Afternoon tea is a lovely way to entertain at home. It can be as fancy (or not) as you like, but it really should be a bit fancy. That’s partly what makes it fun! A little moment of luxury in our otherwise hectic days should always be welcome, I say.
Taking the time to stop and sit and enjoy the moment with a friend is more important than ever these days. We are all trying to do too much too quickly, and where is the quality in that? Smart phones and social media are great tools for keeping people connected, but too much technology can make us feel disconnected, too. We are social animals and there is no substitute for real time spent face to face with another human. And if there can be cake, all the better!
Now, fancy does not have to mean fussy, and therefore, stressful. No. If you can make a pot of tea and a sandwich, you can host a tea. To make it even easier, do as the French do. In France, afternoon tea is often a simple event with just a few cookies or a slice of cake to accompany the tea. The choice is yours.
Afternoon tea in the English style generally includes three categories/courses: finger sandwiches, scones, and sweets. These are arranged on a three-tiered server, sandwiches on the bottom, scones in the middle, and sweets on the top.
I have seen variations on this placement and it is really up to you if you prefer another order, but this is the way I was taught to do it. The sandwiches are meant to take the edge off your hunger, followed by the scones and ending with desserts, as one might expect. If you follow this order, you can just tell any guests who are unsure how to begin to simply work their way up from the bottom.
There is no law that says you must make everything from scratch. Your guests will appreciate your efforts to care for them, regardless of whether your menu is home-made or shop-bought, or some combination of the two.
For this tea, I made a few things and bought a few things. Bear in mind that you can (and should) do a lot of your prep ahead of time, minimizing stress and clean up on the day of your tea. If you love to bake and want to make everything yourself, do it! It will take more time to prepare, but this is a labor of love for those who enjoy working in the kitchen.
If you are baking-challenged, never fear! The macarons and madeleines I served at my tea came from Trader Joe’s and Costco. They were inexpensive, freeze beautifully and taste amazing, so why not save yourself the time and worry?
Aren’t those macarons gorgeous? You only need to put a few out for your tea, leaving several left over for enjoying later, too. Dusting the madeleines with powdered sugar before plating them gives them a more home-made look, though people will be too busy eating them to care. The Sugar Bowl Bakery madeleines I served are huge, cakey and perfect. I’ve seen them at Costco and my regular super market, and they are well worth buying. Freeze whatever you don’t eat immediately and you will have treats for weeks!
I made the raspberry puffs, but those are no-bake and ridiculously easy, not to mention delicious. Here’s the recipe if you want to see for yourself! These can be made the day before without the phyllo getting soggy.
1 8-oz container whipped topping, thawed
3 oz cream cheese, softened
¼ cup confectioner’s sugar
¼ cup raspberry jam
1 tsp raspberry extract
1 pkg fresh mint
2 pkgs phyllo cups
Combine cream cheese and whipped topping in mixer at medium speed until smooth. Add confectioner’s sugar, raspberry jam, and raspberry extract, beat until smooth. Pipe into phyllo cups, top each with mint leaves and a raspberry.
Tea sandwiches should be small and easy to eat. You can really make any kind of sandwich you like, as long as you keep them small (2-3 bites at most) and tidy. Experiment with different shapes and garnishes, and always cut the crusts off!
If you want to be traditional, serve cucumber sandwiches. I usually serve 2-3 types of sandwiches, and one of them is always cucumber. I’ve tried a lot of cucumber sandwiches over the years, and this recipe from Fortnum and Mason is definitely my favorite. It’s simple, and the addition of the vinegar to the cucumber gives it a little something special.
Cucumber Dill Tea Sandwiches (adapted from Tea at Fortnum and Mason)
Yield: 4 sandwiches, 16 tea sandwiches if cut into 4 squares each
3 ½ oz cream cheese, room temperature
3 tbsp chopped fresh dill (I think I usually use almost the whole package of dill, reserving a few sprigs for garnish)
pinch white pepper
¼ English cucumber, peeled and sliced thin
1-2 tsp white wine vinegar
½ stick salted butter, room temperature
8 slices white bread, such as Pepperidge Farm Thin White
Combine cucumbers and vinegar in an air-tight container, allow to marinate a few hours, or overnight if you have time. Combine cream cheese, dill, and white pepper using mixer with paddle attachment, mix until smooth. Set aside. Spread butter over half the bread slices, spread cream cheese mixture over the remaining half of the bread slices. Arrange marinated cucumbers evenly atop half the bread slices, top with remaining bread. Using a sharp, serrated knife, cut off the crusts, wiping the blade as needed to keep things neat. Slice each sandwich into 3 or 4 rectangles, wiping blade again as needed between cuts. Garnish sandwiches with reserved dill sprigs.
Scones are an important part of afternoon tea. You don’t have to bake your own! You can find a variety of yummy scones in most store bakeries these days. You can serve them plain, or with lemon curd, jam, or (my favorite) Devonshire cream. For this tea, I baked plain scones using my favorite recipe and served them with strawberry jam and cream.
I didn’t take any pictures while I was making the scones, but I’ll probably write a separate post just on those, with all the steps shown. My daughter, who is very picky, absolutely loves them and eats them plain, so I like to bake them and keep them in the freezer as a special treat for her.
Afternoon tea is a great way to make your guests feel special and loved. Set a pretty table and offer a choice of a few different teas, to accommodate those who prefer herbal tea to English breakfast. I like to give each guest their own little teapot to use, so everyone can have something different. It’s also fun to get out pretty china and flatware, if you have it. It’s meant to be used and enjoyed, after all.
The forks and spoons are from my growing collection of Grosvenor silverware from the 1920’s, which I get from a dealer at Canton Trade Days. I get a few pieces every time I go, and it’s fun. Don’t stress over your tea. I should have placed my spoons to the right of the plate at each setting, in retrospect, but too late now. This is my home, not the The Ritz, so we can let that slide, I think.
Etiquette is part of the tradition of afternoon tea, but don’t let that scare you. I’d much rather my guests enjoyed themselves and the meal, rather than worry about what to eat first or where to put their used tea bag. As a thoughtful host, you can resolve any questions your guests may have before they even have to wonder. And no, you don’t need to raise your pinky whilst holding your tea cup. In fact, please don’t.
If you want to learn the rules of etiquette for afternoon tea from the experts, I recommend the book Tea & Etiquette: Taking Tea for Business and Pleasure by Dorothea Johnson, founder of the Protocol School of Washington, and Bruce Richardson, tea expert and author of The Tea Maestro blog, as well as 14 books on tea. This slim little book covers everything you need to know!
Afternoon tea is a great way to spoil someone special for their birthday, or to celebrate the bride or mom-to-be. It’s also a wonderful luxury to have for no reason at all. Now that you know it doesn’t have to be hard, I hope you will give it a try. The leftovers alone are worth it, as my husband would tell you. Enjoy!
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