You know that sinking feeling you get as the afternoon wears on? The Buddhist monk Daruma sliced off his eyelids to stay awake, or so goes the legend that attributes the birth of the tea plant to his discarded eye lids. Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, England, figured out a much nicer, gastronomic antidote: a pot of tea accompanied by sweets. The idea caught on, and what began in the early 1800s as one woman’s fix for the midday blahs has become a gentile and fashionable tradition for the rich and poor alike.
The central character in afternoon tea is, of course, tea. There are endless advice and rituals for brewing the perfect pot, but it really boils down to fresh water, high-quality tea and a little patience. The purists insist on loose tea leaves, which are readily available in Chinatown, or specialty tea or health food stores. But others say tea bags do just fine, especially with a plethora of high-quality products on the market now. I use both, with perfectly good results. My guests haven’t been able to tell the difference between the fancy expensive teas from good old Lipton tea bags infused with a handful of fresh mint.
To get the most flavor from tea, use boiling water and a teapot, and put the cover on the pot while it steeps. As a general rule, use 1 teaspoon of tea leaves per 1 cup of water. Let it steep about five minutes and serve right away. If you want to take extra care in brewing the tea, avoid using aluminum to heat the water, pour boiling water on the inside and outside of the teapot to warm it up first, discard the hot water, then put in the tea and fresh boiling water.
You can get a more mellow taste from tea and remove most of the caffeine by brewing it twice. Put tea in a pot, pour in the boiling water, and pour out the water immediately. Then pour in water again and let it sit for five minutes before serving.
It is important to allow tea to infuse for the proper length of time. Five minutes is about right. When tea isn’t brewed long enough, the taste does not develop fully, resulting in a "skinny" brew. But when left for too long, the taste can become slightly bitter and sharp. If you like a strong tea, use more tea leaves, but don’t let it steep longer.
A good trick to use in judging the timing is the Chinese method of allowing the tea leaves to sink to the bottom of the pot. When most of the tea settles to the bottom, the tea is properly brewed. But you must use boiling water, or the leaves will be slow to sink.
Once you manage a good pot of tea, you can get creative with flavors and pour it over ice for a cool summer beverage.
Green tea can be used in place of traditional English teas, and you can forgo cream and sugar for a lighter taste and fewer calories.
The same goes for the food. Cucumber sandwich and scones are the quin-tessential accompaniment, but the recipes offered here are contemporary interpretations that are more savory and healthful.
We substituted the traditional butter and sour cream in the cucumber sandwiches with a shortcut lemon dill aioli, and added shrimp and fresh tomato slices.
For the scones, which are rich with butter and sour cream, we used stone-ground whole-wheat flour and rolled oats to add more flavor and nutritional value.
Pikake Almond Tea
4 teaspoons jasmine tea leaves
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
10 fresh pikake blossoms, plus about 10 more for garnish
1/3 cup honey or sugar, optional
Lemon slices, optional
2 quarts water
Place tea, extracts, pikake and honey or sugar in a large pot; pour 3 cups boiling water into pot.
Stir until honey or sugar is dissolved; let steep five minutes. Remove tea and flowers; pour in remaining boiling water.
Place blossom or two in each cup, pour in tea and serve. Makes 8 cups.
Pomegranate Ginger Tea Sparkler
2 cups brewed tea of your preference
2 teaspoons sugar
1 to 2 slices fresh ginger
2 cups pomegranate juice
2 cups sparkling mineral water
Pitcher of ice cubes
While tea is still very hot, add sugar and ginger. Let cool; add pomegranate juice.
When ready to serve, add mineral water and pour mixture over ice in pitcher. Yields 6 cups.
Champagne Orange Tea Fizz
2 cups brewed China lichee black tea, chilled
4 cups inexpensive champagne, chilled
6 teaspoons sugar syrup (see below)
6 curls orange rind
6 sprigs fresh mint
6 tablespoons Cointreau orange liqueur
» Sugar syrup:
2-1/4 cups superfine granulated sugar
2 cups water
Pared rind of 1 lemon
To make sugar syrup, combine all ingredients in saucepan and bring to boil slowly over medium heat.
Stir to dissolve sugar and simmer for about 10 minutes, or until liquid becomes clear. Let cool and refrigerate in glass jar.
To mix tea drink, fill six chilled champagne flutes halfway with tea.
Place 1 teaspoon syrup, 1 orange curl, 1 mint sprig and 1 tablespoon orange liqueur in each flute. Top flutes with champagne when serving. Makes 6 glasses.
Shrimp and Cucumber Sandwiches with Lemon Dill Aioli
8 to 10 slices of bread, crusts removed
1-1/2 cups of cooked medium-size shrimp, sliced lengthwise
1 medium English or Japanese cucumber, peeled and sliced
1 large tomato, thinly sliced
» Lemon Dill Aioli:
1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon mustard
1 teaspoon fresh dill, minced
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon onion, minced
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper, to taste
Combine all ingredients for aioli; whisk well and chill.
Assemble sandwiches by spreading bread generously with aioli, then layering with shrimp, cucumber and tomato slices.
Cut the sandwiches in half for finger-size sandwiches. Makes 8 to 10 finger sandwiches.
Curry Edamame, Pea and Water Chestnut Salad
1 cup cooked peas
1 cup cooked edamame
1 8-ounce can water chestnuts, chopped
1/4 cup onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup celery, finely chopped
» Cream cheese spread:
1/2 block (4 ounces) cream cheese, softened
2 to 3 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons curry powder
Salt and pepper, to taste
Combine cream cheese, water, curry powder, salt and pepper to make spread. Add more water if needed.
Mix well with remaining ingredients and chill.
Serve on bed of greens, or use as sandwich spread. Serves 4.
Orange, Cranberry and Walnut Scones
2 cups stone-ground whole-wheat flour
1/3 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon for sprinkling
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, frozen
1 tablespoon orange zest
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup sour cream
1 large egg
Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Mix flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in medium bowl.
Use grater with large holes to grate butter into flour mixture. Work in butter with fingers until mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in orange zest, cranberries and walnuts.
In separate bowl, whisk sour cream and egg until smooth. Stir cream mixture into flour mix with fork until just combined.
Scoop mixture with ice cream scoop onto baking sheet, placing about 1 inch apart. Sprinkle with remaining sugar.
Bake about 15 minutes or until golden brown.
Cool a few minutes and serve with butter and jam. Makes 10 scones.