A new twist on an old tradition
By Sally E. Smith
"Take some more tea," the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly. "I've had nothing yet," Alice replied in an offended tone, "so I can't take more."
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865
If you were wearing anklet socks and Mary Janes the last time you poured at a tea party, you may be surprised to know that tea time has become the latest trend in entertaining. No longer relegated to little girls and their dollies, tea parties are a wonderful excuse to gather friends together in an informal yet imaginative setting.
The mannerly rituals associated with pouring tea, combined with the delicious tidbits served with the brew and great conversation, make for a delightful afternoon gathering. In this workaday world, traditional afternoon teas - usually held at four o'clock - are probably best reserved for the weekends, when you have time to prepare and your friends have time to relax.
Your afternoon tea can be as simple or as elegant as you would like. If you're not inclined to fuss, the minimum requirements are a teapot, a tea ball, cups and saucers, teaspoons, lump sugar, milk, lemon, snacks, boiling water and - of course - tea.
While the Camellia sinesis plant yields over 3,000 varieties of tea, there are basically three types: green tea, which consists of steaming fresh leaves before heat-drying; black tea, which is produced by allowing leaves to ferment before firing; and oolong tea, which is partially oxidized, and has a color and tasted somewhere between green and black teas. It should be noted that herbal teas - while tasty and soothing - do not contain any real tea leaves.
For the novice, a good choice for an afternoon tea is a blend of black teas, such as English Breakfast or Earl Grey. Tea bags are verboten at an afternoon tea, so be sure to buy it in loose-leaf form.
In order to brew a perfect cup of tea, start with good water. If the taste of your tap water is reminiscent of a well-used swimming pool, use the bottled variety. In order to pre-warm the pot, which will keep your tea hotter longer, fill your teapot with hot water and let it sit. Then, pour fresh cold water into your teakettle. If you're using tap water, let the water run a few moments before filling the kettle so that it becomes full of oxygen, which will bring out the full flavor of the tea. Bring the water to a rolling boil, but don't let the boiling water sit on the stove too long, or it will lose its oxygen, resulting in flat-tasting tea.
Measure the tea (one teaspoon per person) into the tea ball (a small perforated metal ball), making sure that it's loose enough so that the water can infuse it properly. Empty the hot water out of the teapot, place the tea ball inside, and immediately pour the boiling water over it. Let it brew for three to five minutes, then remove the tea ball. Voila! You have the perfect pot of tea.
The pot of tea should be placed upon a tray, along with a kettle of hot water, bowl of lump sugar and tongs, plate of lemon slices, and pitcher of milk and carried into the room where your guests are gathered. You may then ask a good friend, "Would you do the honor of pouring?" According to Judith Martin's (a.k.a. Miss Manners) Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, "Being asked to pour is an honor just short of knighthood."
Guests come up to the person pouring, who asks, "How would you like your tea?" If the answer is "strong," a cup is poured from the teapot. If the answer is "weak," the tea is diluted in the cup with hot water from the kettle. The guest should then be asked if she would like sugar (yes, the pourer can say, "One lump or two?"), milk or lemon, with these items added accordingly.
If you'd like to add some elegance to your tea party, you can incorporate items such as a copper kettle over an alcohol burner (so tea may be prepared in front of your guests), a tea cozy (a "jacket" which holds in the teapot's heat) and a tea caddy (a box holding leaf tea). Veteran hostesses might even opt for a "tea tasting," where several varieties of tea are served.
As for which foods to serve to accompany afternoon tea, the general rule of thumb is that they be light edibles. After that, you're limited only by your imagination and the theme of your tea party. Crustless sandwiches, miniature muffins, shrimp or fish pates, and toasted breads with jams are all appropriate for tea time.
Traditional fare, such as cucumber sandwiches, can be made by marinating thinly sliced cucumbers in white vinegar and sugar for two hours, drying thoroughly and placing between two slices of bread lightly spread with mayonnaise or whipped cream cheese. Tea sandwiches can also be made from egg salad, tomatoes with ricotta cheese and basil, or ham with apricot jam and Dijon mustard. Just remember to trim off all the crusts and cut the sandwiches into smaller portions of varying shapes - triangles, "fingers" or even shapes from small cookie cutters.
You should also serve something sweet, whether it is something simple like small cookies, or more involved, such as miniature eclairs, tarts or petit fours. And what tea would be complete without those quintessential pastries, English crumpets and Scottish scones? Put an American twist on the traditional by adding ingredients like cheese or chocolate.
Afternoon tea can be held wherever your whimsy takes you. If you don't have a time honored drawing room handy, and your living room seems oh-so-boring, why not hold your tea party outdoors? An afternoon tea in your garden or your patio on a beautiful spring day will set a delightful mood for your guests. If you're so inclined, why not pack up the makings and invite your friends on a hike, serving them with a babbling brook as a backdrop? Or invite your friends to a quiet corner of your favorite park, spread out the blankets and enjoy each other's company while quaffing your tea.
Tea parties are also a novel way to celebrate special occasions. You could, for example, invite your friends and their mothers (and yours as well!) to a Mother's Day tea. Even a baby or bridal shower takes on a new twist when enjoyed within a tea party setting.
While afternoon tea is considered "low tea," you can also host a "high tea," the only difference being that high tea is held later in the afternoon (why not invite your friends to stop by after work?), and more substantial food is served. According to Miss Manners, "While some unscrupulous restaurants try to make afternoon tea sound more 'high society' by calling it high tea, the word 'high' is actually related to 'It's high time we had something to eat.'"
Whether high or low, a tea party is basically an informal, intimate gathering. So you can even dig out your anklets and Mary Janes, if the mood strikes you! Or just pour a cuppa, relax and enjoy.
Jarlsberg Mini Scones
- 2 cups sifted flour
- 2 T. sugar
- 1 T. baking powder
- 1/2 tea. Salt
- 1/4 cup cold butter
- 1/2 cup shredded Jarlsberg cheese
- 3 T. currants or dried cranberries
- 2 eggs
- 1/3 cup milk
In large bowl, sift together flour with sugar, baking powder and salt. Using a pastry blender or two knives, cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add cheese and currants.
Beat eggs until light; add milk. Gradually stir in flour mixture.
Roll out on lightly floured board to 1/2" thickness. Cut into 2" squares. Cut each in half diagonally to form triangles. Brush each top with milk. Place on greased baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until golden. Serve warm. Makes about 30 small scones.
Mini Cheese Corn Muffins
- 1 cup corn meal
- 1 cup unsifted flour
- 1/2 cup shredded Jarlsberg cheese
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 2 T. each minced green and red pepper
- 2 tea. baking powder
- 1-1/2 tea. salt
- 1 cup sour cream
- 2 eggs
- 1/4 cup melted butter
In bowl, combine first seven ingredients; blend well. Combine sour cream, eggs and butter. Add to dry ingredients and blend until evenly moistened. Spoon into generously greased mini muffin pans, filling almost to top.
Bake at 425 degrees for 10-15 minutes, until golden. Cool on wire rack for five minutes. Remove from pans and serve warm with Chili Cheese Butter. Makes 36 muffins.
Chili Cheese Butter: Combine 1/2 cup softened butter with 1/2 cup grated Jarlsberg cheese, minced clove of garlic and 1/4 tea. chili powder. Chill until ready to serve. Makes about one cup.
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