Planning A Christmas Tea

Kari over at Just Livin’ Large has a Christmas countdown on her blog. There are 87 days until Christmas it says. I thought I’d better get on the ball and give you some Christmas Tea planning hints. I can hear your groaning. But everything gets so hectic get in November and December. You will probably have a very busy schedule and feel that you can’t possibly fit in another activity or party, certainly not a Christmas Tea of your own. So the time to begin planning a Christmas Tea is now!

Don’t leap headfirst into heavy planning. Take a trip through your favorite craft, decorating or fabric store. You know you want to. What Christmas colors or themes really grab your attention? I’m not suggesting you completely make over your usual Christmas theme if you have one but there will be new elements to consider, new color combinations to coordinate. If you see something you love, buy it now. It probably won’t be there next month. This way you can have it for reference as you put together your tea. If you plan to make decorations or tablecloths and napkins yourself, buy the material and get started this month.

Once you’ve decided on the colors and decorations you want to use, it is time to think about your space. My whole house gets totally rearranged during the Christmas season. With two huge trees, some furniture must be stored. This can mean that I have less seating available for guests. Think about how you’ll arrange your own furniture and where you’ll seat people for your tea.

Once you know how many seats you have, you’ll know the maximum number of guests you can invite. Each one must have a seat and a place to set her teacup. Deciding on the specific people to invite is the next challenge. You don’t want to slight anyone at this time of year. I’ve found that’s easier accomplished when I have all family or all work or all neighbors instead of trying to combine different groups of friends. A co-worker will understand that she’s not invited to an all family tea but if a couple friends from work are invited and a couple aren’t, you might risk hurt feelings.

Now think about whether you’d like to send invitations. It’s a nice idea and your guests will have a reminder of your tea to keep on their fridges so they won’t forget during this busy season. Order your invitations, select them at a stationery store or make them yourself. You can do this now and get it out of the way and off your mind completely.

Next it is time to open your cupboards, maybe the cupboards of your mother, your best friend, the next door neighbor too. Christmas dishes aren’t necessary but there are certainly some beautiful ones out there. So long as you keep your dishes in the same color family, you can mix and match. Go ahead and borrow what you need. You don’t need a specific count at this time because you don’t have a menu yet. Just explore the possibilities.

If you don’t have the right dishes and you can’t borrow what you need, consider going to a rental place. They always have plain white dishes that will work on any table. They also have tables. And linens. And samovars. I’ve often rented round tables and folding chairs for large events. It isn’t very expensive and in the case of dishes and flatware, you don’t have to wash it before returning it. Rental places to take reservations and this is a good idea around holiday time.

You might think it is too early to start to plan your menu but it isn’t. Once you know what you’re having, you can begin to pick up some of the ingredients. Starting in November, you can even begin preparing the food you’ll serve. Most baked goods will freeze perfectly for a few weeks.

Afternoon tea is traditionally served in several courses as follows:
Soup and/or Salad
Scones with clotted cream and fruit preserves
A Savory Course with three or more tea sandwiches or other small savories like quiche
A Sweets Course with three or more small dessert items that can be eaten in a couple bites

Adjust this as you like. No one is going to faint if you serve more or less or if you have a whole beautiful cake instead of little bites.

When you start to plan specific dishes, think about things you already know how to prepare. Maybe you don’t even want to have to prepare much yourself, preferring to buy most of your tea food. Either way, you have to know what you want to serve. Think about the individual tea courses first. What kind of soup do you like? Is it something you want to make yourself or to buy already prepared? Do you even want to serve soup at all?

Once you have some ideas for the individual dishes you’d like to serve, think about how they’ll work as a whole. Try to keep a good variety of tastes, textures, shapes and colors. It is okay to repeat an ingredient in two dishes but try not to go more than that. For example, you wouldn’t want to serve a seafood soup, with salmon quiches and, smoked salmon and cucumber sandwiches. For the tea sandwiches, make each filling completely different. Think beef or chicken or seafood or pork or cheese as a base and don’t repeat. For the sweets course, think citrus, chocolate, nuts, cheese, fruit.

You probably won’t be able to come up with all the recipe ideas on your own. Cookbooks, many specifically for Christmas, Christmas magazines, cooking magazines, TV cooking shows and online food resources will give you more recipes than you could ever consider. Start looking now, today!

One last hint for preparing for your Christmas Tea now is to write everything down. You can keep that information on your computer but it helps to have a small notebook that you can carry around or have right by your side as you’re looking at cookbooks. Make to-do lists, write down your menu, your guest list, stuff you need to borrow. Keep a small calendar with your notebook too. Fill it with the dates by which you need to accomplish certain tasks. A notebook will keep you organized and will serve as a good reference for all future parties!

I’ll have more specific Christmas Tea tips in the coming weeks but today’s list should help you to get started. Don’t put it off or you’ll risk running out of time and not having a tea at all. Take these small steps now and you’ll skip the extra holiday stress that a Christmas Tea can bring.


