The no-frills, very British way to host an afternoon tea
It’s the perfect kind of party for any time you want to gather with friends
I am an unapologetic Anglophile. “Downton Abbey” marathon watcher. Jane Austen action figure on my desk. Believer that everything sounds better with a British accent. But, oh, the tea. I’m not just talking about a properly brewed cuppa.
What I’m referring to is afternoon tea, that convivial tradition of scones, sandwiches and pastries that bridges the hangry gap between lunch and dinner. In fact, the story goes, that’s exactly why Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford, supposedly began the practice in the 1840s. It’s not that I relish the daintiness of it all: my clumsiness makes me nervous around fine china, and frankly I’m more likely to be swiping my pinkie through a cloud of clotted cream rather than holding it aloft as I sip from a teacup.
I love the leisurely pace, the treatyourself mentality and the sheer variety of bite-size foods. I simply cannot get enough.
It’s the perfect kind of party for bridal or baby showers, Mother’s Day or just about any time you want to gather a group of friends.
“Everyone’s happy when they’re coming for afternoon tea,” says Shael Mead, head pastry chef at London’s Ham Yard Hotel, whose baking I fell in love with during her stint at another London tea spot, the Dean Street Townhouse.
Here’s my five-point plan:
1. If nothing else, your afternoon tea must have scones.
Mead says scones are the very essence of afternoon tea. She and her team went scouting fancy London hotels for research and were “appalled” when scones were an extra at one tea service, costing an additional 9 pounds (about $11).
Mead says her ideal scone is a bit crusty on the outside and very soft on the inside. It’s not flaky, and closer to an American biscuit than the heavy, huge and overly sweet triangles you’ll find in coffee shops here.
Thankfully, “they’re pretty easy to make,” says Nicola Willis-Jones, a British native and chef at Pure Pasty Co. in Vienna, Virginia.
Keep them on the small side, and for less mess Willis-Jones suggests cutting them in half right before your guests arrive.
Serve scones with strawberry jam, Mead says — and clotted cream, a British specialty akin to a cross between butter and whipped cream. 2. Include a mix of pastries. Afternoon tea typically features a selection of sweets. Try to include one showstopper, such as a gorgeous tart or layer cake. Think about a mix of textures and flavours, Mead says. Fudgy brownies, fruit jam tarts and airy meringues or macarons are good building blocks. I’m a fan of infusing white chocolate with Earl Grey tea for delicately aromatic truffles. WillisJones suggests making miniature desserts, which look nice and allow your guests the privilege of “sample size” tastes. 3. Offer real tea. Give your guests a few options to choose from: English Breakfast and Earl Grey are classics. Make your third selection something a little different, maybe fruity or floral, Mead says. One of my favourites is Paris from Harney & Sons, which is an easy-drinking black tea flavoured with black currants and vanilla. Or consider a tisane.
Whatever you choose, take care in how you make it. “There is a true art to the brew,” according to “The Cook Book” by Tom Parker Bowles (4th Estate, 2016). A few tips from Parker Bowles: “Loose leaf will always give the better pot.”
Also, use fresh water, but boil twice as much as you need so you can use half to warm up the teapot. Most teas brew in four to five minutes, although greens are more in the one-to-three-minute range; overbrewing will make your tea bitter. And if you want to use milk, add it first to the cup; this gradually warms the milk and may also protect your teacup from cracks.
Figure on two to three cups per person.
4. Do as much as you can in advance.
Good advice for any gathering, really. A lot of the aforementioned desserts (brownies, meringues, even layer cakes and cupcakes) can survive just fine made at least a day ahead of time, or frozen for longer. Scones are best served freshly baked, but feel free to stash unbaked dough rounds in the refrigerator or freezer.
Assembling sandwich fillings can be early work as well, so you can put them together at the last minute, or up to an hour or so before your guests arrive. Slice cucumbers or cheese the morning of your tea.
Go for a nice, but not too frilly, presentation. No doilies. Instead, consider the popular vintage-chic strategy of mixing and matching plates and cups you can pick up at antiques markets and second-hand shops — that’s the way you’ll find afternoon tea served at little cafés around England, Mead says.
If you want to introduce a traditional element, spring for a traditional three-tiered caddy you can use to display the food (or at least some of it). It doesn’t have to be expensive, either — check sites such as Etsy. If you have a good tablecloth with napkins, this might be the time to use it, Willis-Jones said. Decorate the table simply with flowers from your backyard, or pick up a casual bouquet from the farmers’ market.
