maandag 25 mei 2009

With thanks to Brenda Coulter

Preparing and Serving

A Proper An English bone china teapot stands ready to serve an elegant afternoon tea.
Afternoon Tea

Afternoon tea is a wonderful way to entertain because virtually all of the work can be done in advance. Even the sandwiches can be made a couple of hours ahead and kept, covered with a damp tea towel, in the refrigerator until needed. If you plan carefully, there's no reason why you can't have an hourlong soak in the tub before your guests arrive. You'll be wonderfully relaxed and you'll enjoy your tea party as much as your guests will.

Remember, afternoon tea is all about fun, both for your guests and for you. So don't sweat the details. Do the best you can with whatever you have to work with, and you'll have a wonderful party.

You may wish to begin with a small party, inviting just two or three women friends. But be warned: when you and your guests find out how much fun this is, you'll want to make a habit of it!

Now you have all sorts of decisions to make, and part of the fun is in the planning. So strain your brain and get creative. Ready?

When and where will you serve the tea?

The traditional time for afternoon tea is anywhere between 3:30 and 5:00. Any earlier is too close to lunch and anything later will require the more substantial "high" tea. (Which can also be quite elegant, but which will require you to provide an actual meal for your guests.)

I like to serve tea at 3:30 on a Sunday afternoon. That's when most of my friends are likely to be available. And since I enjoy inviting women only, I need to catch them well before their family dinner hours.

In winter you may choose to serve an intimate fireside tea. In the summer you might want to offer tea in your garden. I like the dining room for tea because it's easier to set and clear the table, but tea can be served just about anywhere. Just pick a pretty, comfortable spot. Make sure you have enough seating for your guests, plus plenty of table space, not just for displaying and serving your treats, but for the guests to rest their teacups and saucers. (Please don't expect your guests to balance a cup and saucer on one knee and a napkin and plate on the other! They'll be too worrried about accidents to have a good time.)

Let's talk about tablesettings.

Yes, you can set a pretty tea table on a tight budget. Just use your imagination and plan ahead. Scour flea markets for cheap treasures like old, slightly faded china cups and saucers, or maybe some cake plates. (I have seen English bone china cups and saucers go for as little as $12. If you collect teacups one at a time, as I did over a period of several years, it can become an inexpensive and satisfying hobby. You'll learn a lot about china as you scout for bargains.)

Don't be afraid to borrow your mom's linen napkins or your neighbor's cream-and-sugar set, or your best friend's treasured teaspoons. (You'll be inviting these ladies to the party, right?)

Your tea table is the perfect place to mix and match china and linens. There are no rules, except that you should always make it "pretty." I like to use crisp white linens and my white-on-white china luncheon plates because my teacups are all one-of-a-kind. The different sizes and shapes and floral patterns work beautifully against the white tablecloth, napkins, and plates.

Serving plates can also be mixed and matched. Vary their shapes and sizes and especially their heights to give your tea table a charming look. Also, consider lining your serving plates with paper doilies. They're inexpensive, and they'll dress up even an ordinary plate. (By the way, this is the only paper product I like to see on a tea table. Please don't use paper napkins, I don't care how pretty they are!)

Apart from a teapot, a sugar bowl, a creamer, and the serving dishes, you'll need the following: a cup and saucer, a teaspoon, a napkin, and a small plate for each guest. (Forks may be required, too, depending on what you serve, and knives will be needed for spreading jam on scones.)

What will you serve? (And how will you serve it?)

While afternoon tea fare can be as simple as a wedge of cake or a couple of cookies, it usually consists of three courses. Here is the proper order of service:

Begin by pouring a cup of tea for each of your guests. This is the part where you get to say fun things like, "one lump or two?" and "would you care for any lemon?" Add whatever is desired, then place a teaspoon on the saucer and pass the tea to your guest. (She gets to stir her own tea.)

