Sunday, February 28, 2010

Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: Afternoon Tea in 2010

What do you think when you hear afternoon tea?

Ladies with pinkies extended?
Overstuffed floral couches draped with lacey doilies?
Sitting straight-backed, quiet, restrained, bored?
Outdated and stuffy? Antiquated and old-fashioned? So not 2010?

You'd be wrong.

Afternoon tea is loosely defined as a light meal consumed between three and five o'clock.
To me, it's the antithesis of stuffy; it's warm, comfortable, and delicious. It's one of the best parts of my world, a family tradition to be envied.
a bit of world history

It's debatable when the tradition began of taking tea in the afternoon with light refreshments.
Many Americans identify it as a British custom even though it was Dutch explorers who first brought tea from China and Japan in 1610. In the next two hundred years, the drink became popular across the continent, with the wealthy classes first before trickling down to the masses.
The modern idea of afternoon tea was born in 1840 as a trend started by a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, Anna the Duchess of Bedford. Servants would sneak her a pot of tea and a few slices of bread to combat the "sinking feeling" she would feel in midafternoon.

The practice quickly spread, and tea served with small sandwiches and cakes at four o'clock became part of polite society. Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, published in 1861, was the first instruction manuel on the proper running of a home. It contains over 900 recipes and instructions, among which are the proper service of afternoon tea.

a bit of my history
We just call it 'tea,' an experience enjoyed in hotels and tearooms while on vacation in places like London, Bath, Edinburgh, Paris, New York, and San Francisco. The best provide very hot, well-brewed tea with fresh assortments of sandwiches, scones, and cakes.
But tea is not fashionable in our fast-paced and diet-conscious society, so finding a good one can be tough. You can easily spend $30 or more per person on lukewarm tea, stale sandwiches, and mediocre cake. Many places that did no longer serve it at all.
And they should, they really should.

The best teas I've had are homemade. Full-blown, it's a meal with many components that require some planning and preparation; the rewards are a feast. It began with Mom's memories of her mother serving tea and a snack to my grandfather to curb his hunger before dinner.
Tea provides a much-needed caffeine jolt to get you through the rest of the day. As we grew up, our snack became more adult; we went from drinking milk to 'tea-milk' (mostly milk with a splash of tea), to full cups. When home from school or work on a weekday, it would be a cup of tea with a piece of toast & jam, maybe a piece of chocolate chip banana bread. We'd sit and eat at the table together, pausing for fifteen or twenty minutes to recharge.

Tea has become even more frequent despite the fact that my brothers and I are grown. It's a delicious anchor, an opportunity to visit with each other and keep us close. A Cream tea can always be counted on for birthdays (tea with cake, pie, or other of the birthday person's choice). This afternoon tea is something we do a few times a year when the mood strikes.
Mom and I are preparing this one together for a slightly smaller audience. My brother John is away at college and Ray is in the city with friends, which means a party of five.


The first course sandwiches are the most time consuming because of the variety you want to serve. They are tiny so you can have seconds; today we are making four different kinds, paired with breads to suit the filling.

Egg salad with grainy mustard, light mayo, celery, and chives on pain de mie
Smoked Salmon with homemade dill butter on baguette
Chicken salad with celery and light mayo on walnut raisin bread
Cucumbers with homemade chive butter on pain de mie

Egg and chicken salad can be made early and set aside; you want to assemble the sandwiches just before serving so they are fresh. We've made others such as ham salad and watercress, but my favorites are always egg salad and smoked salmon.
We slice the bread super thin and remove the crusts to keep them as delicate as possible.


The second course: Scones

There are a thousand and one scone recipes, and I've definitely had some crazy fancy ones.
Our favorite are these from Cook's Illustrated's The Best Recipe.

The best scone is barely sweet, a bridge between the savory first course and the sweet third. I love them studded with currants (think itty bitty raisins), tender and flakey but not greasy. They should also be tiny, since there are so many yummy things on the table.

