- Food and Cooking
How to Prepare an Elegant Afternoon Tea Service, Including Recipes
Afternoon tea has been an elegant and originally aristocratic British custom since the early 1800s. This delectable, dainty meal, which often is referred to (incorrectly) as "high tea" outside of Britain, is the perfect menu to serve guests at a bridal shower, wedding reception, graduation party or afternoon garden party.
A Bit of History
A Delicious British Ritual With a 200-Year History
Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, is rumored to have started taking tea and a light afternoon snack privately in her boudoir (possibly while visiting Belvoir Castle) to tide her over during the long wait between breakfast and dinner (which was served around 8:00 PM). Eventually she started inviting a few friends to join her for a cuppa, a light bite and an afternoon walk. It became such a popular ritual among her circle that it was picked up by other fashionable hostesses, and eventually serving an elaborate afternoon tea became not only a respectable entertainment, but also a fashionable custom in the parlors of London's aristocratic society.
These days it remains a beloved daily ritual in the UK, although usually it's just a simple cream tea or tea with a slice of cake or perhaps some biscuits (cookies). The original elegant, three-course service lives on around the world as a festive special occasion meal usually reserved for celebrations and parties.
"There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea."— Henry James, "The Portrait of a Lady"
What Is "High Tea" and Why Is It Called That?
If you aren't from the UK and haven't spent much time there, there's a good chance you associate "high tea" with the formal, mid-afternoon, full tea service enjoyed by the cream of London's fashionable society. When you hear that term, do you envision a lavish spread with dainty sandwich fingers and other luxury tidbits, freshly baked scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam, and fancy cakes and individual pastries, and perhaps even a festive crystal glass of chilled champagne?
If so, it's a common and understandable mistake. In a social context, "high" and "up" usually refer to the elevation of one's social standing or status (high class, upper class, upwardly mobile) while "low" is associated with an inferior social rank (low class, lower class), so it's natural to assume that "high tea" refers to the elegant, formal tea service made popular by nineteenth-century aristocrats.
In the context of afternoon tea, however, "high" and "low" actually refer to the height of the tables at which these meals were usually served rather than to the elegance and formality (or lack thereof) of either the meal itself or the people enjoying it.
High Tea vs. Low Tea
Traditionally, "low tea", was served on low tables in a garden or parlor, typically around 4:00 PM, just before the daily Hyde Park promenade where fashionable members of London society strolled to see and be seen. So the formal, multi-course meal that many people, and even restaurants, outside the UK often refer to as "high tea" is properly called either a full afternoon tea or low tea.
"High tea" was something quite different: a hearty late-afternoon, working-class meal served at a high table, i.e., dinner table. As the main meal of the day, high tea traditionally included meat, potatoes, another starchy side dish or casserole, cheese, bread, and baked goods (and, of course, tea).
Host the Perfect Afternoon Tea Like a Pro
Entertain as Elegantly as the Posh Hotels or Host a More Casual Afternoon Get-Together
Many of the world's top hotels offer an afternoon tea service, and there are caterers like the ones my husband and I hired for our wedding reception who can help you put together a fabulous menu for your special event. But you also can prepare your own elegant version to serve to your guests in your own living room, dining room, backyard or garden!
I've put together helpful information for creating and serving a wonderful and memorable meal, including recommended menus, instructions on how to brew a proper pot of English tea, delicious recipes for scones, petit fours, lemon curd tarts and trifle, and suggestions for setting a beautiful table. Most are traditional but I've also included some fun, updated variations.
Posh not your style? No problem! You can still serve your guests a sumptuous, elegant meal in a more relaxed, casual setting.
Step 1: Visualize the Event
First, define and envision what a successful event would look like. How many people will be invited? Where will the meal be served?
Do you just want to have a close friend over for a long, casual chat over a plate of scones? Do you want to impress your local PTA members? Are you inviting several couples over on a pleasant spring or summer afternoon to enjoy the weather and a light meal? Are you hosting a bridal or baby shower? A wedding reception? Indoors or outdoors? At your home, someone else's, or another venue?
How long do you want your guests to stay?
How much preparation do you want to do?
Do you envision a formal event or a casual get-together?
The answers to these questions will help you set the right tone with your invitations, design an appropriate menu and choose the table settings, serving pieces and decorations to achieve your goal and delight your guests.
Step 2: Choose Invitations That Set the Mood
Once you have decided on your guest list, give some thought to your invitations. These should not only help build anticipation for the event, but also set your guests' expectations about the tone of the event so they can feel comfortable that the attire they choose will be appropriate to the occasion.
If you want it to be a formal, traditional affair, choose elegant invitations and hand write them in calligraphy or a pretty script. If your handwriting isn't suitable, choose stationery that can be run through a printer and pick one of the following types of fonts:
- a formal script or handwritten font, such as Edwardian Script, Allura, Pinyon Script, England Hand or CAC Champagne
- a calligraphy font, such as Anke Calligraphic FG (make sure to turn on kerning while using this font with your word processor) or Quintessential
To set a somewhat less formal tone, go with somewhat less traditional stationery and consider the following font types:
- a slightly less formal script or handwritten font, such as Brush Script MT, Dancing Script, Grand Hotel, Great Vibes, Quilline Script Thin, Rouge Script Tangerine, Windsong, Freebooter Script, Bradley Hand or Christopher Hand
- a slim serif font, such as Josephin Slab or Cambria
Even a formal afternoon tea doesn't need to be fancy! If your style is more casual, let your invitations and writing style reflect that. Let your personality show! Some fonts to consider: Sofia, Architect's Daughter, Pacifico, Black Jack, Daniel, Desyrel, Indie Flower, Jinkie, VAG-Handwritten, vincHand.
Step 3: Plan Your Menu
Start by deciding how many courses to serve — and how fancy or elaborate you want each course to be.
Types of Afternoon Tea
A pot of brewed loose tea served with milk and sugar is the only must-have for a traditional British tea service, although thin lemon slices (never lemon wedges) frequently are offered for those who prefer their beverage with lemon rather than milk.
If you also serve scones, jam and clotted cream (also called Devonshire cream or Devon cream), it becomes a "cream tea".
A "light tea" is a cream tea plus sweets, such as biscuits (cookies), cake, or pastries, such as individual fruit tarts.
