How to Serve an Elegant Afternoon Tea
Afternoon tea has been an elegant and originally aristocratic British custom since the early 1800s. This delectable, dainty meal, which often is referred to (incorrectly) as "high tea" outside of Britain, is the perfect menu to serve guests at a bridal shower, wedding reception, graduation party or afternoon garden party.
A Bit of History
A Delicious British Ritual With a 200-Year History
Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, is rumored to have started taking tea and a light afternoon snack privately in her boudoir (possibly while visiting Belvoir Castle) to tide her over during the long wait between breakfast and dinner (which was served around 8:00 PM). Eventually she started inviting a few friends to join her for a cuppa, a light bite and an afternoon walk. It became such a popular ritual among her circle that it was picked up by other fashionable hostesses, and eventually serving an elaborate afternoon tea became not only a respectable entertainment, but also a fashionable custom in the parlors of London's aristocratic society.
These days it remains a beloved daily ritual in the UK, although usually it's just a simple cream tea or tea with a slice of cake or perhaps some biscuits (cookies). The original elegant, three-course service lives on around the world as a festive special occasion meal usually reserved for celebrations and parties.
"There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea."— Henry James, "The Portrait of a Lady"
What Is "High Tea" and Why Is It Called That?
If you aren't from the UK and haven't spent much time there, there's a good chance you associate "high tea" with the formal, mid-afternoon, full tea service enjoyed by the cream of London's fashionable society. When you hear that term, do you envision a lavish spread with dainty sandwich fingers and other luxury tidbits, freshly baked scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam, and fancy cakes and individual pastries, and perhaps even a festive crystal glass of chilled champagne?
If so, it's a common and understandable mistake. In a social context, "high" and "up" usually refer to the elevation of one's social standing or status (high class, upper class, upwardly mobile) while "low" is associated with an inferior social rank (low class, lower class), so it's natural to assume that "high tea" refers to the elegant, formal tea service made popular by nineteenth-century aristocrats.
In the context of afternoon tea, however, "high" and "low" actually refer to the height of the tables at which these meals were usually served rather than to the elegance and formality (or lack thereof) of either the meal itself or the people enjoying it.
High Tea vs. Low Tea
Traditionally, "low tea", was served on low tables in a garden or parlor, typically around 4:00 PM, just before the daily Hyde Park promenade where fashionable members of London society strolled to see and be seen. So the formal, multi-course meal that many people, and even restaurants, outside the UK often refer to as "high tea" is properly called either a full afternoon tea or low tea.
"High tea" was something quite different: a hearty late-afternoon, working-class meal served at a high table, i.e., dinner table. As the main meal of the day, high tea traditionally included meat, potatoes, another starchy side dish or casserole, cheese, bread, and baked goods (and, of course, tea).
Host the Perfect Afternoon Tea Like a Pro
Entertain as Elegantly as the Posh Hotels or Host a More Casual Afternoon Get-Together
Many of the world's top hotels offer an afternoon tea service, and there are caterers like the ones my husband and I hired for our wedding reception who can help you put together a fabulous menu for your special event. But you also can prepare your own elegant version to serve to your guests in your own living room, dining room, backyard or garden!
I've put together helpful information for creating and serving a wonderful and memorable meal, including recommended menus, instructions on how to brew a proper pot of English tea, delicious recipes for scones, petit fours, lemon curd tarts and trifle, and suggestions for setting a beautiful table. Most are traditional but I've also included some fun, updated variations.
Posh not your style? No problem! You can still serve your guests a sumptuous, elegant meal in a more relaxed, casual setting.
This six-step guide will help you entertain in style.
Step 1: Visualize the Event
Step 2: Choose Invitations That Set the Mood
Step 3: Plan Your Menu
Step 4: Prepare the Food
Step 5: Prepare Your Tablescape
Step 6: Prepare the Tea and Optional Champagne
Step 1: Visualize the Event
First, define and envision what a successful event would look like. How many people will be invited? Where will the meal be served?