Served warm, they are split in two and adorned with strawberry jam, clotted cream, or both.

We always have dessert at tea (never after dinner), and our sweet third course varies. Sometimes it's a full pie and everyone will enjoy a small slice; cupcakes are also popular, maybe vanilla with chocolate ganache or black bottom cream cheese-filled ones.
Today we have a special treat, going all out with a collection of mini pastries, which are perfect for my family of tasters. Made in advance of course or we'd be scrambling!

Chocolate beignets, chaussons aux pommes (french apple turnovers),

and blueberry tarts.
Inevitably you have to pick and choose a little, there are too many lovely things to try. But who can resist a tasting plate of pastries? Nobody I'm related to!

We set the table with plates, teacups, pitchers of milk and sugar, and the food when it's ready. Two teas are selected-one regular, one decaf- from the wonderful assortment we have available. My favorite is Harney & Sons's Queen Catherine, a China tea blend.

We settle into our seats, pour the tea into two beautiful teapots, and start nibbling through everything piece by piece.
I finish my first round of sandwiches and reach for a second smoked salmon round, my very favorite. Next, I make my scone with strawberry jam and eat 3/4 of it before trying a chocolate beignet. Returning for a last taste is a habit of mine. We're at home, nobody cares that I'm going out of order. My brother Chris likes to take scone and pastry at once. Dad might have everything and go back for a sandwich at the end. Mom will enjoy any scraps left behind on our plates. I planned ahead with a small lunch, so I have room for all this and a blueberry tart before declaring myself full.
We linger long after we're finished eating, sipping tea and discussing everything from the family's new kittens and my brother Matthew's college picks, to Obama's health plan and even The Real Housewives of the OC.
In 2010, afternoon tea at home isn't high on the list of things to do. You might consider it in touristy fashion at a hotel or tea shop, probably around the holidays or for a bridal shower, but never to make yourself.
But there is something really special about this practice and we may still have room for it in our busy lives. For me, the preparation brings as much joy as the eating- if you like to play in the kitchen, you'll be in heaven. It's quality time with Mom as we prep and with the boys at the table, time that I wouldn't trade if you paid me.
It's the ultimate food gathering, a fourth meal added to the regular three. It means happy family, it means connection, it means happy bellies, smiles, and good conversation.

Who doesn't need more of these things in life?
A few public places to find good afternoon tea:
Crown & Crumpet, San Francisco
Sally Lunn's, Bath, England
These places used to serve good tea, but they don't any longer:
Ritz Carlton, San Francisco
Omni Berkshire Hotel, New York City
These places serve tea but I wouldn't recommend them:
Lisa's Tea Treasures, several Bay Area locations
The Fairmont, San Jose, California
For excellent loose or bagged tea:
*A huge thanks to Foodbuzz for the opportunity to share this with you. You can visit and buzz my post on their website here: Afternoon Tea 2010.*

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Chocolate Almond Rugelach

There's a strong magnet pulling me in the direction of the kitchen.
I'm having trouble ignoring it.

These might be the problem. They are cooling on the counter.

I was seven or eight when I tried my first rugelach. We lived in Atlanta at the time, and a store called Harry's Farmers Market (looks like Whole Foods owns it now!) was in the regular grocery rotation. In my memory it was part warehouse, part gourmet food shop, with a labyrinth of aisles holding special local and imported items. Mom did a lot of baking when we were kids, but one of the few things she bought were their housemade chocolate rugelach cookies.

Rugelach are my very favorite cookie, for eating and for baking. They are the poster child for easy to make with huge wow factor baked goods. I make them often, and never the same filling twice.

This is the first time I've attempted to duplicate that yummy favorite from Harry's. I don't know what else was in that filling, but I'd bet on some kind of nut and cinnamon.
My version has blackberry jam, toasted almonds, and of course, cinnamon sugar.
The cream cheese dough is so, so easy- three ingredients and a piece of cake to work with.
Don't ya love how it comes together in the food processor?
It goes from floury and loose to slightly wet to large chunks to big ball of dough.
Love that kitchen magic.

