In every church, and probably in every community, there are people who make the whole place run smoothly. The paid staff are the most visible people who do this, but in every church I’ve ever attended, there are volunteers, often women, who make sure everything is how it needs to be. You probably know some of these people where you live and work. And if you don’t, I can almost guarantee that they’re there, making your life more rich, whether you know it or not. I was raised by one of those women, and I grew up surrounded by them. They usually have an emory board and a roll of Scotch tape at the ready, just in case of emergency.
Some of these women at Palmer, the church we attend and where Neil serves, have not only kept the place going in one way or another, but they’ve also all made a special effort to welcome me, personally, into the fold. The people who have welcomed us are far too many to count, and the people who keep Palmer going are more than that. But I had to start somewhere, and so I invited a small group of them to the Rectory for Tea. I didn’t warn them ahead of time that they’d be charged with taste-testing new recipes and with being my “trial run” group. I’ve never hosted an afternoon tea before, and so I knew there would be some wrinkles to smooth out. We aren’t able to entertain the entire congregation in our home at one time, but I saw many of my clergy spouse friends do just that for their churches during Advent. For that, I salute them. I’m impressed, ladies. I had to start small, and after our cough-riddled December, I think everyone is probably glad that I didn’t host a huge Christmas shindig.
Side note: it’s been a year since the Holy Crepe! party in Minnesota. Apparently this is the time of year when I get a bee in my bonnet to make a ton of themed food and invite people over to eat it.
In many ways, a tea is much more manageable than even a do-it-yourself dinner party (as the crepe party was). I could make almost everything in advance, and in the mid-afternoon, guests aren’t expecting a heavy meal with wine to match each course. In other ways, it was a bit more intimidating. Presentation has never really been my thing, and I hoped I could pull it off. I love tea, and I love my guests, and so I was determined to make it all come together.
I highly recommend a dry erase board as a menu, by the way. People know what they’re digging into without a huge explanation, and it can be changed at the last minute if substitutions need to happen.
I chose a few savory items: smoked salmon tea sandwiches (from the Barefoot Contessa Cookbook), cucumber sandwiches, and pimiento cheese sandwiches (cheating only a little by buying the pimiento cheese spread from Central Market). I also baked some sweets: a lime zest pound cake based loosely on the Smitten Kitchen grapefruit olive oil pound cake, and baked in a Nordic Ware pan; pecan squares (from the Barefoot Contessa Cookbook), poppyseed bars from The New Midwestern Table, Nigella Lawson’s buttermilk scones (after I messed up the Smitten Kitchen raspberry scones), and the Ginger Lemon Molasses Cake from Make it Ahead. I attempted the ginger shortbread cookies from Make It Ahead, and I really thought I had a fighting chance at success there, but those went the way of their shortbread foreparents – that is, in the garbage can.
I made two black varieties of tea, and two herbal blends. For the caffeinated (black) teas, I made English Breakfast and Yorkshire Gold. The herbal teas were both made by Tazo – a sweet orange blend, and a vanilla rooibos parfait. All of them were sampled, but I probably could have gotten way with one or two fewer varities. No matter – the tea can always be made into iced tea, and it’s really not a bother to make as many different kinds as you have the teapots for. I love tea, and teapots, and tea cups. I would have been a disaster in Edwardian England, but I would have appreciated the tea.
I would make all of the sandwiches again, without question. I would not make the pecan squares for all the tea in China. First, and this might get me kicked out of some states, I don’t really care for pecans. Second, they are a mess to make. But, they weren’t the utter failure that the gingerbread shortbread cookies were. The poppyseed bars were good, but I might try something in the way of something with chocolate or citrus or berries next time. The lime zest olive oil pound cake was as delicious as it was beautiful (and would be the hero of the day if you ran out of softened butter), and Nigella’s scones were as luscious as she is. I served the scones with clotted cream (purchased at Central Market) and homemade citrus jam (a gift from friends who grew the fruit in their yard). The lemon ginger molasses cake was the sleeper hit of the event – I didn’t have high hopes, but it got rave reviews. And it was pretty AND easy.
In addition to all of the pretty food and tea, hosting this kind of event forced us to clean up around the corners where we usually don’t bother, and I might have worked off at least a piece of pound cake, because my FitBit told me that I walked over 14,000 steps that day, without ever having left the house.
The decorative touches were easier than I thought – I used long-stemmed strawberries, sliced lemons and limes, and a whole lime tucked into the middle of the pound cake. The beautiful food and china spoke for itself, and I used every silver-plated tray that I could dig up, which turns out to be quite a few when you get married in Williamsburg, Virginia.
I was so pleased that this little event turned out as beautifully as it did – and we all had fun! I would do it again in a heartbeat, and probably will. And here’s the dirty little secret about hosting a tea: there are very few dishes to wash at the end of the day. So, even hand-washing china didn’t seem like such a huge effort, at least not compared to Thanksgiving dinner with wine for twelve.
And these ladies, these guests of mine, appreciated the beautiful table, but they didn’t flinch when I brought out the gallon-size zip-loc bags to send them home with leftovers for their husbands. I appreciate that about them.
What’s your favorite entertaining tradition? Or your favorite kind of tea? Are you a scone person, or not so much?
Ed. note: can you believe that I made the pecan squares twice? Ugh. I can. Once, way back in 2010, I apparently made them and didn’t love them then, either. I didn’t check the index carefully enough before making them this time. Yikes! So, I won’t count them twice.