One of the joys of Autumn is afternoon tea by the fireside and while I don’t always prepare a full traditional afternoon tea, with sandwiches, scones and jam and cream, and then cakes and pastries, even crumpets with either quince jelly or honey, or toast with a savoury spread such as anchovy or Marmite, I do like to prepare a combination of these, choosing the food appropriate for the seasons. In spring and summer, perhaps cucumber sandwiches and lemon sponge, in winter, toasted tea cakes and a coffee and walnut cake (see below). And although I love to bake – for no bought cake, no matter how smart it might look, tastes as good as home made – I’m not a fan of cupcakes. I like a ‘proper’ cake, one you can slice into portions for your guests.
After first serving sandwiches, scones are always nice to have, perhaps with a choice of jams (I like blackcurrant or raspberry), and always with whipped double cream (never whipping cream.)
For a change you might prefer to serve small savoury cheese scones, especially if you know your guests do not have a particularly sweet tooth. I split-and-fill them with cream cheese and a few leaves of watercress when it is in season (salad cress isn’t quite as nice as it doesn’t have that lovely peppery taste of watercress).
I like to finish the meal with a slice of cake. It is hard to choose a favourite when I love so many but in autumn I like to bake a toffee apple cake in which half the portion of flour is exchanged for ground almonds and, once the cake mixture is in the prepared tin, sliced Braeburn apples (or any other kind of slightly acidic apple) which have been sautéed in butter and Muscovado sugar in a frying pan for a few minutes until they are well-coated with the toffee mixture, are placed on top of the cake mixture before baking. It’s a nice touch to sift some icing sugar on the top before service with whipped cream.
Another favourite is a chocolate sponge. I always used the same proportion of ingredients and it’s so easy to remember. Just weigh four fresh eggs and whatever their combined weight is, weigh out the same amounts of golden caster sugar, butter or margarine (I prefer soft margarine) and self raising flour. Melted, rich dark chocolate makes a delicious ‘icing’.
Part of the fun of afternoon tea is using your prettiest china. And by prettiest I don’t mean expensive. All my tea services are 2nd hand, some inherited and some bought from charity stalls or antiques centres for very little cost. In Autumn I like to use this one in shades of brilliant orange, with white and gold.
My husband complains that you “don’t get much tea in the cups” but I tell him he can always have a refill! The size of cups has been passed down through the generations from when tea was a very expensive commodity and was often kept by the lady of the house in a special caddy, sometimes under lock and key. Indeed, afternoon tea isn’t about having a mug with doorstop-size sandwiches; save those for when you are working in the garden.
Afternoon Tea must not be confused with High Tea. Afternoon Tea (or Low Tea), is served around 4 pm, and is traditionally eaten seated in comfy chairs with small tables placed conveniently for cup, saucer and plate. It is tradition to serve the tea first, offering two types of tea, perhaps Earl Grey and Indian, but the choice is entirely yours. High Tea, taken around 6 pm, is eaten seated at a dining table and is a much more substantial meal – perhaps granary or wholemeal bread, slices of ham, cheese, pickles, and a rich fruit cake. Even if you are on your own, it’s fun to make afternoon tea a special treat. And for supper, eaten later, you might find that all you then need is a bowl of soup rather than another main meal.