There are a million variation possibilities; just substitute any jam/spread, nuts, and sprinkles of sugar. Here is my original recipe for the cream cheese dough and a walnut-olallieberry filling.

This batch subs 1/3 cup blackberry jam, about 1/4 cup mini chocolate chips, 1/3 cup toasted slivered almonds, and 1/4 cup sugar with 1/2 tsp cinnamon mixed in.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

First Green SIAB

This first try, I definitely wanted a Smoothie In A Bowl- eating with a spoon from a bowl is much more satisfying than drinking from a glass. Felt like I was enjoying a bowl of ice cream!
I used:
  • a handful of spinach
  • 2 slices frozen peach
  • 1/2 frozen banana
  • 5-6 ice cubes
  • about 1/2 cup vanilla soy milk
  • splenda
  • 3/4 tsp xanthan gum
I learned several things right off the bat:

Firstly, the xanthan gum really works! Man, this was so thick and creamy, like full fat ice cream. Maybe I used a little too much, but such a small amount goes a long way.

Secondly, the spinach is really good! Banana and peach are the dominant flavors, and spinach actually adds a bit of sweetness. Plus, love the pretty mint color.

Lastly, my blender stinks. We could definitely use a new one, it had a really hard time blending this and the motor actually made an awful smell by the end. Ewww!

This bowl is about 3/4 of the blended mixture. I topped it with a spoonful of granola, and now I'm STUFFED.

I'm not sure if the portion was too much for one?
Needless to say I'm pleased, this is a pretty good snack- liquids, a serving of vegetables and fruit.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Austen's Best Man

If you lived in Jane Austen's literary world, who would be your ideal mate?

My choice would be Captain Wentworth from Persuasion, without a doubt.

The Men of Austen

Haunting LGRC

Thanks everyone, for your green smoothie suggestions! I'll be test driving a mixture or two very soon.

I'm camping at Los Gatos Coffee Roasting Company at least once a week, and I'd like to show you around this special place.
Since joining the ranks of the 'fun-employed', I've split my time between house projects and part-time job searching (actively seeking freelance writing opportunities!).
My productivity sky-rockets in the hustle and bustle of a local coffeehouse; I have a Starbucks and Peet's Coffee within walking distance, but unfortunately I'm not of a fan of the atmosphere or coffee at these chains. So I make the 30-minute drive south to my hometown.
I arrive around 9am and claim a table. The art of musical chairs is practiced well here; if you don't like what's available just keep your eyes open and move when someone else leaves. Most of the time I bring my breakfast- a container of oatmeal or yogurt- this saves me some money and calories, and the staff doesn't mind. Once I'm settled and plugged in (outlets everywhere and free wireless internet), I grab a coffee from the counter and get down to business.

It's the kind of coffeeshop that people haunt. Regular groups meet here all week long; a line of townies, dressed in biking gear and holding a dog's leash in one hand and a coffee in the other, are a permanent fixture on the sidewalk out front.

Inside there are three rooms- the first serves regular drip coffee and breakfast options like waffles, muffins, bagels, and even oatmeal. A giant coffee roaster sits in the back corner; I've never seen anything like this anywhere else.

The room in the middle holds the espresso bar and the largest grouping of tables. This is my favorite room, I usually sit in here by the window. When I feel like treating myself, I'll order a nonfat hazelnut latte or a cafe borggia in place of my regular coffee. Yum!

The last room houses Los Gatos Gourmet, a fantastic purveyor of local wines, cheeses, coffee beans roasted in house, or some homemade soup or sandwich.

Lunch here is a special treat; they have the best sandwiches around. Like this one, the McKinneylicious: smoked turkey and brie, salami, housemade aioli, and mixed greens on an Acme baguette.

