The no-frills, very British way to host an afternoon tea

I AM an unapologetic Anglophile: ‘Downton Abbey’ marathon watcher. Jane Austen action figure on my desk. Believer that everything sounds better with a British accent.

But, oh, the tea.

I’m not just talking about a properly brewed cuppa – though even that, by some accounts, is losing ground to coffee – delightful and rejuvenating as it is.

What I’m referring to is afternoon tea, that convivial tradition of scones, sandwiches and pastries that bridges the hangry gap between lunch and dinner.

In fact, the story goes, that’s exactly why Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford, supposedly began the practice in the 1840s.

Bite-size sandwiches, snacks and desserts are made for sharing at afternoon tea
Bite-size sandwiches, snacks and desserts are made for sharing at afternoon tea
Tea sandwiches require attention to detail
Tea sandwiches require attention to detail

It’s not that I relish the daintiness of it all: My clumsiness makes me nervous around fine china, and frankly I’m more likely to be swiping my pinkie through a cloud of clotted cream rather than holding it aloft as I sip from a teacup.

I love the leisurely pace, the treat-yourself mentality and the sheer variety of bite-size foods. I simply cannot get enough.

I have taken two week-plus trips to England in the past few years, and on each vacation my husband and I went to three afternoon teas.

Back at home, we have patronised many of the hotels offering their posh takes on the practice around Washington, including visits to some of the more relaxed tea rooms in Annapolis and Ellicott City, Maryland.

Unfortunately, swanky hotel teas and transatlantic airfares can add up.

So I decided to pursue a way to host an afternoon tea at home, combining some of the best features of the British tradition with a more laid-back approach. (Just please don’t call it high tea, the term reserved for the heartier fare that was traditionally eaten by working-class folk at a normal-height table, as opposed to the lower side tables and couches favored by the upper classes in their dressing rooms.)

It’s the perfect kind of party for bridal or baby showers, Mother’s Day or just about any time you want to gather a group of friends.

“Everyone’s happy when they’re coming for afternoon tea,” says Shael Mead, head pastry chef at London’s Ham Yard Hotel, whose baking I fell in love with during her earlier stint at another London tea spot, the Dean Street Townhouse. “It’s something special that people cherish, and that’s why I always put a lot of heart and soul into it.”

Here’s my five-point plan:

1. If nothing else, your afternoon tea must have scones.

Mead says scones are the very essence of afternoon tea. She and her team went scouting fancy London hotels for research and were “appalled” when scones were an extra at one tea service, costing an additional nine pounds (about $11).

Mead says her ideal scone is a bit crusty on the outside and very soft on the inside. It’s not flaky, and closer to an American biscuit than the heavy, huge and overly sweet triangles you’ll find in coffee shops here.

Thankfully, “they’re pretty easy to make,” says Nicola Willis-Jones, a British native and chef at Pure Pasty Co in Vienna, Virginia.

Keep them on the small side, and for less mess Willis-Jones suggests cutting them in half right before your guests arrive.

Serve scones with strawberry jam – homemade is great, even if it’s just a quick stovetop version, Mead says – and clotted cream, a British specialty akin to a cross between butter and whipped cream.

2. Include a mix of pastries.

Afternoon tea typically features a selection of sweets. Try to include one showstopper (attention, ‘Great British Baking Show’ fans), such as a gorgeous tart or layer cake.

My personal favorite: the Battenberg Cake, a pink-and-yellow checkerboard creation that may or may not have been created to commemorate the marriage of Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Victoria to Prince Louis of Battenberg in the 1880s.

It consists of a delicate spongecake wrapped in marzipan. The cake is an afternoon tea staple, and despite its impressive appearance, it isn’t too hard to make.

Think about a mix of textures and flavours, Mead says. Fudgy brownies, fruit jam tarts and airy meringues or macarons are good building blocks.

I’m a fan of infusing white chocolate with Earl Grey tea for delicately aromatic truffles. Willis-Jones suggests making miniature desserts, which look nice and allow your guests the privilege of “sample size” tastes.

3. Offer real tea.

Give your guests a few options to choose from: English Breakfast and Earl Grey (I also love a good Lady Grey, such as from Twinings) are classics.

Make your third selection something a little different, maybe fruity or floral, Mead says.

One of my favorites is Paris from Harney & Sons, which is an easy-drinking black tea flavoured with black currants and vanilla. Or consider a tisane.

Whatever you choose, take care in how you make it. “There is a true art to the brew,” according to ‘The Cook Book’ by Tom Parker Bowles (4th Estate, 2016).

The book was written in conjunction with London’s Fortnum & Mason, a luxury department store and food emporium that operates a glamorous tea salon.

A few tips from Parker Bowles: “Loose leaf will always give the better pot.” Also, use fresh water, but boil twice as much as you need so you can use half to warm up the teapot.