Full Afternoon Tea
This consists of three courses:
- Savories, such as finger sandwiches (sandwiches with the crusts removed and cut into "fingers") or small finger food appetizers.
- Scones served with jam and clotted cream.
- Sweets such as cookies, shortbread, cake slices or individual serving-sized small cakes, or pastries.
This is what is often referred to incorrectly as "high tea".
A "champagne tea" is a full afternoon tea served with a glass of champagne. Many luxury hotels including Claridge's, The Athenaeum Hotel, The Ritz, The Four Seasons, Brown's Hotel, The Berkeley Hotel, The Dorchester Hotel and The Chesterfield Hotel Mayfair in London serve one or more elegant variations.
Some establishments offer variations that bear little resemblance to the traditional menu. For example, The Chesterfield Mayfair Hotel in London serves not only The Chesterfield Traditional and The Chesterfield Champagne Tea but also The Chocolate Lover's Tea, which substitutes hot chocolate or a dark chocolate or vanilla white chocolate milkshake as the beverage, as well as a Little Prince and Princess offering with "jam and peanut butter sandwiches, cupcake and ice cream, and a choice of milkshake or soft drink."
No doubt the Duchess of Bedford would be horrified at these offerings being referred to as "teas", but tourists traveling with children surely appreciate having options tailored to younger palates while the adults enjoy more sophisticated, traditional teatime fare.
Vote for Your Favorite Afternoon Tea Food or Beverage!
Which of the following foods or beverages do you (or would you) look forward to most at a full afternoon tea service?
If you're having a friend or two over and want to serve them "a little something," this simple menu is a lovely alternative to the typical American offering of coffee and cake or cookies.
- Pot of hot, freshly brewed tea, served with milk and sugar (granulated or cubes)
- Warm, freshly baked scones
- Good quality jam or preserves
- Strawberry is traditional, but I like to offer a choice of at least one other flavor; blackberry, boysenberry, cherry and apricot are all excellent options)
- Optional but a lovely addition: good quality lemon curd (preferably homemade)
Cream Tea Variation
- Same as above, with the addition of clotted cream (or whipped double cream, if you're lucky enough to live in the UK, where you can get 48% butterfat cream)
In Devonshire, traditionally each half of a split scone is spread with the clotted cream, then topped with strawberry jam. In Cornwall, the split scone halves are spread with the jam first, followed by a layer of clotted cream.
One or more pots of strong, hot, freshly brewed tea should be served throughout the meal.
- Good quality strawberry jam or preserves
- Optional: Additional flavors of jam or preserves; lemon curd; clotted cream
- One or more of the following sweets:
- Sweet biscuits AKA cookies
- Petit fours AKA petit fours
- Bite-size or individually portioned pastries, such as mini fruit tarts
Three-Course Menu (Full Afternoon Tea)
- Finger sandwiches (preferably a selection)
- Hors d'oeuvres / canapés
- Scones with good strawberry jam
- Optional: Additional flavors of jam, lemon curd, and/or clotted cream
- Sweets (see the second course of the two-course menu)
Step 4: Prepare the Food
Savory Finger Foods and More
If you're serving a full afternoon tea, the first course should be savory finger foods, usually including an assortment of tea sandwiches. If you're serving a cream tea or a light tea, you can skip this savory course.
Traditional Tea Sandwiches
Traditional open-face tea sandwiches are made with thin slices of good-quality, firm white sandwich bread sliced thinly, buttered very thinly, filled with paper-thin slices of cucumber (peeled or with the peel scored) or radish or with watercress sprigs, smoked salmon slices or egg salad and topped with tasty and attractive garnishes. Then the sandwiches are trimmed of their crusts and cut into small fingers, triangles, or other shapes. These days, however, nearly anything goes, as long as all the layers are thin and the fillings are light.
Make Them Small, Thin and Dainty
When preparing your tea sandwiches, remember that small, thin and dainty are the operative words. Choose a light but firm bread with a dense crumb and slice it very thin so that it doesn't overpower the thin filling layer. Pepperidge Farm Very Thin Sliced Bread in white or whole wheat is a good choice and comes pre-sliced to the correct thickness. Scrape a very thin, even layer of soft butter, mayonnaise or another spread from crust to crust. Optional garnishes also should be dainty (paper-thin slices, small dollops, etc.).
Use a long serrated knife to trim the crusts off each tea sandwich. Then either slice the sandwich into 1" wide strips for sandwich fingers, cut it diagonally into fourths for sandwich triangles, or cut it into shapes with small cookie cutters.
You can dip the cut edges of some your tea sandwiches in finely chopped fresh herbs that complement the flavors of the spreads and fillings, if you wish.
There is only exception: Sandwiches made with thin slices from a slender baguette should be served open face, untrimmed, and uncut.
See my recommendations for Elegant and Delicious Flavor Combinations for Tea Sandwiches in the recipes section of this article.
Other Savory Dishes and Soups
Mini quiches or small slices or squares of a thin quiche are lovely savory finger foods, either in addition to or in place of sandwiches.
A very small portion (just enough for a few sips) of hot or cold soup with a pretty garnish is another excellent choice as part of your savory course. Hot soups can be served in small cups, such as espresso cups or Japanese tea cups. Since these soups will be sipped rather than spooned, avoid chunky soups, very thick soups, or soups with ingredients that can't be sipped (such as wontons or meatballs). Instead, choose something smooth that will go down easily, like this
Cold soups look beautiful served in pretty schnapps glasses, cordial glasses or shot glasses. Consider a cold fruit soup or a chilled vichyssoise. Hot soups can be served in small Asian style tea cups without handles, espresso or demitasse cups, etc.
When you are serving foods in small glasses, cups, dishes or bowls, appropriately scaled-down utensils such as demitasse spoons or espresso spoons make a nice presentation.
Asian porcelain soup spoons are another option for serving very small, tasting-size portions of soup, savory dishes, pudding or other sweets, and also for condiments or dipping sauces that might accompany them. These spoons come not only in the typical restaurant size but also in smaller sizes that are perfect for the dainty portion sizes favored at teatime. They are sometimes referred to as amuse-bouche spoons. ("Amuse-bouche" is a French word for an individual hors d'oeuvre meant to be eaten in a single bite to "amuse the mouth.")