They have a list of great options as well as a daily special, but my very favorite is the simple peanut butter and jam. It may seem silly for an adult to buy a pb&j, but they make it so well. It's like ordering the marinara pizza: so simple that you can't hide anything. Served on Acme pain de mie (which you cannot purchase, I've tried. They only make it in humongous loaves for businesses like this), which I order toasted with strawberry and blueberry jams.

This is the kind of coffee shop that you can settle in and really get work done- if you can resist too much socializing. It's warm and bustling, and fairly likely that you'll run into someone you know if you are a local. Or unwittingly witness a business deal or two being brokered; this is the middle of Silicon Valley after all.

I'm certainly no mover or shaker, but sitting here I can rub elbows with some of those Valley fat cats on one side and others who are fun-employed like me. LGRC has a warm, welcoming feeling that I've never felt in my neighborhood Starbucks. For me it's worth the drive, even if I can walk to the other places.
Do you have a neighborhood coffeehouse you like to haunt?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Green Sick Solution

Good morning,
I had a great weekend, but I'm up this Monday morning with a raw sore throat, headache, and low fever. NOT cool!
I'm drinking my coffee like Edward sucking the venom out of Bella. . . the hot liquid makes my throat feel so much better.
Something cold and numbing would hit the spot at lunchtime. My thoughts gravitate to yogurt or fro-yo but I'd like to avoid the dairy and have something more nutritious. I've never made a green smoothie but maybe today is the day to try one, perhaps with spinach and thickened with some xantham gum I bought last week. I haven't tried the stuff yet but I've read about how thick and creamy it can make a smoothie.
Do you have a recipe for a green smoothie or any ideas for what I should add? Please leave a comment or send me an email at

Friday, February 19, 2010

Jade Dumplings

Hello veggie dumpling, you're lookin good!
Bright and fresh from raw asparagus and ginger, the water chestnuts for crunch, pillowed together inside the dumpling wrapper.
You would put any pork or shrimp dumpling to shame.
There's something about dumpling assembly that I really love. The first three are awkward, but then you fall into a rhythm and the pile grows and grows. I clear the counters, add a rimmed baking sheet next to my work space, and crank Pandora radio on my iPhone. It takes time but you're rewarded with plenty for tonight and a good sized bag for the freezer. The first serving swam in a light coconut broth with some snow peas. Serving #2 were eaten with chopsticks after being dunked in a bit of soy sauce. The last of them- more broth, this time with leeks and mushrooms.
I've assembled my dumplings into many different shapes, pairing what I think works best with the filling. The asian dumpling is well suited to the half-moon shape, but I prefer smaller bundles. Patting the half-moon in the center coaxes the two ends together, fastened together with a bit of moistening.
They look a bit like Panama hats, don't they?

I use store-bought wonton wrappers, and greatly prefer round ones to square ones. I find that I always have a bunch of filling leftover with just one package so I would recommend arming yourself with two. You might as well make as many as you can!

Jade Dumplings
adapted from
makes a bunch!
12 ounces fresh asparagus, stems trimmed and cut in quarters
1 8 ounce-can water chestnuts, drained
3 scallions, cut in quarters
1 Tbs fresh ginger, minced
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 tsp toasted sesame oil
1 tsp low sodium soy sauce
1/4 tsp salt
2 packages round wonton wrappers (each package contains about 36 wrappers)
a small cup of water
Add the ginger and garlic to a food processor and make sure they are well minced. Add the asparagus, water chestnuts, scallions, sesame oil, soy sauce, and salt, and pulse a few times until the vegetables are finely chopped.
Scrape the mixture into a small bowl, and cover your wonton wrappers with a damp towel.
Take one wonton wrapper and dot a small amount of filling in the center (I use a small spoon). Dip your finger in the cup of water and moisten half the wrapper. Press the edges together with your fingers, pushing out any air around the filling. Moisten the ends of the half moon and press them together firmly. Place the dumpling on a prepared baking sheet. Continue with the rest of the wrappers until you run out of baking sheet space. Place the full sheet in the freezer, and continue on a new baking sheet until all the wrappers or filling are gone.
After 30 minutes in the freezer, you can remove the baking sheet and transfer the dumplings to a freezer bag.


