The art of the tea party

Tea professionals, writers, and enthusiasts share their secrets and recipes for transforming any old afternoon into an elegant tea party (with minimal effort).

Ruth Black | Stocksy United

When I was a little girl, I moved with my parents to England for a few months. Although I remember only bits of the experience, we brought something home from that trip that would form a strong thread moving through my life: tea.

Because of our time there, I learned to make a proper pot of tea before I could even make pasta (not a dissimilar proposition). First, I boiled the water in our electric kettle, a staple kitchen appliance in all English homes. When it was ready, I poured just a little into the empty teapot and swirled it for a moment and then dumped it out. This is called “hotting the pot.” Then I would add the tea bags. “One for each person and one for the pot,” my mother would say. Our family’s preferred tea was black tea, and I would let it steep for five minutes before pouring it into a the waiting teacup, already prepped with a little dash of milk inside. This little ritual was how I began most days.

I often watched my mother, who used her knowledge about tea on a regular basis: hosting tea parties, giving talks about tea history locally, and doling out tips for brewing the perfect cup to her audiences. I went with her to her seminars, and drank the information in, along with the tea that was served (and then usually ate my fill of scones with Devonshire cream, finger sandwiches, and tiny decorated cakes). I have the most delightful memories of these afternoons, brimming with tea and adventure.

Teatime was a passport to a different kind of life altogether. One where we were all more thoughtful.”

It was also popular, where I lived, for little girls to have tea parties. I jumped at the opportunity to wear a dress and gently drop cubes of sugar into an elegant little cup. At these parties, otherwise casual little girls would sit primly, enjoying an experience that felt grown up and meaningful. The world became quieter, more genteel. It was about far more than having the crusts cut off of my sandwiches, and wearing a frilly dress: teatime was a passport to a different kind of life altogether. One where we were all more thoughtful.

Later in life, my first job was in a tearoom. There, I helped to make tea parties magical for our guests. I loved to arrange the plates just so, and scatter the cake arrangements with powered sugar before they went out to the tables. I learned all of the flavor profiles of the teas we offered by heart. I could tell you all about the difference between green, white and red tea, as well as tisanes (which are fruit or herb infusions of tea).

Over and over at the tearoom, I watched connections happen. We budgeted huge swathes of time for each table because minutes and seconds would seem to disappear once I poured the tea. Old friends would be laughing and sharing memories, and new friends grew close long before dessert.

I wait for the stillness to enter the air, for voices to hush. When that happens, I know that the magic has begun.”

Eventually I moved on from that job, but the beauty and care that surrounded the tea parties we created for others to enjoy has stayed with me. I continue to search for ways to replicate that delicate, peaceful feeling for myself and the people I love. These days, I love nothing more than to dust off my vintage tea cups, and invite my friends over for a little afternoon tea (though, I’ll admit, it doesn’t happen as often as I’d like).

Each time, I remind myself that throwing a tea party doesn’t have to be overly fancy so long as the spirit of the occasion is there. We don’t have to dress up in heels and pearls (though it can be fun to do so sometimes) or have waiters to pour the tea, because, for me, the heart of a tea party isn’t the pomp, but the desire to slow down and connect with others in a special way. Using different china and making everything miniature and sweet simply signals to me (and to my guests) that this isn’t an ordinary meal. There is nothing utilitarian about it; it’s simply a gift.

Over the years, I’ve made hundreds of cups of tea, spooned lemon curd into a bowl to set beside crumpets or scones, and cut the crusts off sandwiches. Each time, I wait for the stillness to enter the air, for voices to hush. When that happens, I know that the magic has begun.

Whether you’re hoping for a girlfriend gathering or you want to get the kids involved, a tea party is the perfect way to spend an afternoon. In order to help you on your way to an elegant (but still effortless!) afternoon, I collected a few recipes and suggestions from a variety of tea professionals, writers, and tea enthusiasts. Whatever your entertaining style, there’s something special here for you.

Kid friendly tea parties

What to drink

For a child-friendly affair, try serving Cambric tea. I grew up drinking this type of tea, which is mostly made up of warm milk or cream, some sugar, and then just a dash or two of tea. Staying light on the caffeine will help keep your little ones from bouncing off the walls, this will also introduce them to the flavor of a grown up drink without being too strong.

You could also consider serving children a tisane, which is such a delicious, caffeine-free choice you might want to drink it yourself, too. Dina Cheney, author of several books including Tasting Club (which includes a chapter on tea-tasting parties) and most recently The New Milks, offers two of her favorite kid-friendly tisane recipes:

Ginger lemon tisane

<br data-mce-bogus="1"><br>

Alinute Silzeviciute | Shutterstock

Makes: One pot

Preparation time: 25 minutes

Difficulty: Easy

Ingredients:

1 lemon
ginger root
a handful of spearmint leaves (optional)
honey or agave nectar, to taste

Method:

1. Pour boiling water into a large bowl.

2. Peel a lemon and add the peel (only the yellow parts). Cut the lemon in half and squeeze in the juice. Throw in the lemon.