Buying Fine Tea

It used to be that the only way to get premium tea was through mail order catalogs. Many of those catalogs had only names and descriptions of the tea sold, no pretty photos of the tea leaves or the tea in a cup. You couldn’t exchange thoughts about the tea with anyone else and there certainly wasn’t any dialogue with the tea seller.

All that has changed and the tea world has really opened up. There are tea merchants, tearooms and online tea sellers like never before. It can be difficult for a person new to tea to figure out where she should purchase the best tea. If you’ve never tasted high quality tea, you won’t have anything to compare how good it can be.

Here are some things to consider when buying tea:

Do the people selling the tea know what they are talking about? Can they answer your questions without a lot of doublespeak and phony tea jargon? Are they happy to explain things to you; are they passionate about tea?

If you are buying tea from a gourmet store, notice how the tea is displayed. Does it look like an afterthought or is it a special, separate section?

If you are buying tea from your local tearoom, watch out for tea that’s been stored in their gift shop. Tea can really pick up scents from candles, potpourri and other smelly things. Cinnamon candles are great but you’ll taste that cinnamon in your tea if it has been stored close by.

By the same token, if you’re buying tea from a coffee/tea place, watch out. Coffee always trumps tea. Try only a tiny amount of tea from this kind of seller before sinking much money into it. Make sure your tea doesn’t end up tasting more like coffee.

Look at how the tea is stored wherever you’re buying. Glass jars are a big no-no. It looks so pretty but light is hard on tea. Tea should be stored in airtight containers that don’t let light into the tea.

Notice how many different teas are being sold. Does your little hometown teaseller really have enough turnover to carry 150 different tea? I doubt it. Most places can probably handle well about 50 different teas. Don’t buy tea that isn’t fresh.

Can you taste the tea? It is great if you can but there can be zoning/health code rules that prevent teasellers from making tea for you. If the seller does offer tastings of any tea or if they have only a couple teas available to taste, notice how this is done. Do you get lukewarm tea in a styrofoam cup or properly brewed tea in a real teacup? A place selling tea should always take the time and effort to brew it carefully.

The descriptions of the tea should include where the tea originates, often the exact estate and whether it is free trade or organic. If the tea menu contains a lot of really flowery language that’s not very specific or if the adjectives “rare” and “exotic” are used over and over, take extra care.

Tearooms come in all styles and levels of tea competency. If a tearoom has bagged tea for their own afternoon tea service but sells loose tea in their shop, I recommend running in the other direction.

Don’t be tricked by pretty packaging or oh-so profound sayings on web pages. Some of the artwork is absolutely gorgeous for sure. But if you want art, visit a gallery. The tea inside the package is what you’re buying.

It is okay to say drink what tastes good to you. Experiment with teas though. Know what the different varieties of tea taste like so you can make informed buying decisions.

And finally a word about price. Premium tea doesn’t have to be expensive. Check online teasellers and compare prices before buying locally. Don’t fall for advertising speak or gimmicks.


Favorite Tea Things: Tea Forté

I’m usually a stickler about using only the highest quality loose-leaf tea. Normally I’ll drink plain water before I will drink tea made with a teabag. But there are times at afternoon tea when you want something different, something unique. Sometimes a gorgeous design is just the touch you’re looking for.

I’d like to recommend Tea Forté and their beautiful teas and products. (No, I have no association with this company other than being a happy customer.) Tea Forté uses silken pyramids to hold their tea. Each pyramid infuser is topped with a little silk tea leaf. The tea inside is whole leaf, not the fannings and dust you find in regular teabags.

The combination of teas and herbs and flowers they use isn’t extreme or overwhelming. It is subtle and sublime. The color of the tea produced is vibrant. And most important it tastes good.

I don’t normally drink flavored teas or tisanes but I enjoy all of Tea Forté’s blends. One of my favorites is Flora which is made with hibiscus flowers. It makes a bright red cup that is a real treat for the senses. Another favorite is Bombay Chai which has the most amazing aroma.

Tea Forté has many black teas and blends, tisanes, a rooibos, greens and even a white tea. It would be difficult not to find something for everyone on that list. I think you’d enjoy visiting their web site and looking at all their teas.

For your next afternoon tea, present your guests with their choice of these beautiful teas. It is so much fun for everyone to compare the tea inside the little pyramids and the colors in the cups. It is an especially good way to introduce non-tea drinkers to tea. I haven’t met anyone, even the most dedicated tea snob, who doesn’t enjoy this tea. Try it!


The Answers to the Tea Trivia Quiz

Here are the answers to yesterday’s Tea Trivia Quiz. How’d you do?

1. a. The story is that Chinese emperor Shen Nung was drinking his cup of boiling water when he brushed by a tea bush. A leaf fell into his cup and instead of fishing it out, he left it in there. The first cup of tea was enjoyed!

2. b. The familiar round teapot was modeled in the shape of a musk melon, said to the best configuration for tea steeping because it allows the water to flow, unimpeded by corners.

