Category Archives: Tea Time Bakes

Up On a Mountain Top in The Lake District I Contemplate: What Makes Tea Special?

Lak District Hike with Mountain Hikes

I recently went on a hiking week-end in the beautiful Lake District with my hosts Kevin and Yen Yau from Mountain Hikes. Even in the outdoors and in the basic of environments I was reminded of the specialness of “hosting” that comes with serving tea – in any location.Group mountain hike, Lake District

“Shall I be mother?” Kevin said as he surveyed the assorted small teapots in which he had brewed tea in the Youth Hostel kitchen. Tired and happy, eight of us were sitting in the pool room of the Keswick YHA after our first day’s hiking in the Lake District. Kevin’s partner Yen had placed a pile of beautifully light, scones, she had freshly baked the night before. All of us dived into the clotted cream and home made jam as Kevin then poured out mugs of tea for us.tea and cake

The tea parties at the end of each of our walks provided such a warm and welcoming highlight to each day that the functional furnishings of the Youth Hostel around us just disappeared. It was the display of care and love in the preparation of the food and the brewing of our tea that I still hold in my mind as I write.

Tea party at Youth Hostel, Lake Dsitrict

Kevin had taken on the role of the host having brewed and poured the tea. I find it intriguing to realise that even with the most basic of tea parties there was a tug from the past that dates back three hundred years.

In the early 18th century tea drinking was embraced by a burgeoning, newly rich urban 18th Century Tea Party‘middling’ class to demonstrate their skills of politeness and ‘genteelness’. They were copying the recent fashion embraced by the very small elite strata of society whose wealth had been derived from land ownership. What better way to show off knowledge of polite behaviour and good taste than for the lady of the house to orchestrate her own tea making ceremony, laying out her delicate tea equipage? I am sure that without realising it you have seen contemporary paintings and prints in which you see a family ensemble taking tea. These pictures are akin to Instagram or Facebook posts of today telling the world that the recorded group is sophisticated and fashionable. In these paintings it is the lady of the house who is demonstrating her skill and technique in making the tea and it would have been disrespectful to have tried to usurp her position and pour from her tea pot.

Kevin was taking on this role in a public place i.e. by suggesting that he play ‘mother’ he would take on the position of authority at our tea table. This used to happen when women started going out for tea in the 20th century: if two friends were to meet one of them would take on the role of pouring the tea and thus in charge of requesting more hot water, fresh pot, etc. This saying has possibly died out now as most hotels and cafes usually serve individual pots of tea and we each take ownership of that to pour out. Food is fine to help yourself but with the serving of tea you wait to be offered.

What makes tea special?

It is the sitting down together, conversing and enjoying a refreshing cup along with the secret ingredients of care and love. Kevin and Yen Yau provided this in spades and I urge you to join them next year on one of the hiking weekends in the Lake District. Yen might even give you her secret scone recipe!

Tea Party on the balcony

I would highly recommend looking at Kevin and Yen’s website > Mountin Hikes. They provide guided walks in the Lake District as well as hiking and yoga breaks.  You can follow them on Twitter at @Mountain_hikes or on Facebook at Lakes Mountain Hikes.

Tea Time – A Themed Celebration of The Royal Chelsea Flower Show

Caroline at the Intercontinental Westminster

What a wonderful afternoon I had with Hilary Newstead at the Intercontinental Westminster Hotel. I had been invited to review their Edible Garden afternoon tea, which was created to coincide with the Chelsea Flower Show.

Despite the fact that I spend innumerable hours teaching classes around English tea time (including cake or scone baking; tasting fine teas or looking at the history English tea time), it is quite rare  for me to go “out to tea”. It was a real treat to review the Edible Garden Afternoon Tea at the Intercontinental , enjoy free flowing Laurent Perrier champagne and indulge in a glorious feast of exquisite garden-themed patisserie creations.

I took so many pictures – the food was just a feast for the eyes with the glass cloche centrepiece, under which our cakes nestled in a bed of dark (and edible) soil.

Lifting the glass cloche displaying the edible garden

Lifting the glass cloche displaying the edible garden

The Gorgeous Teatime Treats

How did the food taste?

The Pea and Basil Tart

The Pea and Basil Tart

Fresh, delicious and as it should be! When I got down to tasting each little treat as it was presented, they were divine. The biggest winners for me were the miniature Chelsea Bun and the Garden Pea and Basil Tart. I normally avoid currents and dried fruits  but this Chelsea Bun had been created by someone who understood what they were doing. There was almost more fruit than bun dough; the spicey, citrusy, moist fruit enveloped my tongue.  Likewise the pea and basil tart; the burst of fresh baby peas exploding in my mouth.