Scones, Jam and Clotted Cream
Whether you're serving a simple cream tea, a light tea with finger sandwiches and savories or a full afternoon tea with sweets and desserts, scones are an essential part of the menu. Scones with clotted cream and jam should be the second course, after the savory course.
You'll find many terrific scone recipes online and in cookbooks, some traditional (such as Alton Brown's version on the Food Network site) and others decidedly nontraditional (such as Deb Perelman's mouthwatering Roasted Pear and Chocolate Chunk Scones recipe on the Smitten Kitchen blog).
You can also try my Fresh Raspberry Ginger Scones recipe (see the Recipes section).
"When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things."— Muriel Barbery, "The Elegance of the Hedgehog"
Homemade Lemon Curd
Lemon curd is a delightful alternative (or addition) to preserves. Homemade lemon curd has an especially bright, fresh taste, and it's quick and easy to make from just a few simple ingredients: lemon juice, fresh lemon zest, sugar, butter, eggs, and sometimes salt.
Ina Garten's lemon curd recipe is easy, delicious and relatively foolproof, as long as you remember to:
- use only the colored zest and avoid the bitter white pith of the lemon;
- use room temperature lemons to make juicing easier (and to get more juice from each fruit); and
- use a thermometer and remove the curd from the heat at 170 °F.
The resulting spread is thick, silky, tart, sweet and bursting with fresh citrus flavor, just as it should be. I've also substituted lime zest and juice for the lemon in this recipe to make a refreshing lime curd. While it's certainly not traditional with afternoon tea, I think it's wonderful on scones along with a bit of raspberry jam.
If you prefer a less tart, in-your-face taste, try Stephanie Jaworski's JoyofBaking.com lemon curd recipe, which includes a video demo that you may find helpful is this is your first time making curd.
Sweets and Dainty Desserts
Nearly any dessert that can be made or served in very small, individual portions can be part of the sweets course of your menu.
Get these from a good French bakery or, if you're feeling adventurous, make your own. These are on my baking bucket list, but unfortunately, we are currently without an oven (and I'm feeling serious baking withdrawal!). While waiting until we're able to buy a new oven, I bookmarked the wonderful French macaron recipe troubleshooting tips from the Not So Humble Pie blog. I encourage you to review these troubleshooting tips before attempting your first batch of homemade macarons (or if you've had trouble with previous attempts). I love this baking blogger's trick of slightly overbaking the macarons, filling them and letting them mature for a few days to restore the nougat-like interior texture of the cookies while retaining a crisp outer shell.
This dessert is easy and fun to make, and there are loads of good recipes online. When making whichever one you choose, I recommend using caster sugar (superfine sugar) rather than regular granulated sugar so it dissolves completely, and crisp Savoiardi-type ladyfingers rather than soft, spongy ones. Prepare the tiramisu in a large rectangular baking dish. After chilling, cut it into 1½-inch by 2-inch rectangles if you're serving it as part of an assorted sweets course.
Miniature Éclairs or Cream Puffs
Get them from a good local bakery or make your own. They're actually a lot of fun and easier than you might think! In fact, I made my first pâte à choux — the dough used to make cream puffs, éclairs, profiteroles and gougères — when I was only 10 or 11. The only hard part is stirring/beating the flour in all at once into the boiling water, butter and salt in the saucepan (I was taught to use a wooden spoon), since it becomes very thick, very quickly and requires a lot of "elbow grease" to keep stirring the dough briskly until it is a smooth mass. If you're looking for a recipe, try the one on the King Arthur Flour site.
Tips for Making Perfect Éclairs or Cream Puffs:
- Dump all the flour at once into the boiling water, butter and salt mixture and IMMEDIATELY start beating it in vigorously so you don't get a bunch of lumps.
- Let the cooked mixture cool for a few minutes and then beat in the eggs quickly, one at a time, at high speed and continue to beat for another two minutes so the mixture is smooth and thoroughly homogenized.
- When the pastries are baking, don't open the oven door until it's time to remove the pastries, so that they don't deflate (the same reason you can't peek inside the oven when you're baking a soufflé).
- After removing them from the oven, quickly cut a slit in each éclair or cream puff and return them to the oven for another five minutes to let the steam escape. This is the secret to a crisp rather than a soggy pastry shell!
Buy or make them. Top each mini cheesecake with a perfect, fresh berry (or several). You can also melt jelly or jam, strain it, let it cool until it's still warm but no longer hot, and then spoon it over the cheesecakes (and the berries, if using) and refrigerate them to add a lovely, tasty glaze.
See my recipe, below.
Victoria Sponge AKA Victoria Sandwich (Layer Cake)
This is a classic Victorian English sponge layer cake, two cake layers filled with jam and dusted with powdered icing sugar; named after Queen Victoria, who is said to have enjoyed a slice with her afternoon tea. What could be more traditional?
A Cold Dessert Soup
There are wonderful recipes for cold dessert soups: Peach, strawberry, even chocolate! Serve your well-chilled soup in demitasse cups or 3–ounce cordial glasses with bouillon spoons, which are similar to a cream soup spoon with a round bowl, but smaller and shorter.
See my World's Easiest Petit Fours recipe, below.
Serve your trifle in mini trifle bowls or small glass cups or glasses with espresso spoons. See my Lemon Curd Trifle recipe, below.
Dessert Tartlets or Mini Tarts
Pecan tassies, mini chess pies, mini fruit tarts, lemon tartlets, etc. Try my Lovely Lemon Curd Tarts recipe, below, or make delicious, easy chocolate tarts: Buy premade tartlet shells, fill with homemade chocolate ganache and top with a dollop of homemade whipped cream and/or a single, fresh berry.
Recipes for Afternoon Tea
Elegant and Delicious Flavor Combinations for Tea Sandwiches
Light whole wheat
Curried chicken salad
Paper-thin apple slices
Light whole wheat
Softened cream cheese mixed with sour cream and fresh grated horseradish
Very thinly sliced roast beef
Paper-thin English (seedless) cucumber slices
Garlic-herb cheese spread
Steamed thin asparagus tips
Sprinkle of lemon juice, olive oil
Sour cream with capers and fresh dill
Firm white or challah
Paper-thin cucumber slices (skin pared or scored)
Fresh dill weed
Good quality imported prosciutto
Paper-thin pear slices
Baked ham, thinly sliced
Blackcurrant jelly or raspberry preserves
Smoked turkey and brie
Maytag Blue cheese and caramelized onions
Chopped toasted walnuts
Chocolate-Covered Strawberries Recipe
These are a beautiful and tasty addition to any sweets course. Plan to make them no more than a few hours before serving.