3. c. While the Dutch began importing tea, the Portuguese missionaries in Macao were actually the first to begin drinking it.

4. c. Tea is grown in about 40 countries but the best teas in the world come from only 5, China, Japan, Taiwan, India and Sri Lanka.

5. b. Orange pekoe refers to the larger of the leaves on a fine plucking and the term indicates a generally good-quality tea.

6. b. Yunnan is a black tea with a chocolately aftertaste and is considered one of the finest varieties on earth.

7. b. The leaves are rolled by hand into tiny pellets that resemble gunpowder.

8. b. Grown in the foothills of the Himalayas at altitudes of 6000 feet, Darjeeling is one of the most famous teas in the world.

9. c. Cupping is the process to judge the value of a tea.

10. c. A tisane is a hot drink made from boiling water and edible leaves, not from the Camellia sinensis plant’s leaves.

11. c. Queen Victoria introduced the habit of taking a slice of lemon with her tea, a custom she learned when visiting in Russia.

12. a. The first European style cups were made in a German colony in Transylvania called Cronstadt.


A Tea Trivia Quiz

Think you know a lot about tea—take this tea trivia quiz and see! Answers in tomorrow’s post.

1. Most experts accept what year as when the first tea was drunk?
a. 2737 B.C ... b. 1500 A.D ... c. 1280 A.D.

2. The first teapots were modeled after what?
a. apple ... b. musk melon ... c. moon

3. The first Europeans to drink tea were:
a. English ... b. Dutch ... c. Portuguese

4. Tea is grown in about how many countries?
a. 5 ... b. 13 ... c. 40

5. Orange pekoe refers to:
a.the scent of orange added to tea ... b. the size of the tea leaf ... c. the orange color of the leaf

6. Which tea is often referred to as the “mocha” of tea?
a. Pu’erh ... b. Yunnan ... c. Keemun

7. Gunpowder green tea is called this because?
a. it packs a real kick ... b. the rolled pellets resemble gunpowder ... c. actual gunpowder is used in the processing of this tea

8. Which tea is often called the Champagne of teas?
a. Assam ... b. Darjeeling ... c.Oolong

9. Cupping refers to:
a. drinking tea from a guywan ... b. drawing tea to the face with cupped hands ... c. evaluating tea

10. Which of the following isn’t a tisane?
a. Chamomile tea ... b. Lemon Balm tea ... c. Sencha

11. Queen Victoria is credited with adding this to tea:
a. honey ... b. cream ... c. lemon

12. Teacups were first manufactured in China but which Europeans made the first Western cups?
a. Germans ... b. English ... c. French


Brewing the Perfect Cup of Tea

Tea Necessities: Teapot and infuser basket, teacup, stainless tea canister, tea kettle, scales, timer and instant read thermometer.

Again last evening, someone complained to me that it is too much bother to brew a cup of loose-leaf tea. This person thinks she’s baking cookies when she uses those pre-filled pans of dough and pops them into the oven. So, yes, perhaps the tea brewing experience is too complex for her. For the rest of us, taking the time to brew the perfect cup is something we do without trauma but not without thought.

At the most basic level it takes only four things to brew tea: water, heat, tea, a pan. You probably won’t get a consistently wonderful cup of tea just winging it but you will get tea. In reality there are tea accoutrements that we use in order to get a perfect cuppa each time. Here’s what you’ll need:

A tea kettle to heat the water. Mine sits on my stove all the time. It boils water very quickly and has a funny whistle to let me know when it is ready. I have an electric kettle too but find it takes up too much counter space. I use it when I need lots of water for a party.

A scale to weigh the tea. Tea leaves come in a lot of different shapes and sizes and they are really awkward to try to measure with a spoon. I use a beautiful Soehnle scale that measures in grams. I’ve just begun to cook a few things by weight instead of volume so this scale gets a lot of use outside the realm of tea.

A timer. You really, really need this. You know your mind will wander while trying to time a tea without a timer and then you’ll miss the time you wanted and your tea will be over steeped and nasty. Get a timer and free your mind.

A teapot. Yixing teapots are probably the best teapot you can use. They are made of clay and each time you use it you’re seasoning the pot. But the variety of teapots is endless. Use a pot that makes you feel good just to see it. I use Chatsford teapots for everyday. They come with a removable infuser basket that works so well.

A tea cozy. I used to think these were pretty goofy looking and I didn’t want one covering my pretty teapots. After giving them a try, I understood that they really do keep the tea hot without stewing it. Get one, use it, it works.

Cups. There’s nothing like drinking tea from a delicate cup so thin that you can see through it. Like with teapots, there is an endless variety of cups available. Use what makes you feel good.

Now down to brewing:

First let’s talk about the water. Some places have pretty funky tasting water. If that’s you, use bottled water. Second, always use fresh water. You wouldn’t drink a glass of water that was sitting on the kitchen counter all night, don’t use water in your kettle that’s been there since the last boil. Third, water temperature is essential. Most teas should be brewed using boiling water in order to get the full flavor of the leaves. (Green, white, oolong teas should be made with water no hotter than 180º.)

