Although many Englishmen and women still sit down for a cup of tea in the afternoon, the custom has all but disappeared in America. Even so, a well-executed tea is one of the most relaxing and intimate ways to spend an afternoon with friends.
- Send out invitations. Okay, this isn’t really a necessary step. But sending out formal invitations signals to your guests that your tea will be a special occasion. Perhaps you’d like them to dress up and prepare for an elegant afternoon. Vintage Emily Post suggests your invitations read, “Do come in on Friday for a cup of tea.” Charming and simple.
- Plan the entertainment. Historically, a wealthy wife could invite her friends to tea to hear a great pianist play or to meet a minor celebrity. But tea has also always been—and still is—“the one meal of intimate conversation.” Plan in advance a few great conversation starters that your guests will find interesting. You may also wish to choose a selection of light music to play in the background to make the ambiance more relaxing.
- Set a formal table. At tea, you’ll need water glasses and teacups, plates, forks, knives, and spoons. Be sure to set out milk and sugar for your guests.
- Prepare the tea. Bagged tea will do in a pinch. Prepare it in a teapot before you bring it to the table, rather than give your guests teabags. Loose-leaf tea is preferable to bagged tea. Add about a tablespoon of tea to a tea infuser for a pot of tea. Most teas come with specific instructions for steeping. For most black teas, bring a kettle of water to a boil and pour straight over the leaves. Wait three to five minutes and remove the infuser. The longer you leave the leaves in the water, the stronger your tea will be. Just don’t leave the leaves in longer than recommended because your tea will take on an unpleasant, “oversteeped” taste.
- Prepare the food. A traditional “cream tea” normally consists of three courses: tea sandwiches, scones, and dessert, though toasted bread or cheese and crackers are also appropriate.
Recipes for an Elegant Afternoon Tea
Lightly butter the inside of two slices of bread. Fill sandwiches with your favorite toppings. You might want to consider
- Cucumber and watercress
- Egg salad
- Tuna salad
- Pimento cheese (grated cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, and a jar of pimentos)
- Sliced pear and Gorgonzola cheese
- Tomato, basil, and mozzarella
Cut off the crusts of tea sandwiches and cut them into triangular fourths.
These aren’t the hard, triangular pastries you get at coffee chains. Proper scones are light, sweet biscuits. Serve them fresh with jam or whipped cream to top.
- 2 cups of all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 4 teaspoons of baking powder
- 1 tablespoon of sugar
- 5 tablespoons of cold butter, cut into 1/4 inch cubes
- 2 eggs
- 3/4 cup of cream or milk
- 1/3 cup of dried fruit such as golden raisins or cranberries
- Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Mix together the dry ingredients, in a food processor if possible.
- Blend the butter into the flour mixture. If you’re doing this by hand, rub the butter together with the flour until you have a mixture about the consistency of corn meal.
- Beat the eggs together with the milk or cream. Beat or knead the milk into the flour until just combined. The less you knead the dough, the lighter and fluffier your scones will be.
- Fold in your dried fruit.
- Turn the dough onto a floured countertop. While you can simply roll out the dough, here’s a fun trick to make your scones lighter and flakier. Hammer the dough flat with a rolling pin. Fold the dough in half and repeat two or three times. The final time, make sure you flatten it to about 3/4 of an inch thick.
- Cut the dough into 2-inch circles using a floured cookie cutter or drinking glass. If you’re making custard for a trifle, use whip together the egg whites and brush them over the scones. Sprinkle sugar on top to finish.
- Bake for 7 to 9 minutes until the scones are puffed up and a beautiful, golden brown. Serve as soon as possible.
The ultimate tea dessert is a trifle, a heavenly combination of custard, cake, fruit, and cream. Prepare it in a trifle dish or clear bowl to show off how beautiful it looks.
This isn’t a Cooking 101 dish. If you’re not a confident baker, try serving a basic pound cake instead.
For the trifle:
- 1 pound cake
- 1 8-ounce jar of strawberry jam
- 6 tablespoons of sweet sherry
- 1 batch of egg custard
- 1/2 pint of heavy whipping cream
- 1 pint of fresh strawberries, washed and halved
For the egg custard:
- 3/4 cup of sugar
- 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/4 teaspoon of salt
- 2 cups of half and half
- 3 egg yolks, beaten
- 1 teaspoon of vanilla
- Start by preparing an egg custard: Combine the sugar, flour, and salt in the top of a double boiler. If you don’t have a double boiler, you can prepare the custard over low heat, stirring constantly.
- Beat together the egg yolks and milk. Slowly stir in the milk mixture, breaking up lumps as you go.
- Cook until the custard has thickened, stirring constantly. If it hasn’t thickened after about ten minutes, add flour a teaspoon at the time, stirring thoroughly after each addition. Pour the custard into a cool bowl. Place that bowl inside a larger bowl or sink filled with cold water until it has cooled.
- After your custard has cooled, cut the cake into one-inch cubes. Put half of these cubes on the bottom of the bowl.
- Empty the entire jar of jam over the cake. The end goal is a beautiful, layer effect.
- Add the other half of the cake.
- If you’re using it, add pour the sherry over the cake. While it isn’t necessary, sherry adds a buttery richness to the trifle you can’t get any other way.
- Pour the custard over the cake.
- Whip the cream by beating it rapidly with a mixer until it is a light, fluffy texture. Add sugar to taste before you pour it over the custard.
- Top with fresh, halved strawberries.
An elegant afternoon tea is one of the most pleasant ways to spend your afternoon in the company of other women.