Archive of ‘LIFE’ category

Tea at Home

How to host afternoon tea at home, and reasons why you should! -- Often Charming

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.

How to Serve Afternoon Tea -- Sandwiches on the bottom, scones in the middle, sweets on the top! -- Often Charming

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.

You don't have to tell your guests you didn't make everything from scratch.  Tips for hosting afternoon tea at home -- Often Charming

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?

Look for these gorgeous macarons in the freezer section of Trader Joe's for your next afternoon tea! -- Often Charming

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.

Raspberry Puffs
Yield: 30

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.

Making Raspberry Puffs, Tea At Home - Often Charming

Raspberry Puffs with Mint, Afternoon Tea at Home - Often Charming

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.

Cucumber Tea Sandwiches, Afternoon Tea at Home - Often Charming

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.

Traditional Scones, Afternoon Tea at Home  - Often Charming

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.

Setting the table for afternoon tea at home - Often Charming

Grosvenor pattern silverware from shopping trips to Canton Trade Days - Often Charming

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!

Heather's Signature -- Often Charming

Note: This is not a sponsored post. Links provided in this post are purely meant to be helpful.

Pure Barre: 50th Class!

Celebrating my 50th class at Pure Barre Cedar Park -- Often Charming

That’s me, Heather P., at 48 classes on my way to 50. The instructors at Pure Barre Cedar Park, my local studio, made this fun board to track student progress on the way to this first milestone, the 50th class. (Truthfully, it could be argued that the first milestone is really just surviving your first class, and I won’t argue with that. At 50 classes, we get to sign our names on a special board, though, which seems more “official” as far as milestones go, so let’s go with that.)

I consider myself fairly non-athletic, apart from dancing, so I was both surprised and proud of myself for making it this far at barre. Lessons learned?

1.  It’s hard. There will be times when you may think you aren’t doing a very good job.  The thing to remember when you’re just getting through it is that you’re still ahead of where you’d be if you hadn’t come at all. Everyone improves at their own pace, and you’ll get better as long as you keep trying– even on days when you can’t get through thigh work without a few breaks.

2.  No one is looking at you. I’ve been trying to convince a few friends to come try a class with me, and they’ve been reluctant because they felt a bit intimidated. Trust me, barre classes are full of ladies in all shapes and sizes, of all ages and stages of life. You don’t need to feel self conscious, even though leggings may not be your usual go-to wardrobe item. Everyone in there is so focused on getting through their own workout that no one is paying attention to anyone else, let alone judging you. Don’t be shy.

3.  You will find new friends at barre. There must be some bonding force associated with mutual suffering, because I have seen an amazing network of ladies who support and encourage one another develop at my studio.  You may just be looking for stronger muscles, but you can find a lot more than that if you are open to it. Maybe that’s why Pure Barre has so many loyal devotees.

Celebrating my 50th class at Pure Barre! -- Often Charming

So, there you have it. Be brave and go try it. If I can do it, you can, too.  I promise!

Pure Barre 50th Class! Signing the Board -- Often Charming

On to the next milestone. Cheers!

Heather's Signature -- Often Charming

Pure Barre Update: Earning My Stripes

Hey, y’all! I promised to tell you how my first five weeks of Pure Barre went, and what I’ve learned since I started.  I had to take a little time away from the barre to go on a Disney cruise with my sweet family (tough life, I know) and I’m now in my 8th week of classes.

So, is it working?

Yes. Slowly but surely, yes!

I have some definition in my arms and abs that was not there before (yay!) and I’ve lost a little weight.  Just before we left for the cruise I was at Petticoat Fair in Austin trying on swimsuits and bras, and the lady fitting me remarked that she’d need to go down a band size from my previous fitting, and asked if I had lost weight! By the end of my five weeks, I had indeed lost about four pounds. I was hitting the barre 3-4 days a week, but also really watching what I was eating, too. Four pounds might not seem like much, but for me it was significant, since I’ve been stuck at the same weight for the last five years or more, regardless of what I’ve done.

Confession Time: even though I was pretty good about eating healthy during the cruise and the holidays that followed, I allowed myself some indulgences. One or two of those four pounds may have found me again.  But I’m not sweating that. They’re just visiting.

What else is different?

I’m getting stronger. To my surprise, I’m discovering that little by little, I can get better.  I am getting better! I can stay in my plank for 90 seconds without coming down to my knees.  (So, so tough, but I can do it!) I’ve earned a permanent red, rough stripe of skin on each elbow to prove it. While some might see them and say, “Ew, what happened there?”, I actually feel a bit proud of my stripes. They’re little badges of honor. I’m not quite ‘hardcore’ yet, but I’m tougher than I was when I started!

I can (almost! so close!) get through all of the standing arm exercises without stopping. I can do good push ups. They’re on my knees for now, but they’re good. Little victories.

I know that my brain is sometimes lying when it tells me that my legs can’t get through any more thigh work, and that I have to keep breathing and stay in it. It was the same when I used to run. The brain says you have to stop, but if you can ignore that and keep going, eventually you get past it and you can go further than you believed was possible.

Hey, Brain: Shut It. You're not the boss of me. -- Often Charming

The biggest change? Probably my confidence. I’m not perfect by any means, and I still have areas to improve in, but I am out there in some skinny jeans now without caring if there is something about me to criticize.  I’m working on it. We’re almost always our own worst critics, aren’t we? And how sad is that? I’m not going to do that anymore.

So, I’d call my five-week Pure Barre experiment successful. The results of my time at the barre have really been more about what I can do, rather than how I look, but I’ll let you be the judge of which is more important.  I’m happy with both for now, and hopeful that each will continue to get better. I’ve committed to a year’s membership, so time will tell.

