I recently had the pleasure of having afternoon tea with a few friends. Formal (or even pretentious) as it may sound, I found it to be a great time to relax and catch up without having to go out to eat or deal with everyday time pressures. We threw ours together in under an hour, and it’s definitely something that can be set up on a whim, using basic items from the kitchen. If you’ve never had an afternoon tea, I would highly recommend trying it out – it can be an excellent way to unwind and doesn’t need to be a huge production.
The setting can be as formal or informal as you like – to make your tea fancier, opt for a linen or lace tablecloth and linen napkins. Also try setting out fresh cut wildflowers if you can find them or writing out place cards. Afternoon tea – which is usually served at 4 p.m., by the way – does not need to be made into a big deal if that’s not your thing (it happens to be mine, however, and I’m a sucker for ultra-extravagant place settings). Feel free to tweak the basic tea set-up to suit your taste. A few pointers:
- If you have fine china stacked away in a cabinet somewhere, now is the time to pull it out. It’s always fun to put it to good use for a tea with the girls!
- If you happen to have a more savory menu (more snack food than scones), place the munchies in the middle and any dessert on the end so you can save it for last.
- Make sure the tea is accessible to all guests present – generally, the hostess will pour tea for everyone present, but if you’re going for a more informal approach, it’s a good idea to minimize reaching across the table.
- If you can set up your tea by a bright window, by all means do – it’s much more pleasant than sitting under artificial lighting.
- Write out a few conversation cards before teatime if you think there might be a lull in the conversation, or if you simply want to have something fun to talk about.
- Don’t use any large dinner plates for food – this is a tea, not a meal.
By teatime (4 p.m.), most people are hungry enough to eat, so feel free to put out quite a bit of food. Be forewarned, however: you might not have much of an appetite come dinner. Just keep everything in manageable bit-sized portions, because this is, after all, a tea, and eating a full meal would not be in proper taste (hah!), now would it?
It’s pretty easy to throw together some snacks from the kitchen if you’re in a rush or find yourself putting together an afternoon tea on a whim. This particular tea followed a more snack-oriented theme (with a cake served at the end), but you can also opt for more classic teatime treats, like fresh scones with butter and jam or cucumber tea sandwiches. A few recipes to try out:
- Beatty’s Chocolate Cake from Ina Garten – the best chocolate cake recipe I’ve ever tried (shown above)
- Tea scones from Bon Appétit
- Clotted cream – to serve with scones
- Russian tea cakes from Bon Appétit
- Madeleines from Smitten Kitchen
- Tea sandwiches from The Oprah Magazine
- Cucumber mint tea sandwiches from Gourmet
The most important part of any afternoon tea is, of course, the tea itself. Make sure you have a selection of teas available, but also feel free to brew a pot of a good loose-leaf tea as well. It’s a good idea to have a pot of plain hot water so guests can choose their own teas, but also have another pot with a nice, basic tea – perhaps Earl Grey, perhaps something more exotic, like Jasmine. Make sure to have a tea tray with the proper tea condiments: lemon wedges, sugar, and milk or cream (the British take milk, however). In 1946, George Orwell published his refreshingly direct 11 golden rules for brewing the perfect cup of tea — you can check the article out here.
Dress Code & Tea Etiquette
Depending on how formal your tea is, you may want to have a dress code (usually nice casual clothes do the trick) or attempt to practice some of the many, many rules of tea etiquette. For example: never hold your pinkie in the air when sipping tea! I found this article to be fairly informative when it came to the rules for taking tea.
I’d be really interested to see how past teas have turned out for anyone, or if you’re planning to hold one in the future. Let me know!