Do you just want to have a close friend over for a long, casual chat over a plate of scones? Do you want to impress your local PTA members? Are you inviting several couples over on a pleasant spring or summer afternoon to enjoy the weather and a light meal? Are you hosting a bridal or baby shower? A wedding reception? Indoors or outdoors? At your home, someone else's, or another venue?
How long do you want your guests to stay?
How much preparation do you want to do?
Do you envision a formal event or a casual get-together?
The answers to these questions will help you set the right tone with your invitations, design an appropriate menu and choose the table settings, serving pieces and decorations to achieve your goal and delight your guests.
Step 2: Choose Invitations That Set the Mood
Once you have decided on your guest list, give some thought to your invitations. These should not only help build anticipation for the event, but also set your guests' expectations about the tone of the event so they can feel comfortable that the attire they choose will be appropriate to the occasion.
If you want it to be a formal, traditional affair, choose elegant invitations and hand write them in calligraphy or a pretty script. If your handwriting isn't suitable, choose stationery that can be run through a printer and pick one of the following types of fonts:
- a formal script or handwritten font, such as Edwardian Script, Allura, Pinyon Script, England Hand or CAC Champagne
- a calligraphy font, such as Anke Calligraphic FG (make sure to turn on kerning while using this font with your word processor) or Quintessential
To set a somewhat less formal tone, go with somewhat less traditional stationery and consider the following font types:
- a slightly less formal script or handwritten font, such as Brush Script MT, Dancing Script, Grand Hotel, Great Vibes, Quilline Script Thin, Rouge Script Tangerine, Windsong, Freebooter Script, Bradley Hand or Christopher Hand
- a slim serif font, such as Josephin Slab or Cambria
Even a formal afternoon tea doesn't need to be fancy! If your style is more casual, let your invitations and writing style reflect that. Let your personality show! Some fonts to consider: Sofia, Architect's Daughter, Pacifico, Black Jack, Daniel, Desyrel, Indie Flower, Jinkie, VAG-Handwritten, vincHand.
Step 3: Plan Your Menu
Start by deciding how many courses to serve — and how fancy or elaborate you want each course to be.
Types of Afternoon Tea
A pot of brewed loose tea served with milk and sugar is the only must-have for a traditional British tea service, although thin lemon slices (never lemon wedges) frequently are offered for those who prefer their beverage with lemon rather than milk.
If you also serve scones, jam and clotted cream (also called Cornish, Devonshire or Devon cream), it becomes a "cream tea".
A "light tea" is a cream tea plus sweets, such as biscuits (cookies), cake, or pastries, such as individual fruit tarts.
Full Afternoon Tea
This consists of three courses:
- Savories, such as finger sandwiches (sandwiches with the crusts removed and cut into "fingers") or small finger food appetizers.
- Scones served with jam and clotted cream.
- Sweets such as cookies, shortbread, cake slices or individual serving-sized small cakes, or pastries.
This is what is often referred to incorrectly as "high tea".
A "champagne tea" is a full afternoon tea served with a glass of champagne. Many luxury hotels including Claridge's, The Athenaeum Hotel, The Ritz, The Four Seasons, Brown's Hotel, The Berkeley Hotel, The Dorchester Hotel and The Chesterfield Hotel Mayfair in London serve one or more elegant variations.
Some establishments offer variations that bear little resemblance to the traditional menu. For example, The Chesterfield Mayfair Hotel in London serves not only The Chesterfield Traditional and The Chesterfield Champagne Tea but also The Chocolate Lover's Tea, which substitutes hot chocolate or a dark chocolate or vanilla white chocolate milkshake as the beverage, as well as a Little Prince and Princess offering with "jam and peanut butter sandwiches, cupcake and ice cream, and a choice of milkshake or soft drink."
No doubt the Duchess of Bedford would be horrified at these offerings being referred to as "teas", but tourists traveling with children surely appreciate having options tailored to younger palates while the adults enjoy more sophisticated, traditional teatime fare.
Vote for Your Favorite Afternoon Tea Food or Beverage!
Which of the following foods or beverages do you (or would you) look forward to most at a full afternoon tea service?
If you're having a friend or two over and want to serve them "a little something," this simple menu is a lovely alternative to the typical American offering of coffee and cake or cookies.
