The Art of Afternoon Tea

Ooh, la-di-da! My genetic and environmental combination (Irish genes, English environment) have ensured a love of tea. In fact I only started mainlining the stuff when I went to university and found myself up til the early hours writing essays. Drinking tea somehow made this better, less like a frantic typing against the clock exercise, more like a leisurely foray into the realm of the literary, whilst I pontificated on Dante, or Milton, or Wyatt, or whomever the unfortunate subject of my weekly essay happened to be. Tea, I have discovered, makes everything better. The first thing my parents do when they arrive home from anywhere is to put the kettle on. It is a habit I have since picked up. But a cup of the good stuff is incomplete without something tasty to nibble on, and hence the joy of afternoon tea. Pure indulgence on a cake stand. So let me fill you in on the necessary components (and I should probably warn you now, if you’re on a diet, don’t go any further!): 

First, the tea. This goes without saying, really. You can’t have afternoon tea without the tea. Traditionally one requires a suitably chintzy/kitsch tea set as well, and if you have some delicate china gold-rimmed cups and saucers, so much the better. I have not yet purchased my dream tea set, but I do own the requisite large teapot. I would happily make afternoon tea just for myself, but if you want to share the delights with friends, then a big teapot is a must!

Now, I’m a bit English (or, equally, Irish) about my tea. I am baffled by the vast array of fruity, herby, non-caffeinated, flowery stuff that exists out there. Not that I’m a tea fascist or anything, but you can’t really beat a cup of English Breakfast with a little milk. No sugar, please – I’m sweet enough. Earl Grey, Lady Grey (related? I think so…), and Green tea will also make it past my lips, but for the perfect afternoon tea, it’s got to be the Earl himself, sometimes with milk, sometimes without (ooh, I’m such a daredevil!)

Second, the sandwiches. If I’m feeling lazy, I skip these. There are more important things, which I will cover shortly… but what you should know about sandwiches – if you’re an afternoon tea purist, that means no crusts (which always seems a shame given the bread here in Switzerland is so tasty, maybe it’s because English sliced bread is so boring that it doesn’t make much difference if the crusts are left on or not). If you can make your own bread, then you get extra points. Usually sandwiches contain thinly sliced cucumber, maybe some slivers of cheese if you’re lucky. I’m wondering whether this is because the ladies of former days needed to attempt to stay within the limits of their corsets…? Personally, I like to slather my slices of bread in jam. Click here for my cherry jam recipe.

Third (now we’re getting to the good stuff), the CAKE. Mmmm, cake. Marie Antoinette had it right, and no afternoon tea would be complete without a suitable slice of moist, light, cakey goodness. I am open to almost all varieties of cake, but some favourites include banana and walnut loaf, carrot cake, and lemon drizzle. The other option, of course, is to bake cupcakes – and the huge variety that can be achieved with only a slight shift in the ingredients is testimony to the cupcake’s delicious simplicity. I always find it hard to pick which cupcake I will make, so sometimes I find myself mixing up several alternate batches of batter, just to give myself the requisite choice. Nothing better than turning your kitchen into a walk-in bakery. The recipe given below is for victoria sponge cupcakes, which are a bit less daunting than making an entire, full size cake (and it’s easier to ensure they rise for maximum light-and-fluffiness too).

Fourth, the chocolate element… Whether this be brownies, chocolate chip cookies, or deliciously devilish, divinely melt-in-the-middle dark chocolate puddings, adding some chocolate to the mix can only be a good thing. Perhaps not a traditional ingredient of the afternoon tea, but a welcome one in my house.

Finally, the scones. An important point. These should be pronounced /ˈskɒn/, not /ˈskoʊn/. Otherwise, don’t talk to me. 😉 Scones are very like Irish soda bread, and as such the key ingredient is bicarbonate of soda. The quicker you can make these and get them in the oven, the better they will rise. You can add fruit such as raisins or cherries for a bit of added excitement. I love baking scones because they are so quick and easy to do – and cutting out the dough always reminds me of my gran, because that was the part she let me do as a child (obviously my skills were too limited at that point for much else…) When they’re ready, fresh from the oven, slice them, and add as required: butter, jam, clotted cream. Experiment with your layers and find out which order you prefer best. You’ll have to try several scones to effectively test this of course. It’s all in the name of science.

And now: the recipes!

Banana & Walnut Loaf

100g softened butter
140g caster sugar
1 egg
225g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 ripe bananas
85g chopped walnuts
50ml milk

Heat oven to 180C/gas 4. Grease a loaf tin with some butter and line the base with baking parchment, then grease this as well. In a large bowl, mix the butter, sugar and egg, then slowly fold in flour and baking powder. Peel and mash the bananas. Add these, the milk, and the walnuts to the mix, stir everything in well and pour into the loaf tin. Bake for 1 hr, or until a skewer comes out clean. Allow to cool, before slicing and arranging on your cake stand 😉

Victoria Sponge Cupcakes

(makes 6)
Heat oven to 180C/gas 4. Weigh 2 eggs, then measure out an equal weight of butter, self raising flour (or use plain flour with 2 tsp of baking powder), and caster sugar. Cream together the softened butter and the sugar. Add a spoonful of the flour before mixing in the eggs (this will stop the mixture from curdling). Stir in the remaining flour until the mixture is smooth (you may need to add a little milk to improve the consistency). Pour mixture into cupcake cases. Bake for 20 minutes or until well risen and golden. Cool, then slice in half and spread with jam, then wedge the two halves together again. Dust with icing sugar for the finished effect!

Scones

(Makes around 8 )
225g self raising flour
25g sugar
1 tsp cream of tartar (or baking powder)
1 tsp baking soda
Pinch of salt
40g butter/margarine
1 egg
100ml milk
optional: raisins/chopped fruit

Heat oven to 180C/gas 4. In a bowl, mix together the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, soda, cream of tartar, salt). Rub in the butter until you have a mixture resembling breadcrumbs. Add the raisins/fruit, if using. Whisk together the milk and egg, and add gradually until you can form a stiff dough (you may not need all of the liquid). Knead briefly and then roll out flat, to approx 1/2 inch thick. Use a small glass or round cookie cutter to cut out the scones, and then place on a baking tray and bake for 10-15 minutes until well risen and golden. Now, arm yourself with jam, butter and cream, and enjoy!

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3 responses to “The Art of Afternoon Tea

  1. Yum! Now I have a scones craving though… well, I know what I’ll be doing with my Saturday afternoon 😉

  2. Wow, so many yummy recipes!!! Thanks for that… and for the information about the pronunciation of scones – I have to admit that I’m one of those who shouldn’t have talked to you because they pronounced it wrongly! 😉

    • haha…. well now you know!
      There are people that pronounce it the ‘other’ way (American) but inkeeping with the “very English” afternoon tea, one should have to pronounce scones in the “very English” fashion, right? 😉

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