There is nothing cozier than inviting friends for afternoon tea. It’s a stylish way to host book clubs, bridal showers and people who like chatting. Admittedly, tea rituals are more popular with women than with men.
The British tradition of sipping tea while nibbling petit sandwiches and sweets caught on during the mid-19th century when businessmen brought tea to England from China, along with teapots and tea sets known as “china.” Originally served around 4 p.m., this refined snack fell halfway between lunchtime and dinners that started at 8 p.m.
Today’s afternoon tea is flexible time wise. It doesn’t require the fancy loose teas that once predominated: Assam, Darjeeling, Earl Grey and Lapsang Souchong. Now any type of tea is acceptable, including Lipton tea bags, although steeping them in a teapot is an elegant touch.
With its quaint British roots, afternoon tea is usually consumed in living rooms on sofas and low chairs, as opposed to high tea, which is actually dinner eaten at a table on higher dining chairs.
Afternoon tea can be served on fine china or everyday porcelain. While cheese and other savories now appear on tea trays, many aficionados prefer the traditional square sandwiches on crustless bread or scones and cakes, presented on cake stands. Whatever your style, afternoon tea can be prepared in advance, making it a relaxing way to entertain.
Note: Make tea sandwiches from day-old bread, which doesn’t crush during cutting. Pullman loaves, with their square slices, cut into four identical sandwiches. Tea sandwiches have thin, scant fillings by Jewish deli standards.
Watercress Tea Sandwiches / Dairy
1 small bunch of watercress
4 slices of Pullman loaf, preferably from a bakery or where fine breads are sold
2 tablespoons sweet butter, at room temperature, or more, if needed
Dash of salt
Rinse the watercress under cold water. Shake it out and place it on paper towels until dry. Cut off the stems and discard. Cut off the crusts on each piece of bread. Discard the crusts or save them for homemade breadcrumbs. Spread the butter on each slice of bread. On 2 slices of bread, lay the watercress leaves over the butter, overlapping, so that the entire piece of bread is covered by 2 layers. Sprinkle on the salt to taste. Place the remaining pieces of bread, butter side down, onto the watercress. Line up the pieces of bread perfectly. With a sharp knife, cut the sandwiches into quarters, creating 4 small squares from each sandwich. Move the sandwiches to a serving plate and cover them with plastic wrap until serving. Sandwiches can be refrigerated but bring them to room temperature, making sure the butter softens, before serving.
Yield: 8 tea sandwiches (small squares)
Curried Egg Salad Tea Sandwiches / Pareve
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon light mayonnaise
¼ teaspoon curry powder
⅛ teaspoon ground cumin
Kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste
6 slices of Pullman loaf, preferably from a bakery or where fine breads are sold
Place the eggs in a pot of cold water. Cover them and bring the water to a boil. Boil the eggs for 10 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and let the water come to room temperature. Dry off the eggs with paper towels. Crack the shells and discard them. Place the eggs in a bowl. Slice the eggs, then break them into small pieces with a fork. Spoon in the mayonnaise. Mash it into the eggs with the fork, until a fine egg salad is formed. Add the curry, cumin, salt and pepper, mixing well until fully incorporated. Cut off the crusts of the Pullman bread. Discard or save for homemade breadcrumbs. Spread the egg salad evenly on 3 slices of Pullman loaf. Cover the egg salad with the remaining 3 slices of bread. Line up the bread slices evenly. With a sharp knife, cut each sandwich into 4 equal quarters. Move them to a serving plate and cover with plastic wrap until serving. Sandwiches can be refrigerated but bring to room temperature before serving.
Yield: 12 tea sandwiches (small squares)
Chocolate Chip Scones / Dairy
4 baking sheets
1½ sticks unsalted butter
3 cups flour, plus extra for dusting
⅔ cups sugar
5 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
¼ teaspoon vanilla
1 cup milk
¾ cups semisweet chocolate bits
On a plate, cut the cold butter into 1/2-inch squares and return them to the refrigerator. Make 2 piles on 2 baking sheets. Cover the top baking sheets with parchment paper. Reserve. In a large mixing bowl, add the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. With an electric mixer, briefly combine on low speed. Add 25 percent of the butter at a time and mix after every addition, until the butter squares are coated with the flour mixture. Add the egg and mix. Pour in the milk and vanilla and mix again. Add the chocolate chips and mix until combined. The butter will not be entirely incorporated, which promotes fluffy scones. Dust your hands and a cutting board with flour. The dough will be sticky and awkward to manage. With a spatula, move the dough to the floured surface. You may need to scoop up some of it with your hands. Roll the dough around in the flour and knead it briefly, forming a ball. Flatten the ball into a disk about 3/4-inch thick. Run a sharp chef’s knife under cold water and dry it. Cut the disk in half. Then cut each half into 6 wedges. With the knife, lift up the wedges one at a time and move them to a prepared doubled baking sheet. It’s OK if the wedges lose their triangular shape. Place the doubled baking sheets in the freezer for 30 minutes. Arrange your oven racks just above and below the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Remove the baking doubled sheets from the freezer. Transfer 6 scones to the second prepared baking sheet. Arrange the 6 on the chilled baking sheets evenly. Place both sets of baking sheets in the oven. After 6 minutes, move the top sheets to the lower rack; and the ones from the lower rack to the top. Continue baking for another 6 to 8 minutes, until the scones are golden on top and a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the center comes clean. Serve immediately or move to a platter to cool to room temperature. Store in plastic containers.
Yield: 12 scones
Apple Raisin Teacake / Dairy
1 loaf pan
Butter for coating pan, plus ¼ cup butter at room temperature
1-2 large apples
½ cup sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla
4½ teaspoons sour cream
1 cup flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup golden raisins
Coat the loaf pan with butter. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Peel and core one apple. Dice it and then chop it. Measure so you have 1/2 cup of chopped apple. Use the second apple, if necessary. Discard any extra or use it for another purpose. Cover the chopped apple with plastic wrap and reserve. Place the 1/4 cup butter and sugar into a medium-sized mixing bowl. Using an electric mixer, blend together. Add the egg, mixing well. Add the vanilla and sour cream and mix again. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt into the bowl. Mix slowly, until well incorporated. Add the apples and raisins and mix on low until mixed together. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool until the cake reaches room temperature. Unmold the cake from the loaf pan. The cake should be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap for a day. When ready to serve, cut it into 1/2-inch slices and place it on an attractive plate or cake stand.
Yield: 12 to 16 slices JN
This article first appeared in the Jewish Exponent, a publication affiliated with the Jewish News.