Celebrate ‘The King’s Speech’ with your own elegant high tea

February 25, 2011
Delightful low tea treats include sweet scones, cream cheese tea sandwiches and cucumber tea sandwiches. BY JACK CLEMONS

The 83rd annual Academy Awards will be presented this Sunday, which has critics, prognosticators and shameless self-promoters predicting the winners. We’ve seen all but one of the films nominated for Best Picture, and while the competition is fierce, we’re convinced “The King’s Speech” should receive the Oscar. After reaching this conclusion (with apologies to Rob Rector if he disagrees), I thought a column on British food would be in order.

Whenever hotels or restaurants advertise high tea I recall tables set with exquisite elegance: damask cloths, delicate china, spotless silver and an array of dainty treats. We’ve enjoyed remarkable afternoon teas served at venues like London’s Savoy and Wilmington’s Hotel du Pont. Then we watched a recent episode of “Jeopardy” and learned something new about tea (at least to me); in many places they may have the elements correct but the name completely wrong.

In Britain, a light meal eaten between 3 and 5 p.m. is called afternoon tea or formally, low tea.  So named for the lounge or low table on which the food and tea are served, this is more like a snack to hold you until a late dinner. The food served at low tea is light and delicate, since you will be eating your main meal at 8 or 9 p.m. You will be served scones with clotted cream and jam, crustless sandwiches of watercress and cucumber, petit fours and sponge cakes.

High tea, on the other hand, is an early evening meal that can substitute for both afternoon tea and the substantial dinner served much later in the day. Its name comes from the setting: tea and food would be arranged on the high or main dining table instead of in the lounge or parlor. At high tea the menu is savory and hearty: a cold supper of meat pies, sliced ham or beef, stuffed eggs, cheese and pasties.  Hardly the refined image of high tea accompanied by a harpist at the Savoy.

Tips for low tea sandwiches
• Allow at least six quarter-sandwich servings per person
• Select very soft, high–quality bread
• Butter or other spread should be used on all bread slices
• Keep the sandwiches thin and dainty
• Always remove the crusts
• Cut on the diagonal or into shapes with cookie-cutters
• Keep sandwiches soft with a cover of waxed paper

Of course, for either of these meals, tea is the centerpiece, and it is never made with commercial tea bags. You can prepare an entire pot of tea by filling the decorative china pot with several tablespoons of loose tea and very hot water. After allowing the leaves to steep long enough to bring out the aroma, color and flavor of the tea, pour it into cups through a strainer. Cover the pot with a tea cozy to keep the remaining tea warm enough for a refill. If each guest prefers his or her own variety (pekoe, jasmine, Earl Grey are familiar favorites), fill separate tea infusers with tea leaves and place each one in the cup with hot water to steep. To finish the service, offer lemon slices and milk (never cream) along with lumps of sugar.

I’ve included a few recipes for traditional low tea sandwiches and scones, typically arranged in a tiered server (see photo). However, you may want to make an authentic high tea to enjoy when the Oscars telecast begins, unless you’re rooting for “The Fighter” and need to break out the Sam Adams.

Cucumber Tea Sandwiches
3 T unsalted butter, softened
1/3 C chopped watercress
10 slices thin white bread
1/2 seedless cucumber

In small bowl, combine the butter and watercress. Spread butter mixture on one side of each slice of bread. Thinly slice the cucumber and arrange slices on buttered side of five pieces of bread. Top with the remaining bread slices, butter-side down. Cut the crusts off each sandwich and slice into quarters diagonally.  Yield: 20 miniature sandwiches.

Cream Cheese Tea Sandwiches
3 oz cream cheese
3 pitted dates
2 T finely chopped walnuts
10 slices thin raisin bread
2 T softened butter

Chop the dates and combine with the cream cheese and walnuts in a small bowl; set aside. Spread each slice of bread with butter on one side. Spread 5 slices of buttered bread with cream cheese mixture. Top with remaining bread slices, buttered side down. Cut off the crusts and slice into quarters, diagonally.  Yield: 20 miniature sandwiches

Sweet Scones
2 1/2 C flour
1/2 t salt
1 T baking powder
8 T unsalted butter
1/4 C sugar
2/3 C milk

Preheat oven to 425 F. Line abaking sheet with parchment paper; set aside. Combine flour, salt and baking powder in a mixing bowl; set aside. Cut butter into chunks and add to flour mixture. Cut in with a pastry blender or your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in sugar. Add milk and stir with a fork until soft dough forms. Collect dough into a ball and knead 10 or 12 times on a lightly floured surface. Cut dough in half and form each half into a ball. Pat or roll into two 6-inch circles. Cut each circle into 6 wedges. Place wedges on baking sheet, sides slightly touching and cook until golden, about 12 minutes. Cover a wire rack with a linen towel; place hot scones on top and loosely wrap with the towel until cool.  Yield: 1 dozen scones.

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