The old saying is one spoon of tea for each cup and one for the pot. Use this as a rule of thumb or starting point. When making tea, a cup is 6 ounces, not 8 ounces. Know the capacity of your teapot. But remember, if you want a consistent cup of tea, use your scale and measure by weight.

Steeping time depends on the variety of tea. Steep by time and your own taste. Use the following list as a starting point:

White, green, jasmine: 2-3 minutes
Pouchong: 1-3 minutes
Green Oolong: 2-3 minutes
Darjeeling: 3-4 minutes
Black Oolong: up to 5 minutes
Black tea: up to 5 minutes

So there you have it, heat the water, measure the tea, pour the water over the leaves and time it. Maybe I was wrong and my friend who bakes fake cookies could handle this after all!


County Fair Tea: Timetable

Woody Woodpecker Clock Manufactured in the 1950s by Columbia Time Products


Up to one week before:
Make and freeze cinnamon rolls, without icing

Two days before:
Prepare pulled pork
Make honey roasted nuts

One day ahead:
Bake potatoes for potato bites
Prepare frozen bananas
Bake caramel apple bars

Two hours ahead:
Prepare sausage tarts
Prepare filling and toppings for potato bites

One hour ahead:
Bake sausage tarts
Slice potato bites
Ice cinnamon rolls

Half hour before:
Reheat potato bites, fill and top
Prepare onion rings, keep warm in low oven
Heat pulled pork, fill rolls just before serving

Ten minutes before serving:
Reheat sausage tarts for 5 minutes
Prepare tea


County Fair Tea: Caramel Apple Bars

1 cup brown sugar
¾ cups butter
1 teaspoons apple pie spice or cinnamon
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 cup flour
1 cup pecan meal or ground pecans
2 cups rolled oats

4 large apples, peeled and sliced or chopped
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon apple pie spice or cinnamon

10-12 ounces soft caramel candies (about 2 cups)
3 tablespoons milk

Preheat the oven to 400º. Grease or spray a 9 x 13” baking pan.

To make the crust: In a bowl, beat together the brown sugar, butter, apple spice, salt and baking soda until well blended. Stir in the flour, pecan meal, and oats; the mixture will be crumbly. Set aside 1 cup of the crumbs. Press the remaining crumbs into the prepared pan.

To make the filling: Toss the apples in a bowl with the salt and cinnamon. Spread them over the crust, pressing them in lightly.

To make the topping: In a microwave-safe bowl, melt the caramel with the milk. Drizzle the topping over the apples and sprinkle with the reserved crumbs.

Bake the bars for 35-40 minutes, until the caramel is bubbling and the apples are tender. Remove from the oven and cool to lukewarm. Run a knife around the edge of the pan, cut the bars into squares. Allow the bars to rest until the caramel firms up before serving.


County Fair Tea: Chocolate-Covered Frozen Bananas

I can just imagine all the afternoon tea purists and tea rules experts falling out of their chairs about now. Maybe someone will help them up. For the rest of us, we’ll be laughing and having fun eating these bananas. They really do bring out the kid in us. And they taste good too!

4 bananas
¼ cup lemon juice or orange juice
12 ounces chocolate coating chips, chocolate chips or semisweet baking chocolate
decoration: colored sprinkles, coconut, crushed nuts, rice krispies

Peel and slice bananas in half. Swirl in a small bowl of citrus juice in order to prevent browning. Insert a lollypop or popsicle stick in the bottom of each banana. Place on a tray and freeze for at least 2 hours.

Melt chocolate over low heat or in the microwave. Remove bananas from freezer. Dip each banana into the chocolate or use a spoon to pour the chocolate over the banana until completely covered. Immediately roll the banana in the decoration of your choice. The chocolate hardens very quickly so decorate each banana separately instead of waiting until you have all of them dipped in chocolate. Return to freezer until completely hardened.


County Fair Tea: Honey Roasted Nuts

No need to buy the most expensive nuts in the market for these roasted nuts. I used the store brand with great results.

1/2 cup honey
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon cinnamon, divided
4 cups nuts of your choice
2 or 3 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

Combine honey, butter, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon in heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil. Boil for 2 minutes, without stirring. Add nuts to the honey mixture. Mix until all nuts are coated. Spread on foil-lined cookie sheet. Bake at 325º for 10-15 minutes or until nuts are lightly browned. Cool 20 minutes. Combine sugar and remaining cinnamon. Remove nuts from foil. Toss with sugar and cinnamon.


County Fair Tea: Potato Bites

Big baked potatoes topped with a mind boggling choice of toppings is a big seller at my county fair. Even for this fun tea, a whole potato would be too much. In these potato bites, all the flavors are here but they are easy to eat and not so filling.

