Whenever I have worked for American companies, what tends to really get them excited about Britishness is our infamous cream teas. And I’ve got to hand it to us, it is pretty special, but a cream tea comes in so many guises and it’s hard to give you the proper heads up on a classic tea, because it depends which end of the scale your looking at it from.
When you go out for “cream tea” to somewhere like The Ritz, The Wolseley or Claridge’s your tea consists of an array of finger sandwiches ranging from egg mayonnaise, ham and the two most important to me- which are a smoked salmon and cucumber. You then have a warm scone, which is slathered in Cornish clotted cream and strawberry jam, (or jelly). Finally you get to munch your way through a whole array of beautifully crafted cakes and pastries the more creative the snazzier place you go. Pret’a’portea at the Berkeley makes beautiful little cakes shaped like designer clothes and handbags – fabulous.
All of this is washed down with a cup of good tea that will be hand crafted and served loose in individual teapots with silver strainers, with milk and sugar. Earl Grey is my afternoon tea of choice, but in most tea rooms there will be a list as long as your arm.
The indulgent sit down tea is not for everyone. The British working classes are massive afternoon tea fans, but they do it with a different flare. There can be sandwiches sure, but these will be inconsequential to the cakes. There can even be a crumpet, which is a leavened griddle cake which while it cooks grows lots of little holes on top, or toasted, fruit filled teacake. The only way to eat both of these are right out of the toaster, spread liberally with butter so that it melts down your hand as you eat it.
A proper homemade Victoria sponge is a common fixture in most British households and the art of sponge making has become an institution here. The Womens Institute is big on the “Vicky Sponge” and hold competitions to see who can get it the lightest.
We also bend over backwards for fruit loaves, the maltier the better. Malt loaf is a small, dark fruity loaf so soft and sticky that you have to be careful when you cut it, otherwise you will squash it. Crammed full of sultanas and with a syrupy Guinness tang it is sticky and caramelly and clings to your teeth in the same way toffee does. Another one that is lathered with butter. Great for the waist line this afternoon tea business, eh?
So if you ever find yourself in London you should really try and check out both ends of the scale although the best way to get the real homestyle afternoon tea is to make it yourself. So below are a few recipes to show you how to make a proper British afternoon tea at home. All you need is a pot of tea, some sandwiches and a gang of your friends and family to enjoy it.
But if you find yourself walking the streets of London try and get into some of these to have the full afternoon tea experience.
The simple elegance of a Victoria sandwich makes it no surprise that we see it as the Queen of cakes and the absolute teatime classic. In my opinion, the feather light sponge comes from beating like crazy so to incorporate as much air in as possible.
Makes 10 slices
Prep time 10 minutes
Cooking time 25 minutes
- 170g butter, softened
- 170g golden caster sugar
- 3 large free range eggs
- 170g self raising flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 tablespoons milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3 tablespoons chunky strawberry jam
- 150ml double cream, whipped softly
- Icing sugar for dusting
- Heat the oven to 170C. Butter and line two 20cm sandwich cake tins. Place the butter and sugar in a mixing bowl and beat together with an electric whisk for around five minutes or until it becomes pale and creamy. Whisk in the eggs, one by one until they are combined. You may find the mixture splits a little when you pop in your last egg.
- Sift over the flour and the baking powder and fold in. Loosen the mixture with a tablespoon of milk and the vanilla extract. You want the batter to fall of a spoon easily, if you think it’s too thick, and then stir in another tablespoon of milk.
- Split the mixture between the two sandwich tins and bake for 25 minutes or until golden and cooked through. You can check this by sliding the skewer into a cake and if it drawers back clear then its done.
- Leave the cakes to cool in the tin for 15 minutes, then transfer them carefully to a wire rack to cool completely.
- If the cakes have rounded tops then carefully carve the peak off one side. This will be the base. Spread with the jam, then top with the whipped cream. Sandwich with the other half then Place some icing sugar into a small sieve and dust the top. Needless to say you have to serve this cake with a cup of tea!
What’s for sure is that no tea party would be complete without scones. They are the highlight of the particularly English cream tea and I have can claim to have eaten some of the best in the country. From St. Ives (Cornwall and Devon claiming them as their heritage) to posh ones at the Ritz. As long as they are slathered in clotted cream and strawberry jam (and personally I get as much satisfaction from building the as devouring them) I am one very happy young lady.
Makes 10 scones
Preparation time 10 minutes
Cooking time 12 minutes
- 225g self raising flour, plus extra for rolling
- 55g unsalted butter
- 1 ½ tablespoons golden caster sugar
- 150ml milk
- 1 egg yolk, whisked, for glazing
- Heat the oven to 200C. Place the butter and flour in a food processor and whiz until it begins to look like breadcrumbs. Pour the sugar through the funnel until its evenly distributed. Tip the crumb mixture into a mixing bowl then using a wooden spoon, (or my favorites your hands), mix in the milk. This will turn into a soft dough. Knead it enough so it comes together, but do not to overwork it or you will get heavy scones.
- Flour the kitchen surface and rolling pin, then turn the dough out. I like big fat scones so I would roll the dough out about an inch thick. Take a 4 or 5cm pastry cutter and cut out rounds. You should get around 10 scones from each batch. Lay them onto a baking tray and brush the tops with the whisked egg yolk. Bake for 10 minutes or until risen and golden brown. Leave to cool for about 15 minutes but do serve them warm with clotted cream and jam.