Most teas brew in four to five minutes, although greens are more in the one-to-three-minute range; overbrewing will make your tea bitter.

And if you want to use milk, add it first to the cup; this gradually warms the milk and may also protect your teacup from cracks.

Figure on two to three cups per person.

4. Do as much as you can in advance.

Good advice for any gathering, really. A lot of the aforementioned desserts (brownies, meringues, even layer cakes and cupcakes) can survive just fine made at least a day ahead of time, or frozen for longer.

Scones are best served freshly baked, but feel free to stash unbaked dough rounds in the refrigerator or freezer.

Assembling sandwich fillings can be early work as well, so you can put them together at the last minute, or up to an hour or so before your guests arrive. Slice cucumbers or cheese the morning of your tea.

Go for a nice, but not too frilly, presentation. No doilies. Instead, consider the popular vintage-chic strategy of mixing and matching plates and cups you can pick up at antiques markets and secondhand shops – that’s the way you’ll find afternoon tea served at little cafes around England, Mead says.

If you want to introduce a traditional element into your setup, spring for a traditional three-tiered caddy you can use to display the food (or at least some of it). It doesn’t have to be expensive, either – check sites such as Etsy.

Mead says you can justify the purchase by using it for more than tea, whether in lieu of your typical fruit bowl or for other parties. If you’re finding vintage flower patterns too froufrou, you can purchase modern tiered servers with white or glass plates at Crate & Barrel, Target and Macy’s.

If you have a good tablecloth with napkins, this might be the time to use it, Willis-Jones said.

Decorate the table simply with flowers from your back yard, or pick up a casual bouquet from the farmers market.

After all, most of us don’t have sprawling formal gardens on grand estates in the English rolling hills of Kent or Surrey.

But with a little imagination and draped in the sunny warmth of an afternoon tea amid clinking cups and good friends, I’m happy to pretend, at least for a little while. Text and Photos by The Washington Post

British Scones (17 to 20 two-inch buns)

THESE scones are chockablock with dried currants, but the scones are just as nice without them.

You’ll need a two-inch biscuit cutter.

If you don’t have a stand mixer, you can quickly work the butter into the flour mixture by hand or with a pastry cutter.

Serve with – what else? – clotted cream and jam.

MAKE AHEAD: The dough needs to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.

The scones are best eaten freshly baked, but the rounds of dough can be refrigerated overnight or individually wrapped in plastic wrap and frozen in a zip-top bag for up to a month or two. Defrost before baking or reheating; for the latter, tent loosely with aluminum foil and warm through in a 350-degree oven.

Ingredients

584 grammes

(about four cups) flour, plus more as needed

84 grammes

(1/4 cup plus two tablespoons) sugar

36 grammes

(two tablespoons) baking powder

113 grammes

(eight tablespoons; one stick) chilled, unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

143 grammes

(about one cup) dried currants (optional)

250 grammes

(about one cup) whole milk, plus more for brushing 162 grammes

(about 3/4 cup) heavy cream

Steps

Combine the flour, sugar and baking powder in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer. Beat on low speed just to blend. Add the chilled butter; beat on low speed for four or five minutes, until the mixture starts to look crumbly with some large chunks. Stop to scrape down the bowl.

Add the currants, if using; beat on low speed until evenly distributed.

Pour in the milk and heavy cream; beat on low speed for several seconds, just until the liquids are incorporated, to form a soft dough.

Lightly flour a work surface. Transfer the dough there and pat it to an even thickness of about one inch. Cover loosely with a clean kitchen towel; let it rest for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone liner.

Flour the edges of your biscuit cutter, then use it to cut out 17 to 20 scones (straight down, without twisting), arranging them at least one inch apart on the baking sheet as you work and re- flouring the cutter each time. Try to reroll the scraps no more than once as the subsequent rounds of dough may not rise as much in the oven.

Lightly brush the tops of the scones with milk. Bake (middle rack) for about 16 minutes, turning the sheet from front to back halfway through, until lightly golden.

Transfer them to a wire rack to cool for a few minutes before serving, or cool completely before storing.

Nutrition | Per piece (based on 20): 200 calories, 4g protein, 27g carbohydrates, 8g fat, 5g saturated fat, 25mg cholesterol, 10mg sodium, 0g dietary fiber, 5g sugar

Battenberg Cake (eight to 10 servings)

ASSEMBLING the cake requires some precision, but it’s easier than it looks.

The batter is thick enough that you can fairly neatly spoon the yellow and pink colours next to each other without them bleeding together; you might have to trim a bit off each half to cut away any combined bits. Or you can create a divider to keep them separate. We’ve wrapped a thin piece of cardboard, such as from a tissue box, in aluminum foil to good effect.

The original recipe calls for a seven-inch square baking pan; in testing, we found that an eight-inch disposable aluminum pan works just fine.