I prefer strawberries covered in dark chocolate, with or without a white chocolate drizzle, because I prefer the taste of dark chocolate. However, you can also cover the berries in white chocolate and drizzle with dark chocolate, as shown in the photo, if you prefer.
- 20 ounces of fresh strawberries - large, ripe but still firm and blemish-free, with strong stems and leaves intact (I prefer organic berries)
- 8 ounces good quality dark chocolate, such as Callebaut or Green & Black's (organic)
- 2 tablespoons butter (preferably salted)
- 3 ounces white chocolate (optional)
- Wash the berries gently and pat them dry thoroughly. It is essential to make sure that no moisture remains on the surface! Then lay them out on a clean towel (or a double thickness of paper towel) and set them aside for 30 minutes to bring to room temperature.
- Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with wax paper or parchment paper. Clear out enough space on a refrigerator shelf to fit the baking sheet (but don't refrigerate the sheet yet).
- Place the dark chocolate and butter in the top of a double boiler and melt them over barely simmering water, stirring often. Turn off the heat.
- Tilt the top of the double boiler so the chocolate mixture pools on one side. Hold a strawberry by the stem and dip it in the chocolate to cover the lower 2/3 to 3/4 of the berry. Rotate the berry as you dip to get an even coating with a level top edge. Lift the strawberry out of the chocolate mixture, rotating as you lift to allow any excess chocolate coating to drip back into the pot. Immediately place the coated strawberry on its side on the parchment or wax paper lined baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining berries.
- Optional: Melt the white chocolate and put it in a small, sandwich-size plastic freezer bag. (You can use a regular plastic sandwich bag, but the freezer bag is a thicker plastic and much easier to handle.) Snip a very small amount off one of the bottom corners of the bags and drizzle the white chocolate over the dark chocolate-coated strawberries on the baking sheet in a neat, pretty pattern.
- Place the baking sheet in the refrigerator for 15-30 minutes.
- Bring to room temperature and serve within 2 hours.
Note: The berries should be eaten the same day, if possible. If you cannot serve the berries within 2 hours, you may refrigerate them as long as overnight, if necessary, and then leave them at room temperature for 15-30 minutes (depending on how hot the room is) before serving.
Fresh Raspberry Ginger Scones
My modern twist on the traditional scone is as easy as it is delicious! Use only fresh raspberries, since frozen berries change the consistency of the batter. Serve these yummy scones warm from the oven with individual cups of Devonshire cream / clotted cream and good quality raspberry preserves for each guest.
Tip: Making your own homemade crystallized ginger is much less expensive than buying it ready-made, and it's extremely easy to do. Alton Brown has a good recipe on The Food Network site.
- 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 6 tablespoons cold butter
- 2 large eggs
- 1/3 cup raspberry yogurt
- 1/2 teaspoon high quality pure almond extract
- 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped crystallized ginger AKA candied ginger
- 1 cup fresh raspberries, plus a few extra for garnish if desired
- 2 tablespoons melted butter
- About 2 tablespoons additional granulated sugar or coarse sanding sugar, to sprinkle on top
- Good quality raspberry preserves
- Devonshire or clotted cream
- Preheat the oven to 375°F.
- Rinse and pick over the raspberries and set them in a wire sieve lined with paper towels to drain without being bruised.
- Sift together the flour, salt, 1/4 cup sugar, and baking powder onto a large sheet of waxed paper or parchment paper. Lift the paper by the edges, taking care not to let the dry ingredients spill, and pour the sifted ingredients lightly into the bowl of a food processor.
- Cut the cold butter into small pieces, sprinkle them over the dry ingredients, and pulse briefly until the mixture forms coarse crumbs. Place this mixture into a medium size bowl.
- Beat the eggs in a large bowl and then stir in the yogurt, almond extract, lemon zest, and crystallized ginger. Place large spoonfuls of this wet mixture on top of the dry ingredients in the other bowl and stir just until combined. Fold the raspberries gently into the thick, wet dough.
- Generously flour a rolling surface on your counter (or the counter itself). Turn out the dough onto the floured surface, flour your hands well, and pat out the dough 1-inch thick. Cut it into 10 triangles with a floured knife or cut as many round scones as you can using a floured plain or fluted biscuit cutter. Place them on a well buttered baking sheet or a baking sheet covered with baking parchment. (Alternatively, you can scoop or spoon the dough into a well buttered scone pan or mini scone pan.) Brush the tops of the scones with melted butter and then sprinkle them liberally with sugar.
- Bake for 20 minutes or until the scones are golden brown and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out dry. Cool the scones on a wire rack until they are slightly warm and serve them with the raspberry preserves and clotted cream. Garnish the serving plate with the reserved raspberries, if desired.
Like My Fresh Raspberry Scones Recipe? Please Rate It!
The World's Easiest Petit Fours Recipe
When I was a girl, my mom came up with this quick and simple recipe for making petit fours* recipe so that I could have fun decorating the little cakes with icing, silver dragées, sprinkles, nonpareils, and other embellishments. As I got older and more deft with my decorations, she started serving them at parties. Eventually I started making more sophisticated variations to keep in the freezer to serve to unexpected company with a cup of tea or coffee.
The following version is the quick and easy version Mom used so I could have fun decorating the petit fours, followed by some of the more elegant variations I use these days.
Use the photo below for decorating inspiration, or do your own thing!
*The French spelling of these miniature cakes is "petits fours", but most English-speaking people use the Anglicized spelling "petit fours".