- Pot of hot, freshly brewed tea, served with milk and sugar (granulated or cubes)
- Warm, freshly baked scones
- Good quality jam or preserves
- Strawberry is traditional, but I like to offer a choice of at least one other flavor; blackberry, boysenberry, cherry and apricot are all excellent options)
- Optional but a lovely addition: good quality lemon curd (preferably homemade)
Cream Tea Variation
- Same as above, with the addition of clotted cream (or whipped double cream, if you're lucky enough to live in the UK, where you can get 48% butterfat cream)
In Devonshire, traditionally each half of a split scone is spread with the clotted cream, then topped with strawberry jam. In Cornwall, the split scone halves are spread with the jam first, followed by a layer of clotted cream.
One or more pots of strong, hot, freshly brewed tea should be served throughout the meal.
- Good quality strawberry jam or preserves
- Optional: Additional flavors of jam or preserves; lemon curd; clotted cream
- One or more of the following sweets:
- Sweet biscuits (cookies)
- Petits fours (AKA petit fours)
- Bite-size or individually portioned pastries, such as mini fruit tarts
Three-Course Menu (Full Tea)
- Finger sandwiches (preferably a selection)
- Hors d'oeuvres / canapés
- Scones with good strawberry jam
- Optional: Additional flavors of jam, lemon curd, and/or clotted cream
- Sweets (see the second course of the two-course menu)
Step 4: Prepare the Food
Savory Finger Foods and More
If you're serving a full afternoon tea, the first course should be savory finger foods, usually including an assortment of dainty finger sandwiches. If you're serving a light or cream tea, you can skip this savory course.
Small, crustless tea sandwiches cut into "fingers" or other small geometric shapes are the most frequently served savory item for this type of menu. Traditionally, these are open-face sandwiches, although enclosing the filling between two thin slices of bread is an acceptable alternative. The bread should be firm, thinly sliced, and moistened with a very thin layer of butter or another spread. Traditional fillings (toppings, actually, since the sandwiches are open-face) include paper-thin slices of cucumber or radish, egg salad, and thinly sliced smoked salmon with capers.
My tea sandwich recipes offer many elegant and delicious bread, spread, filling and garnish combinations.
Individual miniature quiches or or small slices or squares of a thin quiche may be served in place of, or in addition to, the sandwiches.
Very small portions (just enough for a few sips) of hot or cold soup topped with a pretty garnish are another nice addition to sandwiches for the savory course. Avoid chunky soups, very thick soups, or soups with ingredients that can't be sipped (such as wontons or meatballs). Instead, choose something smooth that will go down easily, such as hot consommé or chilled vichyssoise.
Consider serving a hot soup in espresso or demitasse cups or small Asian style tea cups without handles. Cold soups look beautiful served in pretty schnapps glasses, cordial glasses or shot glasses.
"When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things."— Muriel Barbery, "The Elegance of the Hedgehog"
Scones, Jam and Clotted Cream
Whether you're serving a simple cream tea, a light tea with finger sandwiches and savories or a full afternoon tea with sweets and desserts, scones are an essential part of the menu. Scones with clotted cream and jam should be the second course, after the savory course.
You'll find many terrific scone recipes online and in cookbooks, some traditional (such as Alton Brown's version on the Food Network site) and others decidedly nontraditional (such as Deb Perelman's mouthwatering Roasted Pear and Chocolate Chunk Scones recipe on the Smitten Kitchen blog).
Homemade Lemon Curd
Lemon curd is a delightful alternative (or addition) to preserves to accompany the scones. Homemade lemon curd has a much brighter, fresher taste than commercial curd, and it's quick and easy to make from just a few simple ingredients: lemon juice, fresh lemon zest, sugar, butter, eggs, and sometimes salt.
Ina Garten's lemon curd recipe is easy, delicious and relatively foolproof, as long as you remember to:
- use only the colored zest and avoid the bitter white pith of the lemon;
- use room temperature lemons to make juicing easier (and to get more juice from each fruit); and
- use a thermometer and remove the curd from the heat at 170 °F.