MAKE AHEAD: The assembled cake, minus the final application of apricot jam and the marzipan exterior, can be tightly wrapped in plastic wrap and stored at room temperature one day in advance or frozen for up to one month. The assembled cake and be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for three to four days.

Ingredients

113 grammes

(eight tablespoons; one stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the pan

100 grammes

(about 1/2 cup) sugar

Two large eggs

50 grammes

(six tablespoons) rice flour

100 grammes

(3/4 cup) all-purpose flour

Two teaspoons baking powder

A few drops almond extract

Red food coloring

About 1/2 cup apricot jam, or more as needed

Eight ounces marzipan

Steps

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease a seven- or eight-inch square baking pan with butter and line the bottom with parchment paper.

Combine the eight tablespoons of butter, sugar, eggs, flours, baking powder and almond extract in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer. Beat on medium speed for about two minutes, until smooth, stopping to scrape down the bowl, as needed.

Spoon half the batter into one side of the cake pan as neatly as possible. If you’re using a pan divider, place it up against the exposed side of the batter.

Add a few drops of red food coloring to the remaining batter, blending it in to create a deep pink colour. Spoon the pink batter into the other side of the cake pan. If you’re not using a divider, try to create an even and discrete line between the colours of batter. Smooth the surface of each half.

Bake (middle rack) for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the cake is well risen, springy to the touch and has shrunk slightly from the sides of the pan. Let cool in the pan for a few minutes, then turn out, peel off the parchment and finish cooling completely on a wire rack.

Trim the edges as needed to end up with a seven-inch square cake, then cut each colored half of the cake into two equal sections of equal size (for a total of four).

Gently heat the apricot jam in a small saucepan over low heat until it’s fairly fluid and spreadable. Use an offset spatula to spread the warmed jam on the facing sides of one pink section and one yellow section, then press them together to form the bottom layer.

Next, spread a layer of jam on their combined top surface. Then spread jam on the inside edge of the remaining yellow section and place it atop the bottom pink section; repeat with the remaining pink section, placing it atop the bottom yellow section and pressing it up against the top pink section, to form a checkerboard effect. (At this point, the cake can be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and stored at room temperature or frozen.)

For final assembly, brush the top of the cake with apricot jam.

Roll out the marzipan into an oblong the length of the cake and sufficiently wide enough to wrap around the cake with a little margin for error, about nine by 12 inches. Invert the cake onto the marzipan (jam side down), then brush the remaining three sides with apricot jam. Press the marzipan neatly around the cake so the seam ends up at one corner. Trim any excess marzipan and cut a very thin slice off each end of the cake for a neat edge. Use a sharp paring knife to score the top of the cake with a crisscross quilted pattern.

Nutrition | Per serving (after trimming, based on 10): 270 calories, 4g protein, 40g carbohydrates, 12g fat, 5g saturated fat, 50mg cholesterol, 20mg sodium, 0g dietary fiber, 26g sugar

Earl Grey White Chocolate Truffles

EXPERIMENT with your favourite tea infusion, though we recommend using loose leaf for optimum flavour.

MAKE AHEAD: Store in an airtight container at a cool room temperature for up to one week

Ingredients

Six tablespoons heavy cream

One tablespoon plus one teaspoon loose-leaf Earl Grey tea

10 ounces high-quality white chocolate, such as Valrhona Ivoire, chopped

3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Four ounces (one cup) slivered almonds, toasted and ground to a pebbly consistency in a food processor

Steps

Warm the cream in a small saucepan over low heat.

Once you see a few bubbles appear around the edges, remove from the heat, stir in the tea and let steep for five minutes.

Meanwhile, place the chopped white chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan with a few inches of barely bubbling water (do not let the water boil; medium-low heat).

Gently melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally, until smooth. Remove the bowl from the pan.

Strain the infused cream through a fine-mesh strainer, pouring it directly into the melted white chocolate, stirring to incorporate. (Discard the solids.)

Whisk in the vanilla extract. Let the mixture cool in the refrigerator for about 10 minutes, until it thickens to a scoopable consistency.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone liner.

Place the ground almonds in a bowl.

Use two tableware spoons or a Number 70 disher (one tablespoon) to make a total of 20 dollops of the truffle mixture and place them on the baking sheet, spaced at least one inch apart.

Refrigerate for about 10 minutes, or until just firm enough to shape.

Working quickly, roll each portion between your hands to form a smooth ball.

Dip each one in the ground almonds to coat completely, returning them to the baking sheet to set.

Once they’re firm, serve or store.

NOTE: Toast the almonds in a small, dry skillet over medium-low heat for a few minutes, until fragrant and lightly browned, shaking the pan to avoid scorching.

Cool completely before using.

Nutrition | Per piece (using half the almonds): 110 calories, 1g protein, 8g carbohydrates, 9g fat, 5g saturated fat, 10mg cholesterol, 10mg sodium, 0g dietary fiber, 7g sugar