When everyone has a cup of tea, pass plates of sandwiches and savory foods such as mini-quiches or tiny mushroom turnovers. Don't be in a hurry to offer seconds, as you won't want your guests to fill up before dessert, but be sure to pour more tea as needed. Teacups are usually quite small, and most people are used to drinking out of deep mugs.

When plates are empty, progress to the "bread" course, which is usually scones, although you might choose to offer some type of muffin or a not-too-sweet tea bread. Scones are always served with jam. Strawberry preserves are traditional, and have the advantage of being universally liked. You might also offer very thick, unsweetened whipped cream, the American version of that British treat, clotted cream. (Many specialty markets carry small jars of "Devonshire" cream in their dairy cases. It's expensive, but delicious. Try it if you have the chance.)

Next comes dessert, which traditionally includes one showstopping cake or torte--on a pedestal server if you can manage it--and two or three small, delectable sweets.

And that's it. Simple.

Be sure to have everything set out when your guests arrive. Not only will your friends enjoy looking at the treats, but you won't be dashing back and forth to the kitchen for any reason except to make another pot of tea. (Be prepared to make several pots of tea. Your guests will linger.)

Menu suggestions.

Remember that afternoon tea is a light refreshment, not a meal. It is not necessary to provide anything more than two or three sandwiches, some scones or perhaps a tea bread, and three or four sweets. Here is what I would suggest for a very simple, inexpensive, easy-to-prepare (but still elegant!) afternoon tea:

Brenda's Favorite Afternoon Tea Menu

Cucumber sandwiches
(on thin white bread, cut into hearts or circles)

Chicken-salad sandwiches
(on dark bread, cut into triangles or "fingers")

Scones with strawberry preserves & unsweetened whipped cream

Assorted cookies
Cheesecake squares or lemon bars
Chocolate-dipped strawberries or cherries
A frosted layer cake or fancy torte

Earl Grey tea

This will do nicely for a first tea party with three or four guests. Next time, and especially if you invite more guests, you may wish to expand the menu by adding another sandwich, some kind of savory pastry, a tray of beautiful petits fours, a dish of fine chocolates, and so on. Just remember to keep most of the offerings "sample-size." Sandwiches should be no more than two or three bites each. Cookies should be small and dainty.

If you don't bake or if you are pressed for time, check out the offerings at your local bakery and plan your menu accordingly. While "homemade" is certainly economical, purchased goodies can be just as much a treat. They often look fancier, too. (I generally use a combination of home-baked and bakery goods.)

Tea sandwiches are always crustless, and can be open-faced, if you like, with a pretty garnish on top. They are most often cut into triangles or "fingers," but you can use cookie cutters to make hearts and other interesting shapes. Be sure to use at least one white bread and one dark, for variety.

What kind of tea should you serve? Earl Grey is particularly well-suited to the light, sweet fare of afternoon tea, and most people enjoy it.

Three more things...

Are you concerned about wasting all those breadcrusts you're trimming for the tea sandwiches? Don't worry. They'll make a great bread pudding. Or you could toast them in a bit of olive oil with some garlic and make croutons for salad. And you can always turn them into breadcrumbs for meatloaves and casseroles.

Have you seen those adorable sugar cubes with tiny decorations on them? They're beautiful, but if you choose to serve them to your guests, be sure to try them out first. Although they're supposed to be edible, often the decoration doesn't dissolve, and you're left with awful little lumps in the bottom of your teacup. (And do think carefully about putting something like that on the table if you're not planning to put them in the tea. It's a little awkward to say, "Sorry, those are just for show.")

You've seen it a hundred times in those "Victorian" women's magazines: a split scone filled with jam and a generous dollop of luscious-looking cream, it's jaunty little "lid" perched deliciously on top. Yes, it looks wonderful, but just imagine biting into one of those things. (Where do the jam and cream go? All over you!) It is not correct to serve scones that way. Serve them plain, and allow your guests to split them and spread jam--and cream, if they like--on one half at a time.

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