The resulting spread is thick, silky, tart, sweet and bursting with fresh citrus flavor, just as it should be. I've also substituted lime zest and juice for the lemon in this recipe to make a refreshing lime curd. While it's certainly not traditional with afternoon tea, I think it's wonderful on scones along with a bit of raspberry jam.
If you prefer a less tart, in-your-face taste, try Stephanie Jaworski's JoyofBaking.com lemon curd recipe, which includes a video demo that you may find helpful is this is your first time making fruit curd.
Sweets and Dainty Desserts
Nearly any dessert that can be made or served in very small, individual portions can be part of the sweets course of your menu.
Get these from a good French bakery or, if you're feeling adventurous, make your own. These are on my baking bucket list, but unfortunately, we are currently without an oven (and I'm feeling serious baking withdrawal!). While waiting until we're able to buy a new oven, I've bookmarked the wonderful French macaron recipe troubleshooting tips from the Not So Humble Pie blog, which cover many of the professional tips I've learned from Food Network shows in one convenient place. I encourage you to review these troubleshooting tips before attempting your first batch of homemade macarons (or if you've had trouble with previous attempts). I love this baking blogger's trick of slightly overbaking the macarons, filling them and letting them mature for a few days to restore the nougat-like interior texture of the cookies while retaining a crisp outer shell.
This dessert is easy and fun to make, and there are loads of good recipes online. When making whichever one you choose, I recommend using caster sugar (superfine sugar) rather than regular granulated sugar so it dissolves completely, and crisp Savoiardi-type ladyfingers rather than soft, spongy ones. Prepare the tiramisu in a large rectangular baking dish. After chilling, cut it into 1½-inch by 2-inch rectangles if you're serving it as part of an assorted sweets course.
Miniature Éclairs or Cream Puffs
Get them from a good local bakery or make your own. They're actually a lot of fun and easier than you might think! In fact, I made my first pâte à choux — the dough used to make cream puffs, éclairs, profiteroles and gougères — when I was only 10 or 11. The only hard part is stirring/beating the flour in all at once into the boiling water, butter and salt in the saucepan (I was taught to use a wooden spoon), since it becomes very thick, very quickly and requires a lot of "elbow grease" to keep stirring the dough briskly until it is a smooth mass. If you're looking for a recipe, try the one on the King Arthur Flour site.
Tips for Making Perfect Éclairs or Cream Puffs:
- Dump all the flour at once into the boiling water, butter and salt mixture and IMMEDIATELY start beating it in vigorously so you don't get a bunch of lumps.
- Let the cooked mixture cool for a few minutes and then beat in the eggs quickly, one at a time, at high speed and continue to beat for another two minutes so the mixture is smooth and thoroughly homogenized.
- When the pastries are baking, don't open the oven door until it's time to remove the pastries, so that they don't deflate (the same reason you can't peek inside the oven when you're baking a soufflé).
- After removing them from the oven, quickly cut a slit in each éclair or cream puff and return them to the oven for another five minutes to let the steam escape. This is the secret to a crisp rather than a soggy pastry shell!
Buy or make them. Top each mini cheesecake with a perfect, fresh berry (or several). You can also melt jelly or jam, strain it, let it cool until it's still warm but no longer hot, and then spoon it over the cheesecakes (and the berries, if using) and refrigerate them to add a lovely, tasty glaze.
These are easy to make, or you may be able to buy them at a local gourmet shop. I strongly recommend making them the same day you will be serving them. My chocolate dipped strawberries with drizzle recipe is quick, easy, elegant and delicious!
Victoria Sponge AKA Victoria Sandwich (Layer Cake)
This is a classic Victorian English sponge layer cake, two cake layers filled with jam and dusted with powdered icing sugar; named after Queen Victoria, who is said to have enjoyed a slice with her afternoon tea. What could be more traditional?
Cold Dessert Soup
There are wonderful recipes for cold dessert soups: Peach, strawberry, even chocolate! Serve your well-chilled soup in demitasse cups or 3–ounce cordial glasses with bouillon spoons, which are similar to a cream soup spoon with a round bowl, but smaller and shorter. (Don't serve a dessert soup if you are serving soup as part of your savory course.)