2 large baking potatoes
olive oil
½ cup sour cream
3 tablespoons cream cheese
2 tablespoons Ranch Dressing seasoning mix
Topping Ingredients: chopped bacon, chives, shredded cheese, hot peppers, green onion, chili powder, paprika, etc.

Rub potatoes with olive oil, poke with a fork to release steam and bake in a 425º oven for 1 hour – 1 hour and 15 minutes, depending on size. When cool enough to handle, slice potato into ½” rounds. Using a melon baller, scoop a small amount of potato from the center to make a well. Take care not to break through the bottom of the potato.

In a small bowl combine the sour cream, cream cheese and Ranch seasoning. This mixture can be put into a piping bag if a more formal presentation is desired; otherwise, dollop some of the mixture into the indentation you made, mounding it up.

Top the potato bites with any of the ingredients listed above or come up with your own topping ideas.


County Fair Tea: Pulled Pork with Barbeque Sauce

This recipe makes more than you’ll need for the County Fair Tea. Freeze the leftovers for another time or eat them the next day.

2 boneless pork loin roasts 2 ½ to 3 pounds each
1 cup water
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups ketchup
2 cups diced celery
½ cup steak sauce
¼ cup brown sugar
¼ cup vinegar
2 teaspoons lemon juice
party rolls

Place roasts in a Dutch oven; add water and salt. Cover and cook on medium-low heat for 2 ½ hours or until meat is tender. Remove roasts and shred using two forks; set aside. Skim fat from cooking liquid and discard. Drain all but 1 cup cooking liquid. Add meat, ketchup, celery, steak sauce, brown sugar, vinegar and lemon juice. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for 1 ½ hours. Serve on party rolls.


County Fair Tea: Sausage Tarts

Make more of these than you think you’ll need because they are so tasty. My photo, as usual, doesn't do them justice.

1 pound Polish sausage or other fully cooked sausage
1 large sweet onion
2 green, yellow or red peppers
1 package frozen puff pastry

Thaw the puff pastry. Slice sausage into ¼” pieces. Fry peppers and onions.

Using a biscuit cutter, cut rounds from the puff pastry to fit a mini muffin tin. Spray or grease tin. Fit pastry round into the tin. Place sausage slice, pieces of pepper and onion into the pastry case.

Bake at 400º for 20-25 minutes or until nicely browned. Pop out of the tin and cool on a rack.


County Fair Tea: Cinnamon Rolls

Cinnamon rolls, served warm, have been a big hit at my local county fair for several years now. You can smell them baking long before you see the stand. Instead of a scone with this tea, a cinnamon roll will hit the spot. Cinnamon rolls are not difficult to make but they are time consuming. Most bakeries sell these if you don’t have the time to make your own. Avoid buying cinnamon rolls from the grocery store or any other place where they might sit for more than a day. Not even warming can save a stale cinnamon roll.

¾ cup milk
½ cup shortening
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 packages active dry yeast
½ cup warm water (110º to 115º)
4 ¼ to 4 ¾ cups flour
2 eggs

Scald milk; add shortening, sugar and salt. Cool to lukewarm. Sprinkle yeast on warm water; stir to dissolve.

Add 1 ½ cup flour to milk mixture; beat well with electric mixer at low speed 1 minute. Beat in eggs and yeast.

Gradually stir in enough remaining flour, a little at a time, to make a soft dough that leaves the sides of the bowl. Turn onto lightly floured board; knead until smooth, satiny and no longer sticky, 5 to 8 minutes.

Place in lightly greased bowl; invert to grease top. Cover and let rise in warm place until doubled, 1 to 1 ½ hours. Punch down and turn onto board. Divide in half.

Roll each half into a 16” x 8” rectangle. Combine 1 cup sugar, ½ cup melted butter and 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon. Spread half of the mixture on each rectangle. If you like, scatter 1/3 cup raisins over each rectangle. Roll lengthwise as for a jellyroll; seal edges. Cut in 1” slices. Place, cut side down, in 2 well-greased 9” square pans. Cover and let rise until doubled, 30-40 minutes. Bake in 375º oven for 20-25 minutes. Remove to wire racks to frost with Confectioners’ Sugar Frosting.

Confectioners’ Sugar Frosting

To 1 cup confectioners’ sugar add enough milk to make mixture of spreading or drizzling consistency. Add ½ teaspoon vanilla and a dash of salt. Stir until smooth. Spread or drizzle over Cinnamon Buns.


County Fair Tea: Onion Rings

Everyone loves a blooming onion, a whole onion which has been batter dipped and deep fried. Not quite right for a tea though. Instead add onion rings to top off your salad. Hold the onion rings in a low oven until ready to plate the salad. Here's a good recipe for onion rings:

large sweet onions, separated into rings
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg, beaten
1 cup milk
several dashes hot sauce
cooking oil for frying

Heat cooking oil in a deep pan several inches thick. Temperature should be 375 degrees. Combine dry ingredients in a bowl; in a measuring cup, whisk milk and egg and hot sauce. Add liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients. Combine but don't over mix. A few lumps are okay.