- 2 frozen Sara Lee All-Butter Pound Cakes
- 1 to 1 1/2 cups of good quality berry jam (preferably tart and not too sweet)
- Vanilla buttercream frosting (see Simple Vanilla Buttercream Recipe below)
- Apple or red currant jelly (or other flavor of your choice)
- Pourable icing, left white or tinted a pale pastel with food coloring (see Easy Petit Fours Icing recipe below)
- Purchased tubes of decorator's icing, or additional buttercream frosting tinted with food coloring
- Edible decorations of your choice (optional)
- Trim off the top of each frozen pound cake using a very sharp, thin, long, serrated knife (a good bread knife is one option) so the top is flat and level. (Trimming the cake while it is still frozen helps minimize crumbs and keeps the edges cleaner.) Trim off the browned side and bottom edges. Then slice each trimmed block of cake into thin, even slices (about 1/4-inch thick).
- Reserve 1/4 of the cake slices and spread the remaining slices with jam. Then add a layer of vanilla buttercream frosting (see recipe below), if you wish. Cover and reserve the remaining buttercream in a cool place.
- Stack three of the jam and buttercream topped layers and top them with a reserved plain cake layer. Repeat with the remaining cake slices. Wrap each stack in plastic freezer wrap (I use Freeze-Tite) and freeze for 10-15 minutes.
- Melt the jelly in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring often. Remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool slightly while you cut the cakes.
- Take the layer cakes from the freezer and use tall petit fours cutters (and/or a long, sharp, thin knife) to cut them neatly into small, uniform cubes, diamonds, triangles, circles, ovals, or other shapes.
- Space the petit fours approximately 3/4" to 1" apart on large icing/cooling racks set on top of wax paper. Drip the warm jelly glaze from the tip of a spoon over the top and sides of each petit four in a thin, even layer. Allow the glaze to set for a few minutes, refrigerating the cakes if it is a hot day. Then remove the jelly-covered wax paper sheets and replace them with fresh wax paper.
- Spoon the pourable icing very slowly and evenly over the top and sides of each petit four, allowing the excess to drip onto the wax paper. If you run out of icing, scrape up the excess icing from the wax paper and thin it with a few drops of milk or cream, if necessary. Allow the icing to set, chilling the cakes in the refrigerator, if necessary, and then move the petit fours from the racks to a baking sheet lined with fresh wax paper or baking parchment.
- Decorate the iced petit fours with the reserved buttercream, if using, or with purchased tubes of decorator's icing. (Thin the reserved buttercream with a few drops of milk or cream, if necessary, to restore the consistency.) Pipe the frosting out in tiny dots, slender stripes, swirls, etc., and add additional edible decorations such as nonpareils, edible glitter, silver dragées or small berries, if desired. Refrigerate the petit fours for 1 to 2 hours, then cover and store in the refrigerator until 30 minutes before serving time. Remove from the refrigerator, place on serving trays or plates, and bring to room temperature before serving.
Simple Vanilla Buttercream Recipe
You can use store-bought buttercream in a pinch, but most of them taste pretty bad. This simple vanilla buttercream recipe is super quick and easy and tastes yummy!
- 2 sticks (1/2 lb.) unsalted butter
- 1 lb. confectioner's sugar (AKA powdered sugar or icing sugar)
- 1 Tbsp. pure vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon table salt (not Kosher salt or sea salt or other salt)
- 2 to 4 Tbsp. heavy cream
- Soften the butter at room temperature (NOT in a microwave!) until it can be cut easily with a butter knife. It's important not to let the butter get too soft, which would prevent it from being creamed to the proper consistency.
- Sift the confectioner's sugar onto a large sheet of wax paper.
- Cream the softened butter in the large bowl of an electric mixer at medium speed, using the mixer's paddle attachment and scraping the bowl and beaters occasionally, until the butter is silky smooth and paler in color (roughly 3 or 4 minutes). Reduce the speed to low and gradually add 3 cups of the sifted confectioner's sugar.
- Increase the mixer speed to medium. After about 30 seconds, add the vanilla extract, salt, and 2 Tbsp. of the cream. Beat for about 3 minutes, scraping the bowl and beaters once or twice. The frosting should be smooth, fluffy, and thick enough to hold its shape but thin enough to be piped easily. If it's too thin, beat in another 1/4 cup of confectioner's sugar at a time (up to 3/4 cup) to get the desired consistency. If it's too thick, beat in another tablespoon of cream (and a second, if necessary).
- Variation: For a richer vanilla flavor, stop creaming the butter after 2 minutes, slice open a vanilla bean pod lengthwise and scrape the seeds into the butter with the tip of a paring knife, then continue creaming the butter. Omit the vanilla extract.
Easy Petit Fours Icing Recipe
It takes just a few minutes to whip up a batch of this thin, pourable icing.
- 1 lb. confectioner's sugar (AKA powdered sugar or icing sugar)
- 2 tsp. pure almond extract
- 1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
- 4 Tbsp. whole milk or cream
- Food coloring
- Sift the confectioner's sugar into a medium-large bowl.
- Stir in the almond and vanilla extracts and 3 Tbsp. of the milk or cream with a wire whisk until smooth. If the glaze is too thick, stir in another teaspoon of milk or cream at a time (up to 3 teaspoons) until it has the consistency of a pourable icing.
- Tint the icing a very pale pastel color with a tiny amount of food coloring.
Easy Petit Fours: More Sophisticated Variations
- Use homemade pound cake or génoise cake, substituting almond extract for the vanilla extract if desired, and bake in a sheet pan instead of a loaf pan. Lemon pound cake is also wonderful in this recipe.
- Immediately after glazing the cake stack cutouts with the warmed jelly, top each petit four with a matching cutout of very thinly rolled marzipan (NOT pure almond paste). Let the jelly coating set, then ice and decorate as usual.
- Divide the prepared Easy Petit Fours Glaze in half. Into one half, stir 2 ounces of melted unsweetened chocolate and 1 Tbsp. of unsweetened cocoa powder. Pour the vanilla glaze over half your stacked cake cutouts and pour the chocolate glaze over the other half. If desired, use any leftover white glaze to drizzle over the chocolate coated petit fours and vice versa.
- Substitute the Poured Fondant Icing recipe from the King Arthur Flour website for the Easy Petit Fours Icing. It's thicker and provides a more even, opaque, professional looking coating. Ice and decorate the cakes within a few hours before serving, but don't refrigerate or freeze them afterward.
