This past weekend I celebrated my 22nd birthday with what has now become a birthday tradition – an excessively long and filling tea party. After what must have been my fourth or fifth party (I’ve kind of lost track of when it started), the routine’s settled. The guests change a little, the sandwiches, tea, and desserts vary, but the base of it remains the same: four delicious and individually filling courses stretched across three hours or more of laughs, gossip, and good times.
I got the inspiration from a high tea I attended years ago at the Chateau Frontenac, a beautiful hotel at the heart of Old Quebec City. I was about 11 at the time, and, as my dad likes to point out, completely floored by the experience (I didn’t speak above a low whisper for the duration of the meal out of fear that my vocal vibrations would break something beautiful). My backyard tea party has become a far more casual meal (especially since I usually rely on the guests to help me create it), but infinitely more satisfying.
If you’re looking for a template for a tea party, I find that mine works very well. In my opinion, the best tea parties are smaller, intimate affairs (I don’t like to have more than six people at mine) set in nice locations (we lounge on my parent’s back porch for hours staring at the summer blooms). Aesthetically, I prefer the hodge-podge of mismatching teacups and teapots, tableclothes and napkins, but that’s up to your taste (it’s also a lot easier if you happen to be like me and my mother and collect random pretty elements that don’t necessarily make up a whole set).
For me, the first course consists of three types of tea sandwiches. This year, I did cucumbers, cream cheese, scallions, and red onion, apples and brie, and ham, cheddar, and mayonnaise, but in the past I’ve also done pear and blue cheese and lox and cream cheese. I like to use white bread – it’s both aesthetically nicer and more reminiscent of childhood – with the crusts cut off. After preparing the sandwiches normally, cut them along the diagonals so that each sandwich is a cute obtuse triangle.
The second course is always scones. I’ve used store-bought scones in the past, but this year my friend William (who also happens to be a tea fanatic and provided delicious tea for the party) made some homemade scones for us in the shape of teapots. Scones are incomplete without delicious spreads, and if you choose sweet (not savory) scones, I would recommend buying some good jam (I like Bonne Maman’s raspberry preserves) and some clotted cream. If you’ve never had clotted cream before (I believe it’s far more popular in the British Isle than in the U.S.), you need to buy a jar right away. Eat all of it, and then don’t buy another jar for the rest of the year because don’t be crazy, that stuff will kill you. Lather your scones liberally with it.
After two carb-heavy courses and lots of tea (no lie – we usually go through about two teapots per course so we’re getting pretty jittery at this point), you need to take a break. That’s where the berry course comes in. If you’re doing this in the winter I would substitute more seasonal fruits, but for a summer tea party, a sweet and tart berry medley is a perfect palate cleansing course. My mother has these adorable glass pear dishes, so I pile a carton each of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries into the five or six pears. If you feel like you haven’t consumed enough fat yet (and that would probably mean you haven’t eaten any clotted cream, so, shame on you), you could make some homemade whipped cream to top the berries. I decided it wasn’t really necessary.
The final course is dessert. In the past, I’ve bought pre-made petit-four cakes and made coconut macaroons. This year, I bought Linzer tart cookies and almond macaroons from a local bakery. Other great cookie choices include the ever-popular macarons, palmiers, or, as Lucas suggested, Argentine alfajores (you really can’t go wrong with dulce de leche). You probably won’t need many desserts, since everyone’s stomachs should be busting at the seams at this point, but why would you say no to leftovers? That’s right, you wouldn’t.
Tea parties often come down to the details, so I love to round out the party with cute elements like sugar cubes instead of loose sugar and cake stands (both real and improvised). Ultimately, you don’t want to stress out about any one thing. Just enjoy the tea, the food, the company, and the chance to just kick back and relax for a few hours. Also, remember to wear a hat. A tea party is nothing without hats.
Do you have any recommendations for further tweaks on tea parties or backyard parties in general? I’m always looking to improve mine.