 

The quality of the tea:

More delicious treats

More delicious treats

We drank some exceptionally good teas that were supplied by Jing Teas. I had a Second flush Darjeeling that had nectar-like qualities and Hilary had a superlative Japanese Green Sencha, about which she was very excited as she had not tried before.

The Hotel, the service and the presentation:

The hotel excelled in all the areas that mattered:  superbly attentive waiters and bar staff who were knowledgeable and not at all officious; spotless and beautifully presented silverware and porcelain, comfortable chairs into which  we could just sink whilst indulging ourselves.

The only negative I have, and this is more one of a personal dismay, is to question why it is necessary to go to such lengths to design cakes to no longer look like food. This is not to doubt the skills of the pastry chefs – their technical virtuosity was par excellence – but why is it is necessary?  Nowadays afternoon tea seem to be a competition about who can ‘design’ the most ‘clever’ feast for the eyes.

I am with Sir Henry Cole on his theory of good design. He states that good design takes into account the intrinsic quality of the material being used.  For example a woven piece of fabric into which a flower motif has been woven displays the virtuosity of the woven fabric whereas a flower design that is printed onto a fabric will not display the quality of the weave – the printed pattern is what is seen and nothing more.

Perhaps this is what I found difficult with this meal – I was being asked to admire the cleverness of the pastry chef in creating clever little concoctions such as a chocolate flower pot, a garden wall or edible earth. However  the delights we feasted on were neither particular to the season during which we were eating it, nor could we see the qualities of the cake or pastry shining through the designed piece.

But this is one of my little bees that buzz around in my bonnet and a minor quibble.  I shall definitely return. Thank you Intercontinental Westminster, for a truly exceptional and wonderful afternoon.

My Top 5 Tips For Making the Parisian Style Macaron

This post is part of a series I have written on the intricate delicacy that is the Macaron. I give you the insights behind the history, the recipe and of course how to incorporate it into your perfect English Afternoon tea time.

I get so many people asking me for tips on how to really get it right when they make Macarons and so I thought it would be handy to share what my tips are. And…they may not be what you think…

1. Remember this is FOOD not an artwork

My recipe is a slightly adapted version of one I found in “How to be a Domestic Goddess” by Nigella Lawson. She described them as ‘the most elegant macaroons in the world‘. They are delicious, beautiful and have far more visual character than those of the Parisian bakeries.  They don’t look like the very regular shapes of those found in Ladurée or Pierre Hermé because she has not worried about creating something that aspires to someone else’s level of perfection. They taste delicious and are as they are.

2. Dark brown, mid-brown and beige coloured Macarons have flavour

Caroline's MacaronMost of us do not use our ovens for eight plus hours every day as in a commercial bakery. Thus our ovens will perform differently. This is all to do with how metals heat up and how often they are heated up which has an impact on the evenness of heat throughout the oven. An ‘underused’ oven is more likely to have uneven heat until the oven has been heated long enough for the shelves and oven sides to all be the have reached the optimum temperature. Once this is reached then you can bake batches without the later ones burning or finding that one area of of a baking tray cooks faster than another. Regular and constant oven use (i.e. a few hours every day) will find the oven reaching that point more easily and quickly (like your body when going to the gym – with regular exercise you become more flexible as your muscles remember the actions whereas a trip once a month is quite an effort.).

If you are a domestic cook you are more likely to find your oven behaves slightly differently each time. I find that colours need a perfect and identical oven temperature each time to gauge down to minute precision for perfect pastel colours. If you can give yourself a bit of leeway (i.e. go for chocolate, ginger, coffee, cinnamon) you will be less disappointed if some become tinged with brown.

3. The all important smooth top and a ‘foot’ at the base of the Parisian style Macaron

This is created by letting a skin form on the top of the Macaron after piping. Ideally it should be touch dry. The skin can be created by leaving out in a room that is well ventilated and without humidity. Alternatively you can create the skin by placing in the oven for about 15 minutes at the lowest possible temperature before cooking. Either way, check there is a skin. Then either turn up the oven if you have been skin forming in the oven, or put your air dried Macarons in to cook in a pre-heated oven. The ‘solid’ top will rise up and the ‘foot’ is your expansion layer at the bottom (think how a cake rises up – same principle). If you don’t have a skin, you won’t get the foot. Usually you will get lots of little cracks. If they crack – just continue and then sandwich together and eat! They will taste exactly the same and look like Nigella’s ‘most elegant macaroons in the world’.

