Florida International University, where she earned a degree in hotel management in just three years--satisfying her parents' need for her to do something practical.
Then she headed off for London for a year in 2001, where she attended Le Cordon Bleu, taking both the cooking and baking courses. "I loved that actual cooking is what we did. Everyday."
During that time, she worked at Claridge's and--here's the payoff--made hundreds and hundreds of scones. They became as much a part of her repertoire as the other pastries she learned to make. She brought those skills back to Miami, where she was a pastry cook at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel for a year before moving to San Diego to teach at the National Culinary School in La Mesa for a couple of years. The desk job Vivian then took in product development for a food marketing company lasted only a year and a half before she knew she had to get back into a kitchen. She took a job as pastry cook at Tartine in Coronado and her three years there gave her the insights she needed into how to run a small retail bakery.
By then Vivian and her husband had settled in Ocean Beach and she realized that there was no place to get made-from-scratch pastries in the neighborhood. It was the end of 2007 when she signed a lease for her spot on Newport Ave. Azúcar opened the following July. Now, about to celebrate six years in business she marvels that she launched it at the very moment the country was sinking into the Great Recession.
But people need to eat. And Vivian gets a thrill whenever she drives through the neighborhood and sees people holding her distinctive green pastry boxes or cups of coffee with green coffee sleeves.
And her food? She's figured out ways to give a tropical, Cuban flair to traditional pastries--adding coconut and macademia nuts to Florentine Bars, and key limes, mojito mint, mango, Cuban rum, and passion fruit to her many other sweets--and to improve the ingredients of the Cuban foods she grew up enjoying. So, no lard or margarine in her doughs; it's good butter. Quality pork and cheeses, chocolate and ham. And her pastries are baked in real time.
In fact, when I arrived at Azúcar at 2:30 in the afternoon, all the pastries for the following day had been made and put raw in the freezer to be baked first thing the following morning and throughout the day as needed. It alleviates the stress of making and baking early in the morning and reduces waste. Plus, customers get freshly baked treats throughout the day.
So, Vivian waited for me to arrive to bake her planned batch of Key Lime White Chocolate Scones. It's truly an easy recipe that produces a soft, melt-in-your-mouth pastry that teases with the brightness of key lime flavor. And, Vivian has some very cool tricks to make the baking and enjoying process even easier. It starts with having the flexibility of making the dough (or buying it from her) and freezing to bake later in small batches or even one at a time. And, with this wet dough, you form the individual scones by using a large ice cream scoop. This way you have uniform-sized pastries and you prevent overhandling the dough. In fact, I was surprised that even I, who she put to work scooping out the dough onto the half sheet, reached the end of the sheet with precisely 54 scones (6X9 even rows) with nothing left in the Hobart mixer's bowl. I love the precision of a good baker.
Key Lime White Chocolate Scones
from Vivian Hernandez-Jackson, Azúcar
Makes 9 large scones
2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter cold diced
3/4 cup buttermilk
zest of 1 lime
2 tablespoons key lime juice (You can find containers of Nelly & Joe's Key West Lime Juice at major supermarkets.)
1/2 cup white chocolate chips or chunks
For key lime icing:
1/4 cup key lime juice
1 cup powdered sugar
1. Preheat oven to 325˚.
2. With mixer on low speed and using paddle attachment, combine dry ingredients. Add the cold diced butter and blend until the mixture resembles wet sand and no large pieces butter remain.
3. Pour in the buttermilk, zest, and juice. Mix until all are combined, then gently mix in white chocolate chips/chunks.
4. Scoop scones onto a sheet pan with parchment paper that has been sprayed with baking spray. Place about 2 inches apart. Sprinkle with a bit of sugar before baking.
At this point you can freeze them and bake off when needed.
If baking fresh: 25-30 minutes
If baking frozen: 30-35 minutes
When scones come out of the oven, drizzle with key lime icing. If you have leftover scones the following day, reheat them briefly in the microwave just to warm them inside before eating.
Azúcar is located at 4820 Newport Ave. in Ocean Beach. It's open daily, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays.