Gone are the days of damask cloths and silver teapots at English afternoon tea. Now the table is more likely to be of scrubbed wood, the teapot of rotund earthenware bundled in a tea cosy, with the procelain cups transformed into mugs. But one feature is constant -- the excellence of the comestibles served at this most comforting of meals.
If you are lucky, today's table might still be set with great spreads of sandwiches, buns, scones, biscuits, cupcakes, sponge cakes and fruit cakes, not to mention specialties such as Yorkshire parkin (an oatmeal gingerbread), and Banbury cakes (pastries stuffed with currants).
This menu is comparatively modest, with a basis of sandwiches of cucumber, tomato, egg and cress. Cucumber is usually partnered with white bread and tomato with whole wheat, but there are no rules. For the egg filling, the best is the simplest: hard-cooked eggs mashed while still warm to a coarse paste with butter, salt and pepper. The cress referred to is spicy mustard cress. The nearest U.S. equivalents, garden cress or alfalfa sprouts, tend to lack pizzazz, so be generous with the pepper.
Flavors are rarely mixed in tea-time sandwiches, which should be small and delicate. The bread should be thinly sliced and cut into neat triangles with the crusts removed. All sorts of ruses exist for cutting the thinnest, most dainty of sandwiches, such as freezing the bread before slicing, or cutting the loaf lengthwise instead of across. However, given the thinly sliced bread that is so widely available, I take the easy way out. The only skill is in spreading the butter without breaking up the bread (the butter should be very soft). If the bread does crumble, freeze it a few minutes and try again.
Good shortbread exemplifies "short" in the cooking sense of the word. Rich and crumbly, it is made only with butter, flour and sugar, which are rubbed together with the fingertips, then pressed out lightly into a cake. The dough is scored into bars (if the cake is square) or wedges (if round), then sprinkled with sugar before baking gently to a creamy beige rather than brown. Shortbread keeps wonderfully in an airtight container.
A freshly baked scone (or biscuit on this side of the Atlantic) served with sweet butter and homemade jam is a delight. When mixing the dough, knead as lightly as possible so it just holds together but still looks rough. A dusting of flour gives a white topping and scones are baked briskly so they rise with a quick boost. In this particular recipe, currants have been added, but the same dough could be baked plain, or whole-wheat flour can be substituted for half the plain flour.
To further confuse the biscuit issue, these oatmeal biscuits are, in American terms, golden brown and chewy cookies with oatmeal, butter and sugar.
At any tea table at least one cake is mandatory, the richer the better. This recipe comes from one of those spiral-bound local books that are such a valuable source of country recipes both here and in Britain. The "Yorkshire Women's Institute Recipe Book" lists six chocolate cakes and this is the most extravagant, with ground almonds and orange juice, and coated with the favorite British icing of creamed butter and sugar. Decoration is minimal -- home cooks don't bother with frills -- so I've added a sprinkling of chocolate to neaten the edge.
With two or three tea-time edibles such as shortbread, cookies, or chocolate cake stored away in tins, no cook need feel at a loss. The perfect hostess, runs one English ditty, "makes you feel when you arrive how good it is to be alive. She promptly orders fresh-made tea, however late the hour may be." No problem!
As for drink, the feeling in America used to be "teas's tea and one's as good as another." Although our consumption does not yet equal the English (who drink twice as much per capita as the Japanese), tea drinking is increasing and with it the variety of teas available. It is easy now to find imported alternatives to the familiar name brands. My own choice would be China tea -- subtler than Indian and Ceylon tea, which are appropriate to the breakfast table. Keemun is a popular favorite while smoky lapsang souchong is for the more dedicated drinker.
If traditional teas are not to your taste, why not serve one of the herbal blends? No longer confined to health-food circles, some of these provide a welcome pick-me-up in the late afternoon. In any case, drink what you like, even coffee. Tea drinking is not a prerequisite to enjoying this most civilized of English institutions. TIMETABLE
This easy-paced schedule calls for half the preparation to be done a week ahead, with some baking on the morning of the tea, and final preparations just before serving.
Up to two weeks ahead: Bake shortbread and store in airtight container. Make oatmeal biscuits and store in airtight container.
Up to one day ahead: Frost and complete chocolate cake; keep tightly covered at room temperature.
Up to four hours ahead: Make sandwiches, wrap and refrigerate. Bake scones, let cool, and keep in airtight container.
45 minutes before serving: Set the table. Set sandwiches on table, leaving them covered. Arrange shortbread and biscuits on platters and put on table. Transfer chocolate cake to platter for the table. Put out butter and jam for scones.
5 minutes before serving: Heat scones in oven. Boil kettle.
Just before serving: Make tea. Uncover sandwiches. Transfer scones to table. AFTERNOON TEA SANDWICHES (Makes 24 small sandwiches)
Make your own combination of bread with the fillings suggested below. As this sandwich recipe allows only two quarters per serving, those who feel that they may need more can easily double the quantities. 12 slices very thin white or whole wheat bread 1/4 cup butter, creamed Choice of filling (suggestions follow)
Spread each bread slice very thinly with butter. Note: if bread crumbles, let it rest 30 minutes in freezer. Cover 6 slices with filling and top with rest of bread slices, pressing lightly so sandwiches hold together. Discard crusts and cut each sandwich diagonally into four. Arrange them overlapping on a plate and cover tightly with plastic wrap, or lay a damp dish towel on top.
Sandwiches can be made up to 4 hours ahead and kept in refrigerator. Uncover them only just before serving.
Cress Sandwiches: Pull apart 3 ounces garden cress or alfalfa sprouts, then chop very coarsely with 2 or 3 slices of a knife blade. Spread cress on bread, pressing it down well. Sprinkle with salt, adding plenty of black pepper.
Cucumber Sandwiches: Peel a medium cucumber and very thinly slice it in a food processor or with a knife. Sprinkle cucumber lightly with salt and toss to mix. Let stand 15 to 30 minutes to draw out excess liquid and soften, then rinse and drain thoroughly. Arrange slices on bread and sprinkle with ground black pepper.
Egg Sandwiches: Cook 4 eggs in boiling water for 10 minutes, drain, and peel while still warm. Cream 1/4 cup butter. Add eggs and crush coarsely with a fork. Add salt and pepper and mash until mixture holds together lightly. Spread it on bread.
Tomato Sandwiches: Use only very ripe tomatoes. Core the tomatoes and, if skin is thick, immerse them 10 seconds in boiling water and remove the peel. Cut them crosswise in 1/4-inch slices and arrange on bread. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Tip: Arrange contrasting sandwiches on a platter to make a checkerboard pattern. SHORTBREAD (Makes one 8-inch round shortbread)
As shortbread has no other flavoring, the finest butter is essential. 1 cup flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup unsalted butter plus extra for baking sheet 1/3 cup sugar plus extra for sprinkling
Grease a baking sheet and press a piece of waxed paper on top. Sift flour with salt.
Beat butter with a wooden spoon until creamy. Add sugar and continue beating until light and soft. Stir in flour as lightly as possible.
Turn dough onto prepared baking sheet and pat out with your knuckles to an 8-inch round. Flute edge with your fingers and thumb and prick center with a fork. Sprinkle lightly with sugar and mark in 8 wedges with a large knife.
Bake in a 350-degree oven until pale golden, 20-25 minutes. Let cool slightly, then slide onto a rack to cool completely. Shortbread can be kept up to a week in an airtight container.
Tip: The same dough can be cut into 2-inch rounds to make cookies. Bake them 10-15 minutes in a 350-degree oven. CURRANT SCONES (Makes 12 2-inch round scones)
If patted out to a round about 1/2-inch thick and scored in wedges, this mixture can be cooked on a lightly oiled griddle or in a cast iron skillet. When underside is brown, turn and cook until the other side is golden brown. 3 cups flour plus extra for baking sheet and board 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda 1/3 cup butter 1 tablespoon sugar 1/2 cup currants 1 1/4 cups buttermilk, more if necessary Lightly flour a baking sheet.
Sift flour with salt and baking soda into a bowl. Rub in butter with your fingertips until mixture resembles crumbs. Stir in sugar and currants and make a well in the center. Add buttermilk and stir with a wooden spoon, mixing as quickly and lightly as possible.
The dough should be quite soft and more buttermilk can be added if necessary. Note: Do not overmix; the dough should remain quite rough.
Turn dough onto a floured board, flour the back of your hand and pat dough to 1-inch thickness. Lightly flour surface of dough, cut into rounds with a 2-inch biscuit cutter and set on prepared baking sheet. Bake scones in a 425-degree oven until risen and lightly browned, 15 to 20 minutes.
Scones are best eaten just after baking, but they can be made up to 4 hours ahead and stored in an airtight container. Reheat them 5 minutes in a 250-degree oven. ENGLISH OATMEAL BISCUITS (Makes about 24 biscuits)
These are true cookies, despite their English name of "biscuit". 1 1/2 cups quick-cooking oatmeal 1 cup flour 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup butter plus extra for baking sheets 1/2 cup sugar 2 eggs, beaten 1 to 2 tablespoons milk (optional)
Grease two baking sheets.
In a bowl mix oatmeal with flour and salt. Add butter and rub in with fingertips until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in sugar. Make a well in the center, add eggs, and stir until mixture holds together, adding a little milk if necessary.
Roll mixture into walnut-sized balls and set on baking sheets, leaving plenty of space between biscuits. Using a fork dipped in water, flatten biscuits until very thin.
Bake in a 425-degree oven until browned around edges, about 12 minutes. At once transfer to a rack to cool. Oatmeal biscuits can be baked up to a week ahead and stored in an airtight container. YORKSHIRE CHOCOLATE CAKE (Makes 1 10-inch cake) 8 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped 1 cup butter plus extra for pan 1 1/4 cups sugar 5 eggs, separated Juice of 1/2 orange 2 cups flour 1 tablespoon baking powder 1/2 cup ground almonds Chocolate sprinkles for decoration FOR THE FROSTING: 1/2 cup unsalted butter 2 cups confectioners' sugar 2 tablespoons very strong coffee
Grease a 10-inch springform pan. Melt chocolate on a heatproof plate over a pan of hot water and leave to cool.
Cream butter, beat in sugar and continue beating until soft and light. Add egg yolks, one by one, beating well after each addition. Stir in cooled melted chocolate, followed by orange juice.
Sift flour with baking powder and stir in ground almonds. Stiffly whip egg whites. Fold flour and ground almonds into chocolate mixture alternately with egg whites, in three batches.
Transfer mixture to cake pan and bake in a 350-degree oven until cake shrinks slightly from sides of pan and a skewer inserted in center comes out clean, 50 to 60 minutes. Let cake cool 10 minutes in pan, then transfer to a rack to cool completely. Cake is best stored at least 3 days and may be kept up to 2 weeks in an airtight container.
For frosting: Cream butter and beat in sugar until soft and light. Beat in coffee. Spread frosting on cooled cake and scatter chocolate sprinkles around the edge. The frosted cake can be kept in an airtight container up to 24 hours.
Tip: For a quicker version omit the frosting and serve the cake with whipped cream.