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Darling clementines make flavor-bursting scones

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For days, I've been making trips into the chilly garage to replenish the bowl of clementines that has been decorating my dining table. Before Christmas, I decided a small mesh-covered crate of the juicy fruit just wouldn't be enough for my clementine-loving family. I bought a case. It must have been 25 pounds. In just two weeks, I can see the bottom of the cardboard box.

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When I first started buying easy-to-peel clementines, close to 15 years ago, only those grown in Spain were available in local stores. Now, as America has fallen in love with the darling little clementine, farmers in California have started growing this fruit that looks like a miniature orange.

Along with the Satsuma and tangerine, clementines are members of the mandarin family. When you are lucky, the clementines you bring home from the store will have a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity and will be heavy with juice, not a seed in sight.

Clementines are an easy-to-eat snack that are packed with the vitamin C we all can use this time of year. They also are a versatile fruit in the kitchen. Add a splash of the juice to a glass of sparkling water or a cup of hot tea, or use it to marinate chicken. Stir the segments into a wild rice salad or toss them into a bowl of fresh greens and use some of their juice in the vinaigrette.

Or make scones.

I pulled out my tried and true recipe, the one that produces rich, slightly sweet and very tender scones with butter and cream. Using my kitchen scale, I weighed out half a pound of clementines. In no time, I had created aromatic scones that seemed to demand a cup of tea and a comfortable chair.

The outer skin, or zest, of clementines is full of volatile aromatic oils that contain floral notes with mild hints of spice and herbs and fresh pineapple. When grated, the zest gives the scones the fragrance and flavor of the best orange marmalade, without the sticky sweetness. When the bright zest combines with the slightly acidic juice from the citrus fruit, Clementine Cream Scones offer a detectable whiff of an orange blossom as you lift them to your mouth.

A generous dusting of sugar over the top of each scone produces a shell that crackles with each bite. Chopped dried apricots and chunks of toasted nuts add delicate sweet and earthy flavor as well as texture.

I've kept the little darlings in the garage for a couple of weeks, where the temperature has stayed between 40 and 45 degrees. They are still firm and heavy, their skin has remained smooth, they have a heavenly scent and they are brimming with juice. Clementines can be kept at room temperature for about a week and up to two weeks in the refrigerator.

You won't need a case of clementines to make Clementine Cream Scones - just three or four, depending on their size. But you will want to have plenty of these cute little oranges on hand for your family to grab on the go - whether out of a bowl on the table, a drawer in the refrigerator or from a big box in a chilly garage.

Clementine Cream Scones

1/2 pound (8 ounces) clementines

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

Pinch of ground ginger

1/2 cup sugar, divided

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, chilled

1 cup coarsely chopped toasted pecans

1 cup chopped dried apricots

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1/4 cup half-and-half

Grate the zest from all of the clementines and set aside. You should have at least 1 generous tablespoon of zest. The more the better. Squeeze enough juice from the clementines to make 1/4 cup. Set zest and juice aside.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, stir together flour, baking powder, salt, ginger and 1/4 cup of the sugar. Cut the butter into small cubes and distribute over dry ingredients in bowl. With a pastry blender or two knives, cut in the butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. This can also be done in a food processor. Stir in chopped nuts and apricots.

In a small bowl, mix whipping cream and half-and-half with reserved zest and juice. Add liquid mixture to dry ingredients and stir until just combined.

Scoop 1/2-cup mounds of dough on prepared baking sheets, forming 8 scones.

Sprinkle remaining 1/4 cup sugar evenly over scones.

Bake scones in preheated 425-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from oven when scones are puffed and golden brown. Transfer scones to wire rack to cool completely. Makes 8 scones.

Tips from the cook

--Toast pecan halves in a single layer on a baking sheet in a preheated 350-degree oven for 8 to 10 minutes. Immediately transfer to a plate to cool. Be sure pecans are completely cool before adding to the mixing bowl.

--Dried cranberries can be used rather than chopped dried apricots in these scones.

--If you prefer smaller scones, use just 1/4 cup of batter per scone and adjust baking time accordingly.

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