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Right Way

There once was a girl who wouldn't eat her noodles.
Not all of them, just one kind: Spinach Noodles.

Sit-down dinner time was a constant to be counted on. Sunday nights were leftovers; every other day featured a different plate. But when the question of "what are we having for dinner" was answered with "spinach noodles," the response would be a groan and a whine.
More often than not.


Served alongside some grilled chicken or a green salad, the girl would pick at a few pieces of pasta but refuse to eat more, stating her distaste for the creation of dinners she didn't like. The remains of her plate would be added to the container housing leftovers bound for Sunday, and they would be eaten (not by the girl). She would go to bed that night with a cloudy disposition, and a deficiency in dark leafy greens.


Ten years later, the girl had developed a more diverse palate. A personal renaissance in food nutrition educated her on the benefits of the dark leafy spinach that plagued her youth, as well as preference for the creamy ricotta cheese it was blended with. Not to mention the taste memories that brought her back to family dinner (at the same kitchen table that sits in her own dining room today).
The first time she decided to make the noodles, it was a very hot summer day. Lacking pasta shapes, she switched to the spaghetti she had on hand. She lacked any specific measurements, so guestimated the proportions of chicken broth needed to create the spinach sauce.
Sadly, she was drastically underestimated, and the noodles were too dry.
Dinner was edible, but she was disappointed. The spinach-ricotta was not the sauce it should be, and the substitution of spaghetti was a mistake. She shelved the recipe for many months, not ready to face it again quite yet.


After a time, the craving for Spinach Noodles returned. This time the girl armed herself with shell pasta to capture the sauce, and triple the amount of broth.
As she whirled the sauce in the food processor, she added more and more broth.
Past the point of thinking that it was done. Even a little more after that.
Until the sauce turned 'chunky-liquid.'

She added the spinach-ricotta sauce to the pot of drained pasta shells and stirred thoroughly with a wooden spoon.

Try #2 hit the mark, the sauce deliciously rich yet light, the pasta capturing pools of it in their mouths. Served that evening with some trout en papillote and a sprinkle of chopped tomatoes and parmesan cheese, she had mastered this recipe at last.
The girl would like to share this pasta with you- it's a yummy way to feed some green spinach to your loved ones in a way they will like.
She hopes you won't be deterred by her own story of unacceptance, as she realizes now that stubborn obstinance kept her from enjoying them. Or her initial failure in eyeballing the recipe. She knows you'll trust your instincts and get the sauce right the first time.
Little boys loves these noodles, grown men too.
Spinach Noodles, the RIGHT way
1 lb frozen chopped spinach, thawed and thoroughly squeezed
2 Tbs olive oil
3 Tbs onion, chopped
2-3 cups low sodium chicken broth (or vegetable broth)
1 cup part-skim ricotta
salt to tast
1 lb pasta shapes- shells, orecchiette, bowties (wagon wheels are the original, but any pasta with crevices works)
Chopped fresh tomatoes and grated parmesan cheese to serve

Add the olive oil to a saucepan or medium low heat and saute the onion for a few minutes, without browning. Add the dry spinach, a glug of chicken broth, and cook until tender. Transfer the mixture to a food processor, and add the ricotta cheese. Pulse a few times to combine. Add 1 cup of chicken broth and pulse together. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and check the liquid state of the sauce. Add another cup of chicken broth and pulse again. You'll probably need at least another half cup to make the sauce more liquid.
Meanwhile, boil pasta in a large pot according to package directions. Drain and return to the pot. Add the sauce and stir well to combine. Serve plain, or with some chopped tomatoes and parmesan cheese sprinkled on top (my favorite).