Use Petit Fours Cutters for Perfectly Shaped, Bite-Sized Cakes
I use , which are very deep and have sharp edges that cut through even the tallest stacks of cake layers cleanly. Using them lets me create petit fours of uniform shapes and sizes with nice, crisp edges for a professional look. Ateco stainless steel petit fours cutters
These cutters are 2 inches tall, which is great for cutting through several stacked cake layers, but since they're also narrow, the cake rarely releases from the cutter without being pushed out. Unfortunately, the height of the cutters can make it difficult to push out the cake. To make it easier to push out the cake and also prevent any finger indentations in the cake cutouts during the pushing process, I decided to make myself some handy foam pushers.
How to Make My Handy DIY Foam "Pushers"
- Trace each petit four cutter three or four times onto a 9x12-inch . This foam is dense enough to provide even pressure while pushing the cake layers out of the cutter. And because it's 6 mm thick, stacking several foam cutouts on top of the cake inside the cutter raises the height of the stack enough to make it easy to push out. Darice Foamies Extra-Thick Foam Sheet
- Cut out the shapes from the foam sheet with sharp scissors, leaving a narrow margin inside the traced lines so the shapes are slightly smaller than the corresponding cutters.
- To make the first foam pusher, choose one of the cutters. Lay out the matching-shaped foam cutouts on a wax paper-lined tray, such as an inverted cardboard cardboard shoe box lid, orienting the shapes in the same direction. Spread a thin, even layer of over the top surfaces of all but one of the cutouts. Important: Don't be tempted to substitute a different brand of glue! Gem-Tac has all the important attributes we need for this project: It's washable, non-toxic, safe to use with foam, and doesn't require pressure to make a secure bond. Stack the glue topped shapes, then place unglued layer on the top, aligning the edges carefully. Don't push the layers together! Just slide the stack to one corner of the tray. Beacon Gem-Tac permanent glue
- Repeat step 3 to make foam pushers for the other cutter shapes, moving the glued stacks farther back and out of the way, but leaving at least half an inch of space between them.
- Set the tray of foam pushers aside for 24 hours to let the Gem-Tac glue cure completely. Note: Do not allow the glue to freeze!
- Before using, trace the cutter shapes multiple times on sheets of baking parchment. Cut them out with scissors, again leaving a narrow margin inside the traced lines so they will fit inside the cutters flat, without bending or creasing.
How to Use Your DIY Pushers
- Place a petit four cutter on the stacked, jam-filled cake layers.
- Push straight down with even pressure, making a clean cut all the way through the bottom layer of cake. Tip: Placing a small wooden block (or scrap of Plexiglas that's wider and longer than the cutter over the top of the cutter as a pushing aid makes it easier to apply even pressure and get a straight cut. Set aside the pushing aid, if you used one.
- Rotate the cutter back and forth in place a few times, then lift it out of the surrounding cake and place it on a sheet of wax paper.
- Lay a baking parchment cutout on top of the cake inside the cutter, then top with the foam pusher.
- Lift the cutter and hold it an inch or so above the wax paper. Use your fingertip(s) to gently push straight down on the foam until the cake cutout releases onto the wax paper. Set the cutter aside.
- Gently peel the baking parchment off the top of the cake cutout.
- Finish pushing out the foam pusher, if needed.
- Repeat to make additional petit four cutouts, reusing the parchment paper until it begins to stick to the top of the cake cutout and then replacing it with a fresh parchment paper cutout.
Lovely Lemon Curd Tarts Recipe
For the most luscious lemon tarts, bake your own miniature tart shells from scratch using shortbread cookie dough and prepare homemade lemon curd. Divine!
Note: If time and convenience are high priorities, you can buy prepared pastry tartlet shells and a jar of lemon curd and just assemble the tarts with the fresh raspberries.
- Baked and cooled tartlet shells AKA mini tart shells, preferably shortbread crust
- Lemon curd, preferably homemade
- Fresh raspberries
- Garnishes, optional (see suggestions below)
- Fill the tartlet shells with lemon curd.
- Top with your choice of fresh berries or serve them on the side, if you prefer.
- Add additional garnishes if desired.
- Sift confectioner's sugar (powdered sugar) lightly over the top of each tartlet. (If you have cupcake stencils, you can sift the powdered sugar over them to make pretty designs.)
- Spoon or pipe whipped cream (preferably homemade) either next to or on top of the tartlets.
- Alternatively, spoon or pipe meringue decoratively on top of the tartlets and briefly and lightly brown the meringue under the broiler or with a crème brûlée torch (butane kitchen torch). The photo shows a lovely lemon tartlet topped with lightly browned peaks of meringue, sprinkled with a few blueberries and garnished on the side with fresh blackberries and raspberries. You can see how these simple garnishes add a tremendous amount of visual appeal as well as flavor.
- Drizzle the lemon tarts or the serving plate decoratively with slightly warmed seedless raspberry jam, fresh kiwi purée, or both, from the tip of a teaspoon or a clean squirt bottle (which makes the decorative drizzles much neater and easier to control). To make fresh kiwi purée, process slices of kiwi fruit in a food processor with superfine sugar and fresh lime juice to taste.
- Another way to garnish the lemon tartlets is with thin strips (julienne) of easy-to-make candied lemon peel, or use candied lime peel or candied orange peel for a nice pop of contrasting color. Homemade candied citrus peels and candied citrus slices taste infinitely better than the store-bought variety! I use the foolproof candied lemon peel recipe from The Luna Cafe website — easy peasy!
- Another beautiful and festive garnish for the tarts (or the serving plate) is edible fresh flowers. Make sure they were grown organically without pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals, preferably in your own organic garden. You can use the edible fresh flowers plain or use them to make crystallized flowers by brushing them with lightly beaten, pasteurized, fresh (or reconstituted powdered) egg whites and dipping or sprinkling them into granulated sugar, then allowing the coating to dry thoroughly.
Lemon Curd Trifle Recipe
Sweet and tangy lemon curd, fresh berries and pound cake take the place of pouring custard, jam and sponge cake in this toothsome and popular twist on traditional English Trifle.
See my recommended homemade lemon curd recipes, above. Purchased lemon curd doesn't have the same flavor as homemade, but if you don't want to make your own, I suggest Wilkin & Sons Tiptree Lemon Curd.