3. Add some finely chopped or grated fresh ginger root. Sometimes, I also throw in fresh spearmint leaves.

4. Let steep for several minutes (10–20). Sweeten with honey or agave nectar. Strain and ladle into cups for kids.

Red zinger taste-alike tisane

Pink lemonade with straw

Katarina Radovic | Stocksy United

Makes: One pot

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Difficulty: Easy

Ingredients:

dried hibiscus flowers
1 orange
orange juice
agave nectar or honey, to taste

Method:

1. Steep dried hibiscus flowers, orange peel and orange juice in boiling water.

2. Strain and sweeten the remaining liquid with a spoonful of agave nectar or honey.

3. Serve hot or iced. Tisanes like this one taste wonderful both ways.

What to eat

For tea party food to please children, Dina recommends keeping it simple with tea sandwiches, mini scones, and chocolate covered strawberries. Her top picks for sandwiches are the following combinations: English cucumber with cream cheese, sliced turkey or ham with cream cheese (also good with sliced cheddar cheese), and a simple sandwich of cream cheese with strawberry preserves.

When I worked at the tearoom, we made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cut in the shape of hearts and dusted them with powdered sugar. When a child didn’t want tea, we brought out a little pot of hot chocolate.

Adult tea parties

What to drink

With such a wide variety of teas (which you can make hot or iced), a tea party novice may not know where to begin. But, let me assure you, it won’t be hard to find something you and your guests will like. If you’re throwing a traditional tea party, any English, black or floral tea is usually a hit.

But if you want to get creative for a weekend tea party, try this unexpected delight: a tea cocktail recipe from the AC Hotel National Harbor. The splash of champagne in this tea makes it feel extra festive (but for those not inclined toward a cocktail, it’s just as easy to leave out). The recipe was developed using a tea local to the D.C. area, but you can sub in a similar type of hibiscus tea that’s more available near you.

Hibiscus royal

<img class="wp-image-24303 size-large" src="http://forher.aleteia.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Stocksy_comp_194098-684x1024.jpg" data-sub-html="<br data-mce-bogus="1"><br>" alt="<br data-mce-bogus="1"><br>" width="660" height="988" srcset="http://35e27z41ud5l1v60232pcvzn.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Stocksy_comp_194098-684x1024.jpg 684w, http://35e27z41ud5l1v60232pcvzn.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Stocksy_comp_194098-200x300.jpg 200w, http://35e27z41ud5l1v60232pcvzn.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Stocksy_comp_194098.jpg 1367w" sizes="(max-width: 660px) 100vw, 660px" /> Sparkling wine in a variety of vintage glasses

Jill Chen | Stocksy United

Makes: 1½ cups

Preparation time: 5 minutes

Cooling time: 1 hour

Difficulty: Easy

Ingredients:

For the simple syrup:
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of water
6 tsp of Capital Teas organic hibiscus tea

For the drink:
2 tbsp of simple syrup (above)
4 oz of chilled Champagne or sparking wine
1 raspberry or lemon twist

Method:

1. To make simple syrup, mix sugar and water in a 1-quart saucepan. Heat to boiling over medium-high heat, stirring until sugar dissolves.

2. Remove from heat and add the Capital Teas organic hibiscus tea. Set aside 1 hour to cool.

3. Transfer to a storage container. Cover container, and refrigerate up to one week. Makes 1½ cups.

4. To serve as a cocktail, add simple syrup to a champagne flute. Top with champagne and garnish with raspberries or lemon twist.

For an equally easy (and delicious) twist, try this recipe for Tea-Infused Champagne from Cultural Chromatics.

What to eat

AnnaRose Rotondi-Kauser is the founder of Oh You, TEAse, a small artisan tea company “for the fun and fabulous.”

“I love hosting tea parties,” she says. “Out of my friends, I am the hostess. When we get together, there’s nothing more fun (in my opinion) than having a tea party. They’re sweet, charming, girly, delicate, pretty, fun … and there’s a sense of innocence. We can temporarily escape our reality to take part in the grown-up version of the very same act we enjoyed as children.”

AnnaRose shared two of her go-to recipes for a tea party:

Cherry, vanilla, almond scones

Cherry, vanilla, almond scones

Photo by Anna Rose

“My most recent tea party was my annual Mother’s Day Tea Party that I host for my mom and aunts each and every year,” AnnaRose says. “As always, my scones, fresh butter and Spice Girls tea were the favorites. I started making these scones almost a decade ago for my mom, as she is a huge scone-lover. The chocolate chips are in there especially for her! Since the first time I’ve served them, everyone was a fan—so I continue making them party after party!” AnnaRose adds that, “lathering on the fresh butter really takes them to the next level.”