You’ll need a 2-inch biscuit cutter. If you don’t have a stand mixer, you can quickly work the butter into the flour mixture by hand or with a pastry cutter.
MAKE AHEAD: The dough needs to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes. The scones are best eaten freshly baked, but the rounds of dough can be refrigerated overnight or individually wrapped (unbaked or baked) in plastic wrap and frozen in a zip-top bag for up to a month or two. Defrost before baking or reheating; for the latter, tent loosely with aluminum foil and warm through in a 350-degree oven.
Adapted from Shael Mead, head pastry chef at London’s Ham Yard Hotel.
MAKES 17 TO 20 TWO-INCH BUNS
4 cups flour, plus more as needed 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar 2 tablespoons baking powder 8 tbsp (1 stick) chilled, unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes 1 cup dried currants (optional) 1 cup whole milk, plus more for brushing ¾ cup heavy cream
Combine the flour, sugar and baking powder in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer. Beat on low speed just to blend. Add the chilled butter; beat on low speed for four of five minutes, until the mixture starts to look crumbly with some large chunks. Stop to scrape down the bowl.
Add the currants, if using; beat on low speed until evenly distributed.
Pour in the milk and heavy cream; beat on low speed for several seconds, just until the liquids are incorporated, to form a soft dough.
Lightly flour a work surface. Transfer the dough there and pat it to an even thickness of about 1 inch. Cover loosely with a clean kitchen towel; let it rest for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone liner.
Flour the edges of your biscuit cutter, then use it to cut out 17 to 20 scones (straight down, without twisting), arranging them at least 1 inch apart on the baking sheet as you work and re- flouring the cutter each time. Try to reroll the scraps no more than once as the subsequent rounds of dough may not rise as much in the oven.
Lightly brush the tops of the scones with milk. Bake (middle rack) for about 16 minutes, turning the sheet from front to back halfway through, until lightly golden.
Transfer them to a wire rack to cool for a few minutes before serving, or cool completely before storing.
Per piece (based on 20): 200 calories, 4 grams protein, 27 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 25 milligrams cholesterol, 10 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fibre, 5 g sugar
Earl Grey White Chocolate Truffles
Experiment with your favourite tea infusion, though we recommend using loose leaf for optimum flavour.
MAKE AHEAD: Store in an airtight container at a cool room temperature (65 to 70 F), for up to one week. You may have some almond coating left over.
Valrhona’s Ivoire 35 per cent baking bar is available online and at kitchen stores such as Sur La Table.
From Washington Post Food section writer Becky Krystal, based on a recipe from Ina Garten.
MAKES 20 PIECES
6 tablespoons heavy cream 1 tbsp plus 1 teaspoon loose-leaf Earl Grey tea 10 ounces high-quality white chocolate, such as Valrhona Ivoire, chopped (35 per cent cacao solids; see headnote) ¾ tsp vanilla extract 4 ounces (1 cup) slivered almonds, toasted and ground to a pebbly consistency in a food processor (see NOTE)
Warm the cream in a small saucepan over low heat. Once a few bubbles appear around the edges, remove from the heat, stir in the tea and let steep for five minutes.
Meanwhile, place the chopped white chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan with a few inches of barely bubbling water (do not let the water boil; medium-low heat). Gently melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally, until smooth. Remove the bowl from the pan.
Strain the infused cream through a fine-mesh strainer, pouring it directly into the melted white chocolate, stirring to incorporate. (Discard the solids.) Whisk in the vanilla extract. Let the mixture cool in the refrigerator for about 10 minutes, until it thickens to a scoopable consistency.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone liner. Place the ground almonds in a bowl.
Use two tableware spoons or a No. 70 disher (1 tablespoon) to make a total of 20 dollops of the truffle mixture and place them on the baking sheet, spaced at least 1 inch apart. Refrigerate for about 10 minutes, or until just firm enough to shape.
Working quickly, roll each portion between your hands to form a smooth ball. Dip each one in the ground almonds to coat completely, returning them to the baking sheet to set. Once they’re firm, serve or store.
NOTE: Toast the almonds in a small, dry skillet over medium-low heat for a few minutes, until fragrant and lightly browned, shaking the pan to avoid scorching. Cool completely before using.
Per piece (using half the almonds): 110 calories, 1 gram protein, 8 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 10 milligrams cholesterol, 10 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fibre, 7 g sugar
Bite-size sandwiches, snacks and desserts are made for sharing at afternoon tea.
If you are going to start somewhere, start with the classic, British scones.
Earl Grey White Chocolate Truffles.