Dunk the onion rings into the batter and then carefully put them into the oil, a few at a time. Flip them as they begin to turn brown to cook both sides. They are finished when both sides are golden brown. Remove them to a paper towel to drain and sprinkle with salt. Allow the oil to come back up to temperature before adding the next batch. Oil that isn't hot enough will give you soggy onion rings.


County Fair Tea Menu

Blooming onions are always a fair favorite so I’ve added that to the salad course in the form of baby field greens with onion rings.

For the scone course, we won’t be having scones but instead we’ll have a cinnamon roll.

On the savory side, pulled pork on party rolls, baked potato bites and Polish sausage tarts would fit the County Fair theme perfectly even if they are a bit unusual for a tea.

For the sweets course, I did find a treat on a stick--a frozen chocolate covered banana. We’ll have roasted nuts too. And instead of caramel apples which would be hard to eat, we’ll have caramel apple bars.

For our tea course we’ll be serving Tieguanyin, a dark roast Oolong, perfect for September and able to stand up to this hearty menu.


County Fair Tea

This week our local County Fair is being held. To me that means animals in the show rings, beautiful displays of vegetables and flowers, country music acts, carnival games and rides and best of all, food.

Everyone loves fair food. It varies around the country and it can be quite strange though. If it can be coated in batter and thrown in a deep fryer, it will probably make it to some fairgoer’s hand. I’ve seen deep fried candy bars, pickles and cake. Stabbing food onto a stick seems to be another fair favorite, turkey-on-a-stick, pork chop-on-a-stick, the ever popular corn dogs…which also have a stick. We all laugh at this kind of fair food but people enjoy it and eating it just once a year isn’t going to kill anyone.

So to celebrate fair week, I’ve put together a County Fair Tea. No, I won’t have any food on sticks but I might have a deep-fried treat. The flavors and the fun of fair food will definitely be present at this tea.

To decorate for a County Fair Tea, think folk art. If you have something you collect, gather it for the table. I have a small collection of folk art chickens that I’ll use for my tea. I have a few bale-top canning jars in a pretty blue. I’ll use those for flower vases. And for the flowers themselves, sunflowers. Use a tablecloth that coordinates with your folk art collection. I’ll use a simple blue gingham. I have plain white dishes that will keep the table from being too busy. You might consider serving tea, not in pretty flowered teacups but instead serve it in glass canning jars. You can find these with handles—good for serving hot tea.

Music for this tea can only be country. That’s not something I generally listen to but it is perfect for a County Fair Tea. I like the old twangy stuff but country music comes in a lot of different styles today and I’m sure you can find something you like. Crank it up as your guests are arriving to get everyone in the mood. Of course, you’ll want to turn it back down as soon as you begin serving.

If you want to send your guests away with a treat, caramel popcorn in a big clear bag tied with a pretty ribbon would be terrific. You could keep these ready by the door in a big basket. Since my decorating scheme is chickens, I’ll use an antique egg basket.

I don’t usually recommend games or activities for teas but for a County Fair Tea, you’ve got to play at least one game. You could play a couple rounds of Bingo and offer fall chrysanthemums as prizes. Or you might decide to play that old favorite, Now You Have It, Now You Don’t and use prizes that your guests have wrapped and brought. It is hokey for sure but everyone will recognize that, play along and have tons of laughs being silly.

Some teas are rather formal with food that perfectly fits the afternoon tea mold. We wear our best manners and speak with our inside voices, careful not to laugh too boisterously. This definitely isn’t one of those teas. Tell your guests to wear their jeans and sneakers. Keep all the fun of going to a county fair and just for this once, throw afternoon tea decorum out the window!

Tomorrow I’ll give you the County Fair Tea Menu. I think you’ll like it.


A Special Surprise in the Mail Today

Last month the creator of the blog, French Knots was celebrating her birthday. She was giving away one of her beautiful pincushions. Guess who won? Me! My package arrived in the mail this morning. As someone who has used the same pincushion since 7th grade home ec class, I can't tell you what a treat it is to have something so beautiful to use instead!

As you can see in my photo, I also received two chocolate bars. Let me just say, it was difficult to snap this picture with both bars intact. One will definitely be missing in a few minutes.

I do want to say thank you. I love this little treasure of pincushion.


Taking Time to Remember

Taking time out from tea today to remember 9-11, the victims and their families.


Back to School Tea: Timetable

This is such an easy schedule. You'll be able to do it even if you must get your own kids off to school the morning of the tea.

Up to two weeks ahead:
Prepare and freeze muffins

The night before the tea:
Prepare and refrigerate the strata

One hour before the tea:
Put the strata in the oven

About 45 minutes before the tea:
Prepare and cook the bacon

Just before the guests arrive:
Make the parfaits, keep in the fridge
Pour the orange juice into the mimosa glasses

Last minute:
Make the tea
Add Champagne and grenadine to the mimosas


Back to School Tea: Granola Berry Parfaits

This recipe makes one parfait; increase as needed.