Although a store bought pound cake works just fine, for something even more special use your own homemade pound cake in this recipe.
Serve these pretty individual trifles in small crystal wine glasses or thin-walled juice glasses or even shot glasses, depending on how many other desserts and sweets will be on your afternoon tea menu.
You can add layers of other fruits, if you wish, as shown in the photo.
Note: The amount of each ingredient you will need will depend on the number of servings and the size of the glasses you use.
Serves: 10-20, depending on size of glasses
- 6 cups (approx. 2 lbs.) fresh ripe berries in season
- 3/4 cup superfine sugar
- 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
- Lemon pound cake loaf, purchased or homemade
- Grand Marnier or Chambord liqueur, (optional)
- 1-1/2 to 2 cups lemon curd, preferably homemade
- 1-1/2 cups chilled heavy cream
- 3 Tbsp. granulated sugar
- 1/2 tsp. pure almond extract
- 5 Amaretti cookies (crisp Italian almond macaroon cookies), crushed into crumbs
- If using homemade cake, prepare, bake and cool the pound cake.
- If using homemade lemon curd, prepare and chill the curd.
- Rinse, drain and dry the berries. If using strawberries, slice them. In a medium-large bowl, mash 1 cup of the berries with the superfine sugar and lemon juice. Stir in the remaining berries. Cover and let berries macerate at room temperature for 2 hours, stirring occasionally.
- Place the chilled heavy cream in the bowl of an electric mixer. Cover and refrigerate the mixing bowl and the mixer's whipping blade / whisk attachment for 2 hours.
- Slice the lemon pound cake into 1/2-inch thick layers. Prick the surfaces of the cakes with a fork and sprinkle them lightly with liqueur, if desired. Slice the layers into 1/2-inch squares, creating 1/2-inch cake cubes.
- Place the chilled bowl of cream on the mixer and attach the chilled whisk attachment / whipping blade. Stir in the granulated sugar and almond extract and whip until stiff peaks form.
- Layer the trifle components in the glasses in the following order: a single layer of cake cubes, a layer of macerated berries, a layer of lemon curd, a layer of whipped cream. Repeat twice more, ending with a layer of whipped cream. Cover with plastic wrap for a minimum of 8 hours and a maximum of 24 hours.
- Remove the trifles from the refrigerator just before serving and sprinkle the tops lightly with amaretti crumbs or chopped toasted almonds.
"There is no trouble so great or grave that cannot be much diminished by a nice cup of tea."— Bernard-Paul Heroux
Step 5: Prepare Your Tablescape
Look for Inspiration
A wonderful place to start is the "Tablescapes" section of TeaTime magazine, which has lots of themed tabletop decor ideas specifically for afternoon tea. Examples include:
- rose chintz-patterned china and pale pink glassware set off by pale pink and green table linens;
- a white damask tablecloth and pale green damask napkins with Haviland Limoges porcelain plates and cups and traditional sterling flatware;
- bright, cheerful Staffordshire Blue Calico dinnerware against a white damask cloth and napkins with what appears to be brushed stainless flatware, for a somewhat less formal event;
- seasonal and holiday themes, including a Valentine's Day tea tablescape with red roses, red napkins, a white table runner, and Johnson Brothers' romantic English Chippendale china.
Pick Your Table Linens
If your entertaining style for this event is traditional and formal, consider an elegant damask or lace tablecloth and napkins in white or ivory.
For a contemporary update, consider a colored tablecloth topped with a white or ivory lace one, so the colored cloth shows through.
Choose a Centerpiece
The centerpiece should provide a decorative focal point that visually anchors your tablescape. Keep the following considerations in mind when choosing or designing a centerpiece.
A lush bouquet of seasonal flowers in a pretty vase is traditional, and my favorite centerpiece for this type of entertaining. But it's far from the only option!
Seasonal centerpieces, such as holiday ornaments, fruits, etc., can be a lovely alternative.
Make sure the centerpiece is appropriately sized for the table, so that the table settings aren't cramped.
Also consider the height; it should be tall enough to be an obvious focal point for the tablescape, but not so tall that guests will have trouble seeing the guests across the table from them.
If you will be seating guests at multiple tables, make sure to have at least one centerpiece for each table (more, if the table is very long).
Traditional Tiered Servers Create a Lovely Presentation
A popular way to display and serve the food at a full, three-course service is on a three-tiered server, with each course on a different tier. Originally the scones were placed on the top tier of the serving dish so that they could be covered and kept warm, but these days the tiers often are filled in order of the courses, with the savories on either the bottom or top and the scones in the middle layer. To make sure the food is within easy reach of everyone at your party, plan on one tiered serving plate for every two or three guests,
If it's a formal occasion, such as a wedding reception or engagement party, this is an elegant and timeless choice. I've purchased several Godinger serving pieces over the years, and this manufacturer's quality is very good, especially for the price. All the pieces I have owned or seen in fine gift stores have looked much more expensive than their price tags. The three crystal plates in this server can be removed from the frame or rack for arranging the food or washing after the meal. Because the plates are removable, I recommend filling them and then bringing them to the table before placing them in the rack, which is fitted with rubber feet to avoid marring the table or cloth and folds flat for convenient storage. Godinger crystal and silver 3-tier server
Step 6: Prepare the Tea and Optional Champagne
How to Brew a Proper Pot of English Tea
If you're going to go to serve a traditional English afternoon tea menu with finger sandwiches, homemade scones, biscuits (cookies), shortbread, cakes, fruit tarts, etc., my feeling is that you might as well take the small amount of extra work to brew a traditional pot of loose leaf tea, which will result in a more flavorful beverage. But since these days even proper Brits often use tea bags when brewing their daily cuppa, feel free to do the same if you prefer.
What You'll Need
Start by assembling the necessary supplies. Here's what you'll need:
- A tea kettle for boiling the water on the stove; ideally one that whistles to let you know when the water has built up a good head of steam.
- Note: You can't achieve the necessary full head of steam by boiling water in a saucepan or in the microwave!
- Clean-tasting cold water, either soft tap water or filtered water.
- Good-quality loose black tea or tea bags, preferably from a tin.
- Earl Grey, Darjeeling, Assam and Lapsang Souchong are popular choices; note that Lapsang Souchong, which has a deep, smoky flavor, may be an acquired taste for people outside the UK.
