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

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - BECKY KRYSTAL

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.

Bri­tish Scones

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.

DEB LIND­SEY, FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

If you are go­ing to start some­where, start with the clas­sic, Bri­tish scones.

JEN­NIFER CHASE, FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Earl Grey White Cho­co­late Truf­fles.

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