High Tea – American Style

High Tea – American Styleimage preview

Love tea? Do your tastes run to hardy rooibos or orange pekoe, traditional Earl Grey, fragrant herbals like chamomile, ginger or mint, or spicier chai? And who can forget green tea’s cancer-fighting possibilities?

Bagged or brewed, some of us just can’t get enough of tea’s smooth, warm, pleasing properties, maybe just what old man winter ordered as the calendar begins to turn b-r-r-r-r! As the air turns colder, why not host a cozy afternoon tea party for you and some of your closest friends?

According to history, as the dinner meal came to be served later and later in the day, by the early 19th century it was typically taken between 7 and 8:30 p.m. While “luncheon” was designed to satiate hunger between the early morning meal and dinner, it was typically lighter fare and not enough to quell growling stomachs all the way until evening’s heartier repast.

Anna Maria Russell (1783-1857), Duchess of Bedford and one of Queen Victoria’s closest friends, is renowned for inventing Britain’s afternoon or high tea in the 1840s. Credited with her ingenuity in conceiving a simple but refreshing snack of Darjeeling tea, delicate sandwiches, and pastries while visiting the Fifth Duke of Rutland at Belvoir Castle, the Duchess of Bedford soon spread the idea to others in her upper class circle, and high tea became de rigueur.

Partaken of throughout Great Britain, afternoon tea can also currently be enjoyed at some of the world’s fancier restaurants and hotels such as New York’s Pierre, Boston’s (often called America’s most British city) the Taj Lounge at the Taj Boston (formerly the Ritz Carlton), and Vancouver, Canada’s Café Fleuri at The Sutton Place Hotel. In fact New York’s The Carlyle Hotel even features “Tea with Madeline”– a culinary tribute to the heartrending French moppet in Ludwig Bemelmans’ books. Bemelmans and his family lived at the hotel for 18 months in exchange for painting many of its illuminating murals.

Clearly authentic afternoon tea hits its salivary stride when accompanied by sweet and savory items like sugary scones with Devonshire cream and lemon curd, velvety petit fours, fresh fruit tarts, and delicate tea sandwiches often spread with cream cheese and watercress. But you don’t have to travel to or live in a big city and spend a lot of money to experience high tea for yourself. Why not create a fun and delectable afternoon tea party for you and your friends, replete with brewed teas and delicate, tasty treats. These ideas for an Americanized version of Britain’s high tea can make for a special afternoon, especially when the weather turns cold, with good friends first and foremost on the menu!

Tips for Traditional Tea Brewing
Experts say tea bags won’t cut it, so to speak, at traditional afternoon tea, so it’s best to take a little time to brew properly. Start with high quality tea leaves from your local tea and coffee store–not tea dust, which is what’s left over after tea leaves have been processed. Heat water to the recommended temperature for your type of tea (for example finer teas require a lower boiling temperature and a salesperson or the Internet can help with this). Steep tea leaves for the recommended amount of time for the tea you’ve chosen (again, ask for assistance to ascertain this information). If stronger tea is desired, add more leaves as opposed to steeping longer, which can result in bitterness.

Treats for Transcendent Afternoon Tea
No one says you can’t make a bakery run and come back with a box of cupcakes or brownies for convenience, but traditional English tea time requires some thought and planning. Falling somewhere in between lunch and dinner, the objective is not to fill up on rich, heavy, gooey desserts or typical deli and burgers, but to concentrate on lighter fare such as scones, tarts, and frangible sandwiches. While not everyone is a fan of watercress, alternatives abound utilizing ingredients from crisp carrots and radishes to walnuts, goat cheese, chicken and curry. Try these recipes for fresh sandwiches and airy desserts that go down as smoothly as a perfectly-brewed cup of warm, fragrant tea.

Chicken Curry Tea Sandwiches
2 cooked whole chicken breasts finely chopped
1/4 cup finely chopped nuts
4 celery stalks, finely chopped
Salt to taste
Mayonnaise (just enough to moisten)
Curry powder or paste to taste
16 slices artisan wheat or white bread
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature

In a large bowl, combine chicken, nuts, celery, salt, and mayonnaise; stir until well blended. Add curry powder or paste.
Spread one side of each piece of bread lightly with butter. Top the buttered side of 8 slices of bread with some of the chicken mixture and top with the remaining bread slices, buttered side down.

Carefully cut the crusts from each sandwich with a long, sharp knife. Cut the sandwiches in half diagonally and then cut in half again.

Makes 8 whole sandwiches or 16 halves or 32 fourths.

Radish Poppy Seed Tea Sandwiches
1 cup minced radishes
1 teaspoon poppy seeds
1 cup cream cheese, softened
8 slices artisan white bread
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 teaspoon salt
24 leaves of young arugula, spinach, or radicchio

In a medium bowl, combine minced radishes, poppy seeds, cream cheese, and salt; blend well.
Spread one side of each piece of bread lightly with butter. Top the buttered side of 4 slices of bread with radish mixture (about 1/4-inch thick). Top with arugula, spinach, or radicchio leaves and top with the remaining bread slices, buttered side down.

Carefully cut the crusts from each sandwich with a long, sharp knife. Cut the sandwiches in half diagonally and then cut in half again. If desired, decorative shapes can be made with cookie cutters.

Makes 4 whole sandwiches or 8 halves or 16 fourths.

Gingerbread Tea Loaf
1 2/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, sifted
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
Pinch each of ground black pepper, ground clove, ground fennel, ground nutmeg, and ground star anise
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons crystallized ginger baking chips, divided
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup firmly-packed golden-brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 extra-large eggs
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
3 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1/2 cup nonfat milk (or buttermilk)
2 tablespoons nonfat plain yogurt (or sour cream)

Optional Garnishes:
Whipped Cream
Seasonal Berries

Preheat oven to 350 F. Prepare an 8 1/2- x 4 1/2-inch loaf pan with non-stick baking spray. Using some light brown sugar (or plain granulated sugar), dust the bottom and all sides of the pan, leaving a thin coating of the sugar.

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, pepper, cloves, fennel, nutmeg, star anise, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt. Mix in 3 tablespoons of crystallized ginger baking chips; set aside.

Using an electric mixer with a large bowl, beat the butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar together until light and creamy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, until well mixed. Add the vanilla extract and the fresh ginger. Slowly mix in 1/2 of the flour/spice mixture; add milk and yogurt. Add the remaining 1/2 of the flour/spice mixture; blend just until smooth. Pour batter into the prepared loaf pan. Sprinkle the remaining 3 tablespoons of crystallized ginger over the top surface of the batter, pressing the ginger lightly into the batter.

Bake approximately 50 to 60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from oven, let pan cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then turn cake out of the loaf pan onto the wire rack to cool completely. When completely cool, using a fine mesh strainer, dust the top lightly with confectioners’ sugar.

Garnish with whipped cream and seasonal berries if desired.

Beth Herman is a freelance writer with interests in healthy living and food, family, animal welfare, architecture and design, religion, and yoga. She writes for a variety of national and regional publications, institutions, and websites.

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8 years ago

That gingerbread Tea Loaf sounds yummy! Thx

Cynthia Buckler
Cynthia Buckler
8 years ago

A great idea for something to keep the kids busy in the afternoon waiting for dinner. My 15 year old loves tea and loves to bake. I’ll put her to work for afternoon tea!