¾ cup plain yogurt
2 tablespoons honey
¼ teaspoon vanilla
½ cup granola
½ cup berries, peaches or any fruit you like

In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt, honey and vanilla. Spoon about one-third of the granola into the bottom of a stemmed 12-ounce glass. Spoon about one-third of the yogurt mixture over the granola. Sprinkle about half the fruit over the yogurt. Repeat with the remaining ingredients.

Back to School Tea: Mimosas

Yes, actually these are really Buck’s Fizzes instead of Mimosas because of the addition of grenadine. I think the pink and yellow colors are much more evocative of mimosa flowers and much prettier than plain Mimosas.

3 parts Champagne
1 part orange juice
Splash of grenadine

Add orange juice first to the glass, then the Champagne and last gently pour in a bit of grenadine. Both the juice and the Champagne should be chilled. Don’t make these ahead of serving time or you’ll lose the bubbles.

If you prefer not to use Champagne, a fun and pretty drink can still be made using sparkling grape juice, sparkling water or ginger ale.


Back to School Tea: Glazed Pepper Bacon and Classic Cheese Strata

Both the bacon and the strata bake at 350º. Put these two dishes in the oven and use the time to prepare the rest of the menu.

Glazed Pepper Bacon

Salty, sweetly smoky and just slightly fiery. This recipe serves about 6 to 8 people. You might think that’s a lot of bacon but believe me, it will disappear before your eyes.

1 ½ pounds thick cut bacon
fresh black pepper
½ cup brown sugar

Preheat oven to 350º. Line two jelly roll pans with foil for easy clean up.

Separate the strips and arrange them without overlapping on the pans. Grind fresh pepper all over the strips and then sprinkle with brown sugar. Bake without turning the strips. Pour off the fat about half way through or the bacon will not get crisp. Bake for about 25 minutes.

Classic Cheese Strata

Assemble this the night before your tea and pop it in the oven before your guests arrive. You can add to this basic version, onions, mushrooms, spinach, even sausage or pepperoni.

One 1- to 1 ½-pound loaf country or sourdough bread
1 ¼ cups grated cheese, Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Muenster or Brie
1 ½ cups small-curd cottage cheese
5 large eggs
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon dry mustard
½ teaspoon salt
Fresh black pepper
4 tablespoons butter, melted

Butter a deep 9 or 10 inch baking dish.

Slice the bread about ½ inch thick. Arrange the bread, grated cheese, cottage cheese in 2 or 3 equal alternating layers in the baking dish. Cut or tear bread slices if needed to make snug layers.

Whisk the eggs with the milk, mustard, slat and pepper. Pour the custard over the bread mixture. Drizzle with the melted butter. Cover and refrigerate the strata for at least 1 hour and up to overnight. Remove the strata from the fridge about a half hour before you plan to bake it to take the chill off.

Bake at 350º for 50-55 minutes, until puffed, golden brown and lightly set in the center.


Back to School Tea: Muffins

There are two kinds of muffins for the moms to enjoy, one low fat and the other chocolate. I always prefer mini muffins when there are other good things to eat. No one wants to fill up on muffins even though these are delicious.

Lowfat Applesauce Muffins

These are made with whole wheat flour and are quite healthy but that hasn’t dampened their great flavor.

1/3 cup safflower oil
½ cup honey
1 cup unsweetened applesauce
2 large eggs
2 ¼ cups whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground allspice
1 ½ cup dried cranberries, dried cherries or raisins

Preheat oven to 400º. Grease muffin cups, mini or regular, or use paper liners.

In a medium bowl whisk together the oil, honey, applesauce and eggs. In another bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon, ginger and allspice. Stir in the applesauce mixture with a wooden spoon just until combined. Add cranberries.

Spoon batter into muffin cups, mounding slightly. Bake for 10-12 minutes for mini muffins or 20-22 minutes for full size muffins. Allow to cool in pan for 5 minutes before removing.

Chocolate Buttermilk Muffins

Triple chocolate goodness!

3 ounces unsweetened chocolate
6 tablespoons butter
½ cup buttermilk
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
¾ cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips
2/3 cup dried cherries

Preheat oven to 400º. Grease muffin cups, mini or regular, or use paper liners. In the bowl of a mixer, beat the egg, vanilla and sugar until light. Dissolve the baking soda in ¼ cup boiling water and add to the egg mixture, along with the chocolate. Mix until well combined. Add the flour, cocoa, and baking powder and mix just until incorporated. Stir in the chocolate chips and cherries.

Spoon the batter evenly into the muffin cups and fill to the rim. Bake for 10-12 minutes for mini muffins or 15-18 for full size muffins. Allow the muffins to cool for 5 minutes before removing.


Back to School Tea Menu

The menu for the Back to School Tea includes:

Low-Fat Applesauce Muffins with Natural Preserves
Chocolate Buttermilk Muffins
Oven-Glazed Pepper Bacon
Classic Cheese Strata
Granola Berry Parfaits
English Breakfast Tea from Harney and Son

Recipes begin tomorrow!