This scone recipe calls for a bit more liquid than most recipes. While scones are meant to be dry, the touch of delicate moisture makes them just scrumptious.

Makes: 6 scones or 12 mini-scones

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 12–18 minutes (depending on size)

Difficulty: Medium

Ingredients:

3 cups of all-purpose flour
1 cup of sugar
1 tbsp of baking powder
⅓ of orange, zested
pinch of salt
½ tsp of ground cinnamon
1½ sticks of cold butter, cut into pea size pieces
1 cup of dried cherries
1 cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips
½ cup of toasted slivered almonds
¾ cup of heavy cream
turbinado sugar, for garnishing

Method:

1. Preheat oven to 375°F.

2. In a small bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, orange zest, salt and cinnamon. Add in the butter and rub/blend with your fingers into the dry ingredients until a coarse meal forms. Cutting the butter into pea-sized pieces might be tedious, but will make this step of forming the course meal a lot easier.

3. Add in the cherries, chocolate chips and almonds. Add the heavy cream and combine it into the butter flour mixture.

4. Form the dough into a 1″ thick disc and cut it into 6 wedges OR 12 mini-wedges. If crumbling occurs, it’s okay, just mold back into a wedge as you place on the sheet pan. Sprinkle each wedge generously with the Turbinado sugar. I will use a colored sugar that compliments the season or occasion.

5. Transfer the wedges to a parchment-lined sheet pan and bake in the preheated oven for 17–18 minutes (12–14 minutes for the minis) turning the pan halfway through. They should be very lightly golden in color.

Expert level chefs: If you’re in the kitchen anyway, why not take an extra minute to make some homemade butter? With an electric mixer, just beat a ½ pint of cold heavy cream into hard, creamy consistency. Add salt, or sugar, to taste depending on your preference. It’s super easy and guests will appreciate the extra effort.

Farm-fresh sandwiches

Cucumber sandwiches

Elena Shashkina | Shutterstock

“In the summer, my favorite item to pick-up at the Farmer’s Market are kirby cucumbers, so that’s where the name ‘farm-fresh’ came from,” AnnaRose tells For Her. “But I make these throughout the year, so grocery store produce works well, too. I made this sandwich on a whim at my friend’s home—I had brought over some fresh cucumbers and put them together with whatever she had in her kitchen. We loved these and I’ve been serving them for years now.”

Makes: 6 sandwiches or 12 mini-sandwiches

Preparation time: 5 minutes

Difficulty: Easy

Ingredients:

6 croissants (or 12 mini croissants, if preferred)
1 wheel of brie
2 kirby cucumbers
2 granny Smith apples

Method:

1. Slice cucumbers and apples into large, thin circles. Slice the brie as desired. Then slice along the length of the croissant, or cut the crusts off of regular sliced bread.

2. Assemble the sandwiches, layering the apple, brie and cucumbers in between the bread. AnnaRose pairs these savory treats with her signature blend called, Pinkies Up!.

But don’t forget to serve something sweet as well! For Her spoke with author L.B. Hathaway, who shared a ginger sponge cake that features heavily in the plot of her latest 1920s detective story: The Vanishing of Dr. Winter (the recipe below also appears in the back of the novel). This particular cake is based on a 1916 Scottish recipe, originally featured in The Falkirk Herald. The slightly modern adjustments are courtesy of Laura Macdonald, who rediscovered the recipe.

World War I ginger sponge cake

ginger cake in dice

Zoryanchik | Shutterstock

Serves: 6–8

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 30–40 minutes

Difficulty: Easy

Ingredients:

12 lb molasses (golden syrup)
2 oz of butter
1 egg
2 oz of sugar
½ oz of ground ginger (Laura recommends using finely grated fresh ginger if possible.)
10 oz of flour
2 tbsp of milk
½ tsp of baking soda (Laura suggests substituting self-raising flour for plain and bicarbonate soda.)

Method:

1. Put the flour, ginger and sugar into a bowl.

2. In a saucepan, stir the milk, butter and syrup until dissolved, then stir in the dry ingredients.

3. Dissolve the soda in a little milk, add this and the well-beaten egg to the mixture, pour into a shallow tin lined with greased paper and bake for 30–40 minutes in a slow oven at 180°F.

4. Cut into fingers when cold.

Laura also made a wonderful film all about baking this very cake, featuring some interesting background information about rationing of food in World War I Britain. Take a look here:

Armed with all of these recipes, all you need to do now is to start brewing, add friends, and enjoy! Whether you’re inviting an old acquaintance in for a casual tête-à-tête or hosting a houseful, I hope you eat, drink, and feel special and connected, long after the teapot is empty.

Cara Strickland
Cara Strickland
Cara Strickland is a freelance writer living in the Pacific Northwest. She writes about food, faith, singleness, and relationships for a variety of publications in print and online. You can find more of her work at carastrickland.com.

Leave a comment: