CATCH UP with gossip during a glorious afternoon tea party, says author Kerstin Rodgers
If you want to entertain, tea, as in an afternoon tea party, is a cheaper, more manageable event to prepare than dinner. Another advantage is that everything can be set up beforehand, enabling the host or hostess to relax with their guests. Tea is a meal you eat with your eyes. Prettiness is essential. A cake is like a fashion accessory: a Birkin bag, a fascinator, or a pair of soft leather Italian gloves. Not necessary, perhaps, but very covetable.
Tea is also a repast associated with gossip: “Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea,” said the writer Henry Fielding. Cultivate your best stories, buff up your anecdotes and channel Dame Maggie Smith, as the Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey, for an afternoon tea party should be laced with decorum and dirty linen.
Recipes extracted from Ms Marmite Lover’s Secret Tea Party by Kerstin Rodgers, published by Square Peg , £20
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The best hot chocolate I ever drank was in Mougins, in the south of France. We baulked at the price – e6 (almost £5) – but when it arrived we could see it was worth every penny. For a start, it was served in a bowl the size of a large soup dish, and it came with another large bowl filled with whipped cream. No fewer than three different types of chocolate were used in its creation. I asked for the recipe, but the owner wouldn’t give it to me. This is the nearest I can get to it.
Makes two cups:
1 Put the cocoa powder in a pan with a little of the milk and stir to make a paste. Set the pan over a medium heat and slowly add the rest of the milk while whisking to add frothiness.
2 Add all the chocolate pieces, continuing to stir until melted, followed by the cinnamon stick, vanilla pod, nutmeg and salt. Continue to heat but do not let the mixture boil, then remove from the heat and add the sugar, adding a little more if you like it sweeter. To my taste, 50g was the perfect amount.
3 In the meantime, whip the cream in a bowl to form soft peaks.
4 Remove and discard the cinnamon stick and vanilla pod. Pour the hot chocolate into mugs or, for that French touch, small deep bowls. Spoon a large scoop of whipped cream on top of each one, then sprinkle with the grated chocolate or cocoa powder.
CUPCAKES BAKED IN A CUP
The original cupcakes were so named because they were baked in teacups (in a range cooker, as it cooled off). I figured I’d try the same thing. After all, porcelain and pottery are baked in a kiln at a very high temperature so an oven should be safe.
1 Preheat the oven to 150C/Gas Mark 2. Grease the insides of your teacups using butter (or a vegetable oil spray). You could also put a sprinkling of flour inside. Line a baking sheet with a damp tea towel (an extra precaution to avoid cracking).
2 Tip the caster sugar, flour, eggs and 115g of butter into a bowl and mix together until smooth. Spoon the mixture into your prepared teacups, then place them on the baking sheet. Bake for about 15 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre of a cake comes out clean. Leave the cups to cool on the baking sheet.
3 For the buttercream, in a bowl, mix together the icing sugar, 150g of butter, vanilla extract and a little milk until the buttercream binds, is light and fluffy and is not too sloppy. Spread with a palette knife or pipe (using a piping bag fitter with a wide star-shaped nozzle) on to your cakes, add sprinkles and enjoy with a nice cup of tea.
Or currant cakes as they call them in the north of England, where they are commonly split in half, toasted, buttered and eaten with Marmite. You could add a few drops of rose water to the dough for a Tudor “manchet” feel.
1 Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone mat.
2 Mix the flour, sugar, spices, orange zest, salt and yeast together in a bowl. Warm the milk slightly (not too hot or you will kill the yeast) and add it to the flour mixture, along with the rose water or orange-blossom water, if using. Knead to combine and make a dough, then add the sultanas. They may pop out but keep kneading for about 10 minutes or so. Leave the dough in a covered bowl in a warm place for an hour or so, until it has doubled in size.
3 Carefully scrape the dough on to a lightly floured surface and cut it into eight equal pieces, around 125g each. Tuck each piece into a flattened ball shape with the seam underneath, and lay them on the prepared baking sheet. Cover and leave in a warm place for 30 minutes.
4 Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas Mark 4. Glaze the teacakes with the melted butter and bake for 20 minutes, until risen and golden. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Eat warm with butter or serve toasted with butter. These teacakes freeze well for up to one month.