Back to School Tea

It is Back to School Day here in my neighborhood. The kids are eager, a bit scared and sleepy this morning. The moms, on the other hand, are doing little dances. What better way to celebrate this time of year than with a tea!

The Back to School Tea is a breakfast tea, held as the moms are returning from getting their kids to school. It is especially nice if the moms of the neighborhood can simply walk to your house on their way home from putting their little scholars on the bus. This tea does unfortunately leave out working moms but there will be plenty of other teas in which they can participate.

Homeschooling moms enjoy the opportunity to get together with other homeschooling moms and this tea is great for them too. My local library has special morning activities for homeschoolers and this would be the perfect time for the moms to meet for tea.

Hold this tea in your kitchen if you have seating there. Pretty placemats and napkins instead of a tablecloth give the informal look that’s perfect. A small vase of fall flowers, a stack of old books, a mug full of sharpened Number 2 pencils, maybe some apples or a globe round out the decorations. Think of the coffee klatches of the 1950s where neighbors just dropped in for morning coffee and something sweet—that’s what we’re going for here.

This tea gives you the opportunity to get to know other moms in your neighborhood. It is so low key that you won’t hesitate to invite someone new to your home and she won’t hesitate to come. No one will care that the moms arrive in their training pants and ponytails.

Since this is a celebration, you should have music. An oldies radio station with tunes from the ‘50s and ‘60s would be perfect. You never know when a mom will want to dance around the kitchen.

Party favors aren’t necessary at this tea but you could have a grab bag of pretty pencils, matchbook notebooks, small boxes of crayons or markers. I mean, who doesn’t still feel a little thrill of anticipation at opening a brand new box of crayons!

Tomorrow: a great tasting and simple make-ahead menu for the Back to School Tea.


Happy Labor Day!

Happy Labor Day to everyone who celebrates it. I hope you're all spending this day in your favorite ways. For me, that's good friends, good food and tea! I'll return tomorrow with a Back to School Celebration Tea for Moms.


Food or Decorations?

I just watched a TV show called Party Girl which aired on the Discovery Home Channel. In this episode, the show hostess, Cathy Riva, planned a Mad Hatter’s Tea for Tracy Stern. Tracy Stern, as some of you may know, owns a tea business and has written a tea party book. Apparently Tracy is so busy with her tea business that she can’t find time to plan and host her own tea.

For the Mad Hatter’s Tea, Cathy painted her own teapots at a ceramics store. She created tie belts as favors for the guests. She and Tracy decorated store-bought cupcakes. The Mad Hatter’s Tea was held in a private room in a restaurant so Cathy had only the table to decorate; she used wheat grass and roses. Guests were presented with Mad Hatter dress up accessories. All nice details for sure.

As I watched, I kept thinking about the food. Tracy got in a couple plugs for the tea that she sells but only cupcakes had been mentioned throughout most of the show. Finally as the guests sat down, we were told that they wouldn’t be serving traditional tea food instead the restaurant served sushi. The camera panned so quickly that I am not even certain what the second dish was, some kind of meat skewer, I believe.

This looked like a fun party but it made me wonder whether food takes a backseat to decorations in other people’s parties. I started to question whether I’m out of step with other party givers because my focus is on the food, after the guests, of course.

I think that most of us consider giving a party a personal experience and rarely hold them in restaurants. And there is only so much decorating that we can do in our homes. I mean, your husband’s ratty old tv chair is still going to be in the room and you really can’t afford to paint according to the holiday of the month.

On the other hand, the first question anyone asks when you mention you’ve been to a party is “What did you have to eat?” I don’t believe I’ve ever been asked “What flowers were on the table?”

So, what do you consider to be the primary feature of a party, a tea party or any other kind? Let’s make it a given that the guests come first but then what? Do the decorations make the party, does the food, what about music or party favors? When you tell your friend that you went to a great party, what makes it great?


Traveling Teacups: Thumbprint Cookies

This is an Ina Garten recipe, as can be found on I don't believe I've ever made anything from Ina's recipes that wasn't wonderful; these cookies are no exception.

3/4 pound (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water, for egg wash
7 ounces sweetened flaked coconut
Raspberry and/or apricot jam

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

In an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar until they are just combined and then add the vanilla. Separately, sift together the flour and salt. With the mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture to the creamed butter and sugar. Mix until the dough starts to come together. Dump on a floured board and roll together into a flat disk. Wrap in plastic and chill for 30 minutes.

Roll the dough into 1 1/4-inch balls. (If you have a scale they should each weigh 1 ounce.) Dip each ball into the egg wash and then roll it in coconut. Place the balls on an ungreased cookie sheet and press a light indentation into the top of each with your finger. Drop 1/4 teaspoon of jam into each indentation. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the coconut is a golden brown. Cool and serve.