And no, my ball has not gone shooting across the room. Yet. Time will certainly tell that story, too.


Heather's Signature -- Often Charming

NOTE: Petticoat Fair is the best place EVER in the history of bras to buy them. I have always HATED BRA SHOPPING WITH THE BURNING PASSION OF A THOUSAND SUNS and let me tell you, at Petticoat Fair they make it quick and easy. They fit you correctly, they bring you what you want, and you will look good, ladies.  Bras that do what you need them to, without looking industrial-strength. Pretty, lacy ones (if you’re into that). Go see.

This is not a sponsored post. All links provided in this post are purely meant to be helpful.

Personal Challenge: Pure Barre

Have I mentioned I’m an Irish dancer? Look at these amazing ladies. I’m so fortunate to dance with them!

Adult dancers from the Irish Dance Company -- Often Charming

Members of the Irish Dance Company, Austin, TX – photo by Michael Sullivan Lockett

Last year I joined our performance company, which demands a level of fitness beyond just dancing for fun. I have been running to improve my endurance for dance, which worked pretty well until I got a stress fracture in my left foot running this September. Not only did that ruin my chance of dancing with our team at the Oireachtas this December by putting me in a cast for 6 weeks, it really put me off running, which I honestly never enjoyed in the first place.

One of our company dancers recommended barre classes to me as a low-impact workout for days we don’t dance, and a few days later, when my neighbor announced she was trying out the new Pure Barre studio opening in town, I decided to join her. (That was rather uncharacteristically spontaneous of me, I admit.) They had a nice introductory offer: 5 weeks of unlimited classes for a reasonable price, and it just so happens that I had almost exactly 5 weeks before our Disney cruise to the Bahamas and a week of wearing my swimsuit in public. The stars all aligned, pointing in the direction of Pure Barre, so I went.

I was nervous. My neighbor had said, “At least you’re a dancer, you’ll know sort of what to do.”  HA. Not so much, my friends. This was not like anything I had done before. And it’s HARD. But that’s good for me, right?

I’ve been an Irish dancer for 8 years, and I’m in pretty good shape. I weigh the same now as I did before my daughter was born five years ago. I didn’t expect barre class to be easy, but after so many years of dance I’ve got some strength in my legs, which I hoped would help. We don’t use our arms much in Irish dance, so I know mine need some toning. Truthfully, everything could use a little firming up, so I’ve decided to do a little experiment: what will happen if I go as much as I can in my 5 weeks?

I went for my first class. The studio is beautiful, and the owner is lovely and kind. Here she is in the photo below.

Challenge yourself with something new: Pure Barre! -- Often Charming

Rebecca Dunn, Owner of Pure Barre Cedar Park

I bought some of the famous grippy socks when I arrived and found a spot in the back corner where I could hide. The nice lady next to me advised me to go get a tube, a ball, and a small set of weights, clearly identifying me as a clueless newbie. What followed was a brisk 55-minute lesson in wow-holy-cow-oh-my-gosh. Who would’ve thought that such tiny motions could be so hard?

Thankfully, we moved quickly from one area of the body to the next. (When you’re in your first plank, 90 seconds seems like a very long time.) Rebecca talked us through each exercise, offering encouragement and correcting our positions discreetly when needed.

I hadn’t done any yoga or pilates before, but I was able to follow along with the rest of the group and it was fun to do something new.  Fun in a sweaty, semi-painful sort of way.

At first I was worried that everyone could tell I was just praying that the ball I was trying to squeeze between my thighs wouldn’t go shooting across the room. Then I realized they were all so focused on getting through their own ball-squeezing that noticing anyone else would’ve been unlikely. No need to be self-conscious here. Almost everyone was struggling along at some point during the class.

The mental focus required for Pure Barre is one of the best things about it, as it turns out. You have no chance to worry about anything but what you’re doing at that moment, and breathing. The rest of the world waits for you to come out of the studio when your workout is done.

Reward yourself with some cute (and functional!) workout gear at Pure Barre -- Often Charming

A little retail motivation to keep working at the barre! Cute and functional!

I felt so good for the rest of the day after that class, tired but relaxed. I loved that it was low-impact, giving my foot no trouble. And unlike running, I was not left red-faced and exhausted by my efforts. I went four days out of five the next week, and by then I felt encouraged to keep challenging myself.

It’s too early to tell if Pure Barre is changing my body, but I like it and it’s helped me commit to stepping up my game, which has to be a good thing. I hope I’m getting stronger, and that my efforts will pay off in some tangible way. I’ll let you know where I am at the end of my five weeks, and whether or not my ball has gone shooting across the room.

Fingers crossed.


Heather's Signature -- Often Charming

Note: This is not a sponsored post. Links provided in this post are purely meant to be helpful. Special thanks to Rebecca Dunn at Pure Barre Cedar Park for her permission to share photos.

Please Excuse the Mess – Free Printable

Here’s me poking a bit of fun at myself.  I try to keep the house looking presentable, but it’s a constant battle with a little one around and I’m often on the losing end of it. I have yet to find a system or schedule that allows me to stay on top of everything in “just minutes a day”, no matter what Pinterest says.  I’ll keep looking. Until then, I’ll post this little bit of art and stop apologizing to everyone who comes over. You can, too.

Free Printable! Please Excuse the Mess -- Often Charming


It’s easy enough to make your own typography art, if you have something personal you’d like to express.  You can certainly do this in Photoshop or some other more sophisticated design program, if you prefer.  I kept it simple and did mine using PicMonkey. I love PicMonkey. Love, love, love them.

Enjoy the printable. Now go clean something.

Just kidding.


Heather's Signature -- Often Charming


Note: This is not a sponsored post. Links provided in this post are purely meant to be helpful.