- A proper teapot made of ceramic or china, preferably one that has sieve-like small holes inside where the spout is attached.
- Note: Silver is more formal, but china or ceramic works better.
- A tea cosy (AKA tea cozy) to keep the tea hot for proper steeping and serving.
- A tea strainer or small mesh sieve to strain the leaves while pouring (unless you are using tea bags).
How to Brew a Pot of Tea: Step-by-Step Instructions
- Warm the teapot and place it next to the stove. To do this, boil some water (the microwave is fine for this part) and pour it into the teapot. Cover the teapot with its lid and swirl the water around inside of the pot to warm it up. Then pour out the water and place the teapot next to the stove (where you will boil the fresh, cold water for the tea). It's important to keep the teapot right next to where the kettle will be boiling to minimize the loss of heat and steam inside the kettle between the time it is lifted from the stove top to the time the water is enclosed inside the covered teapot - hence the old saying, "Bring the pot to the kettle, not the kettle to the pot."
- Add the loose tea or tea bags to the warmed teapot. The general rule of thumb is one teaspoon of loose tea or one teabag per full cup of water, plus one extra teaspoon or bag for the pot if you prefer strong tea.
- Boil fresh cold water in a tea kettle. Always start with fresh, cold water (if the water is hard where you live, use filtered water). Pour it into the tea kettle, leaving enough headroom at the top so that the water can boil vigorously and develop a strong head of steam. (Some kettles have fill lines.) Heat it on the stove until it reaches a full, rolling boil and builds up enough steam to make the kettle whistle.
- Steep the tea leaves. Even if you don't use a whistling tea kettle, you'll know when the water reaches a full, rolling boil because steam will be pouring out of the spout. The moment that happens, immediately pour the water over the tea leaves in the warmed teapot and cover it with the lid as quickly as possible. Cover the pot with the tea cosy to keep the tea hot and steep for 3 minutes. Stir the tea and remove the tea bags, if you're using them.
- Pour the tea. If using loose tea, place a tea strainer over each cup before pouring the tea. Allow it to drain and then remove the strainer to a drip cup.
- Use a good-quality tea kettle to boil the water. Don't be tempted to boil the water in a saucepan or a microwave oven, neither of which will allow the water to heat evenly to the proper temperature. I doesn't matter whether you use a stovetop whistling tea kettle or an electric tea kettle as long as it brings the water to a full rolling boil and builds up a good head of steam. I'm partial to the whistling type, because I know that the water is hot enough when I hear the whistle. (There's also something delightfully traditional and British about using one.)
- Don't leave the water boiling before you pour it over the tea; as soon as the kettle is steaming, immediately pour the water into the teapot. This ensures the perfect water temperature for brewing and retains the maximum oxygen in the water.
- Don't allow the boiling water to cool and then bring it back to the boil before pouring it into the tea pot. Twice-boiled water has less oxygen in it, which can flatten the taste of the tea. If you aren't able to pour the water over the tea as soon as it builds up a good head of steam in the kettle, pour it out and start again by boiling fresh, cold water.
- Take care not to burn your hand on the scalding hot steam when you pour the water into the teapot; consider using a potholder.
- Use a proper teapot for brewing. Earthenware teapots hold in the heat best, but a more elegant bone china or porcelain tea pot is fine, too, if you use a tea cozy. A cozy keeps the water in the teapot hot while the leaves are steeping, and also keeps the brewed contents hot for those who want to enjoy a second or third cup.
- Don't let the tea steep any longer than 3 minutes (or the maximum recommended steeping time for the type of tea you are using) so it doesn't become bitter. The key to strong tea that tastes good is adding more tea to the water, not extending the steeping time.
How to Serve Champagne
If you're going to serve champers, you might as well do it right! Here are some tips.
Choose the Proper Glasses
I love the festive look of champagne flutes! Unfortunately, experts say they're not the optimal shape for sipping bubbly. The narrow opening preserves the wine's effervescence, but it doesn't let in enough oxygen to "open up" the champagne and doesn't expose enough surface area for the aroma to reach the nose. (Smell has a significant effect on taste). And the classic, wide-mouthed coupe, also called a champagne saucer, lets the effervescence and aroma dissipate too quickly and is too shallow to allow the wine to aerate properly.
Experts recommend a white wine glass or tulip glass.
Then again, rules are made to be broken, and it's YOUR party. So if your heart is set on using flutes or coupes, I promise not to tell.
Chill the Champagne Properly
The ideal temperature for serving champagne is 47–50 °F, and experts say Americans drink their much too cold for optimal taste, aroma and effervescence. Chill the bottle long enough to reach that temperature (around 4 hours in the refrigerator), but not longer than 3–4 days.
Uncork the Chilled Bottle Properly
- Open the chilled bottle only when you're ready to pour it.
- Score the foil with a knife, then tear it off with your fingers.
- Loosen the wire cage around the cork, but don't remove it.
- Firmly grasp the cork (still covered with the loosened wire cage), keeping your palm over the top so the cork can't pop off prematurely. DO NOT TWIST THE CORK!
- Hold the base of the bottle in your other hand and tilt the cork away from you (also away from anyone else and anything breakable, like a window!). Holding the base firmly, twist the bottle fairly slowly and constantly until the cork loosens and comes out. (You may hear a small amount of air escaping just before the cork comes out.) If you do this correctly, you should hear almost no sound. Note: Popping a champagne cork may sound festive, but the lost effervescence diminishes the taste. Besides, it's dangerous. Don't do it.
Pour the Champagne Properly
To reduce the amount of foam while pouring and keep the champers cold:
- Grip the base of the bottle firmly with your dominant (pouring) hand. (If your hands are small or you lack sufficient grip strength to hold the bottle securely this way, you can press your thumb into the depression underneath the bottle for better stability.)
- Holding the glass by the stem, tilt it toward the bottle at a 45-degree angle and raise it to just under the mouth of the bottle.
- Slowly tilt the bottle so the champagne slides down the side of the glass as you pour.
Tip: If there is any wine left over in the bottle, don't put it in a bucket of ice while waiting to refill the glasses. Freezing the champagne will diminish the flavor and aroma.
© 2013 Margaret Schindel