Park City Home: 9 Steps to a Brilliant Afternoon Tea
‘Tis the season for finger sandwiches and sweets
As traditional as it sounds, a tea party might be the perfect way to entertain in 2022. It suits intermittent fasters who don’t eat after 6 p.m. It is practically tailor-made for vegetarians. It delights those who live for dessert. And because only the tea needs to be served piping-hot, it is the ultimate make-ahead meal.
Besides which, it’s terrifically festive. The British ritual began in 1840, when the Duchess of Bedford started requesting tea, bread, and butter to tide her over between lunch and dinner. That simple tray soon evolved into a sumptuous spread of finger sandwiches, scones, cakes, and pastries. We went to the experts at Claridge’s hotel, which serves what is arguably London’s most famous tea, for advice on hosting your own gala gathering.
1 Use the right lingo
Many Americans think that the term “high tea” applies to the fancy repast with tiny sandwiches and bone china. Fact is, high tea was traditionally
a workingman’s meal served at the end of the day, a simple meat-and-veg supper. It was called “high” because it was often served at a tall bar or counter, rather than a low-rise tea table. The proper term for the convivial get-together discussed here is afternoon tea. (BTW, a cream tea generally refers to a lighter snack, usually featuring scones and clotted cream.)
2 Consider the guest list
Afternoon tea is generally a small, cozy gathering, a chance to sit together and enjoy lively conversation. So before deciding how many people to invite, think about how many you can comfortably seat around a table.
While you’ll probably want to keep the numbers in check, your guests can be as diverse a group as you please. Men, women, teenagers, couples, whatever — invite anyone who would find pleasure in an afternoon of delicious food and good company.
3 Decide on the timing
Mid to late-afternoon is traditional, typically three or four o’clock. Because tea is an unfamiliar concept to many Americans, you might include an end time on the invitation (“4 to 6 p.m.”).
4 Create the menu
Afternoon tea has three distinct components, meant to be eaten in this order: sandwiches, scones, and sweets. Plan on serving several types of crustless finger sandwiches (figure three to four per person), savory scones (add sweet ones, if you’re feeling expansive), and pastries such as cake, tartlets, and macarons. Serve clotted cream (Whole Foods carries imported jars from Britain) and jam with the scones.
At Claridge’s, the menu has stayed the same for the last 100 years. And current executive chef Martyn Nail is not about to break with tradition. Egg and chicken salad (the Brits call it egg mayonnaise and chicken mayonnaise), salmon, and ham are typical, but most iconic is the esteemed cucumber, which Nail serves with a special cream cheese.
5 Mind the sandwiches
Nail and his “The Claridge’s Cookbook” co-author Meredith Erickson are scrupulous about sandwiches, starting with the bread. “The quality and freshness of the bread is paramount and should always be your first consideration.” If the idea of baking your own bread has you rethinking this entire scheme, head to the grocery for Pepperidge Farm Very Thin Sliced Bread (white and whole wheat), an excellent substitute. Then follow Claridge’s Five Sandwich Rules.
• A sharp serrated knife is crucial for cutting sandwiches. You’ll need a knife with teeth that aren’t too large (these will tear the bread). Something like a Victorinox 10-inch pastry knife is ideal.
• A palette knife or spread knife is crucial for spreading butter and jams. (An offset spatula works well.)
• Never let the bread dry out. Keep the slices covered at all times. We stack the sandwiches as we make them, placing the crust slice of the bread at the bottom and top of the pile to keep the bread just right. You could use clingfilm (plastic wrap), or a damp clean tea towel.
• The one-third rule! The perfect afternoon tea sandwich should be two-thirds bread and one-third filling.
• Keep it even, keep it neat! We slice our loaves of bread lengthways (horizontally) into long rectangular slices, rather than vertically. This makes it easier to cut into rectangular fingers and reduces wastage. The bread should be evenly sliced, evenly topped with the freshest of fillings, then evenly cut and trimmed.
6 Set the table
The type of special-occasion tea you’d find at a fancy hotel is a seated meal. The treats are placed in the middle of the table, often on a three-tier platter, sandwiches at the bottom, scones in the middle, sweets on top.
For a larger, less formal tea, food can be set up at a buffet for guests to help themselves. Tea is poured at the table: Set the teapot in the middle and put a tea cup at each place setting.
Regardless of how you arrange things, this is the time to get out your finery: wedding china, linen napkins, silver cutlery, and bud vases. Don’t forget the fresh flowers, background music, and a crackling fire — pour on the ambiance.
7 Choose your tea
The most traditional choices include Earl Grey, Ceylon black teas such as Orange Pekoe (which, by the way, doesn’t taste like oranges), and Darjeeling black teas. If you’d like to avoid caffeine, Camomile tea — which isn’t a true tea, but an infusion — pairs well with scones. Or if you’re feeling extremely indulgent you can skip the tea entirely and go directly to hot chocolate. Martyn Nail offers an extraordinary version.
8 Pour with panache
Traditionally, water is boiled in a kettle, then poured over loose tea leaves in the tea pot, one heaping teaspoon of loose tea per cup. Four minutes is the proper steeping time for most tea. Be sure to have a strainer that fits atop each teacup, to strain the tea leaves as you pour at the table.
Although purists would object, you could use very high-quality tea bags instead of loose tea. In that case prepare tea as above, substituting tea bags for loose tea. Steep the tea in the kitchen and discard the bags, then bring the teapot to the table. This is as much kindness as subterfuge: Guests shouldn’t have to fuss with a wet tea bag.
Allow everyone to add their own lemon or milk (never cream) and sugar
9 Uncork some bubbly
Introducing Champagne to the party turns an afternoon tea into a royal tea, whether you serve prosecco, cava, sparkling wine, or the real deal. Add a splash of raspberry liqueur, Chambord, and you have a deep pink kir royale. ‘Tis the season, after all.
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