4. Every time you bake them – imagine you are using new ingredients

These will all vary in some minute way. Ground almonds from one supermarket will be different from those bought from another. Likewise your ground almonds will be different from season to season even if from the same supermarket. This will have an effect when making your ‘macaronage’. The oilier the nuts, the quicker you get to the optimum folding point. I have also found if I use different food processors to combine the nuts and sugar this will have an effect – the sharper the blade the more finely ground the almonds become and more oil is released into the sugar.

5. Your eggs will also have an effect on your outcome

Try not to use eggs that are too fresh – like teenagers, they are quite frisky and your results might be a little variable. Ideally you want old eggs and under perfect circumstances you would age the eggs. This means separating them up to 7 days in advance of baking and putting your egg whites in a bowl in the fridge. The oxygen in the air breaks down the proteins in the egg whites. Then when you whip the egg whites with the sugar they will behave in the same way (like adults, perhaps we become more measured in our behaviour). I now feel the difference if using newly broken eggs and old aged eggs when whisking and then doing the macaronage – the more aged eggs whites have a slightly more viscous consistency.

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With both tip 4 and 5 I am really saying be aware that you are doing something new each time with living organisms…take their foibles into account if you are working towards a predictable outcome.

If you have any questions about your attempts at baking a macaron, please feel free to ask me below in the comments section, tweet me on @Caroline__Hope, or email me on caroline@teaandscones.co.uk – I’d be happy to help if I can.

The Beautiful Macaron : The History and Origins from Italy to France

This post is part of a series I have written on the intricate delicacy that is the Macaron. I give you the insights behind the history, the recipe and of course how to incorporate it into your perfect English Afternoon tea time. 

The French (or Parisian) Style Macaron

The French (or Parisian) Style Macaron

The Macaron (usually called Macaroon in English) is regarded as being a French type of almond biscuit. The original version was purported to have been introduced from Italy by Catherine de Medici  on her marriage to Henry II of France in 1533. The basic recipe for the biscuit has not really changed over the years. However the ratios of the ingredients used and the appearance of the end results were up to the individual bakers.

The innovative idea of Ladurée baker, Pierre Desfontaines in the 1930s, of sandwiching together two ‘Macaron’ shells with a creamy ganache has in recent years, led to a global domination by these ostensibly hand made Parisian concoctions. The  stack of pastel and even gold leaf ‘biscuits’ have an hypnotic effect on passers-by who dive in to become addicted to the latest fashionable sweet.

The Nancy Macaron - image courtesy of www.alainbatts.com

The Nancy Macaron – image courtesy of www.alainbatts.com

Nancy, in France, is also famous for its Macarons which are round and flatter than those of Paris. These also don’t have a smooth surface or the ‘feet’. After the closing of Les Dames du Saint Sacrement’s Convent, two Sisters began selling the macaroons in order to make a living and they became legendary as “les Soeurs Macarons” and a street in Nancy now bears that name. These are so famous there is now  a small bakery in Sandown, New Hampshire (www.macaroons.com) that makes these to an original 17th century recipe using almonds, sugar, egg whites and either honey or Dutch chocolate.

In England we are more used to seeing variations of a Nancy style macaroon, a large almond biscuit with a crackleglaze top in French patisseries. If you go to an English bakery the almonds are usually replaced with dessicated coconut and sometimes with a glacé cherry atop the more pyramid shape and sometimes drizzled or dipped with coconut. The coconut lasts longer than the almonds.

The Amaretti biscuit - image courtesy of: digitalsun / 123RF Stock Photo

The Amaretti biscuit – image courtesy of: digitalsun / 123RF Stock Photo

The most common macaron style biscuit to be found in Italy is the Amaretti biscuit. I used to adore these, carefully wrapped in a special wrapping you could set alight and it would shoot up to the ceiling. You can imagine my recent discomfort when I did this recently in a restaurant.  I think the paper must have been changed – it never took off and a small fire started on the table!

If you have any questions about any of the types of macaron, please do comment below, tweet me on @Caroline__Hope, or email me on caroline@teaandscones.co.uk. Make sure you read the rest of the series!