Buy them at a good bakery or bake and decorate them yourself. If you’re pressed for time (or just don’t enjoy baking), trim the edges off a store-bought pound cake and cut it into 1-1/2" cubes. Slice each cube in half and sandwich the halves back together with strained raspberry jam. Then mix powdered confectioner's sugar with just enough milk to create an icing with a pourable consistency. Don't make it too thin or it won't coat the cake cubes nicely. Use gel paste food coloring to tint the icing a pastel color, if desired. Melt some semisweet, dark or white chocolate and allow to cool just to room temperature. Spoon it into a sandwich-sized, zippered, freezer food storage bag, snip one corner of the bag, and drizzle the melted chocolate over the petit fours in a decorative pattern. Easy peasy!
Serve your trifle in mini trifle bowls or small glass cups or glasses with espresso spoons.
Dessert Tartlets or Mini Tarts
Pecan tassies, mini chess pies, mini fruit tarts, lemon tartlets, etc., are a lovely choice. To make delicious, easy chocolate tarts, buy premade tartlet shells, fill with homemade chocolate ganache, and top with a dollop of homemade whipped cream and/or a single, fresh berry and a small mint sprig.
"There is no trouble so great or grave that cannot be much diminished by a nice cup of tea."— Bernard-Paul Heroux
Step 5: Prepare Your Tablescape
Look for Inspiration
A wonderful place to start is the "Tablescapes" section of TeaTime magazine, which has lots of themed tabletop decor ideas specifically for afternoon tea. Examples include:
- rose chintz-patterned china and pale pink glassware set off by pale pink and green table linens;
- a white damask tablecloth and pale green damask napkins with Haviland Limoges porcelain plates and cups and traditional sterling flatware;
- bright, cheerful Staffordshire Blue Calico dinnerware against a white damask cloth and napkins with what appears to be brushed stainless flatware, for a somewhat less formal event;
- seasonal and holiday themes, including a Valentine's Day tea tablescape with red roses, red napkins, a white table runner, and Johnson Brothers' romantic English Chippendale china.
Pick Your Table Linens
If your entertaining style for this event is traditional and formal, consider an elegant damask or lace tablecloth and napkins in white or ivory.
For a contemporary update, consider a colored tablecloth topped with a white or ivory lace one, so the colored cloth shows through.
Choose a Centerpiece
The centerpiece should provide a decorative focal point that visually anchors your tablescape. Keep the following considerations in mind when choosing or designing a centerpiece.
A lush bouquet of seasonal flowers in a pretty vase is traditional, and my favorite centerpiece for this type of entertaining. But it's far from the only option!
Seasonal centerpieces, such as holiday ornaments, fruits, etc., can be a lovely alternative.
Make sure the centerpiece is appropriately sized for the table, so that the table settings aren't cramped.
Also consider the height; it should be tall enough to be an obvious focal point for the tablescape, but not so tall that guests will have trouble seeing the guests across the table from them.
If you will be seating guests at multiple tables, make sure to have at least one centerpiece for each table (more, if the table is very long).
Traditional Tiered Servers Create a Lovely Presentation
A popular way to display and serve the food at a full, three-course service is on a three-tiered server, with each course on a different tier. Originally the scones were placed on the top tier of the serving dish so that they could be covered and kept warm, but these days the tiers often are filled in order of the courses, with the savories on either the bottom or top and the scones in the middle layer. To make sure the food is within easy reach of everyone at your party, plan on one tiered serving plate for every two or three guests,
If it's a formal occasion, such as a wedding reception or engagement party, this is an elegant and timeless choice. I've purchased several Godinger serving pieces over the years, and this manufacturer's quality is very good, especially for the price. All the pieces I have owned or seen in fine gift stores have looked much more expensive than their price tags. The three crystal plates in this server can be removed from the frame or rack for arranging the food or washing after the meal. Because the plates are removable, I recommend filling them and then bringing them to the table before placing them in the rack, which is fitted with rubber feet to avoid marring the table or cloth and folds flat for convenient storage. Godinger crystal and silver 3-tier server
Step 6: Prepare the Tea and Optional Champagne
How to Brew a Proper Pot of English Tea
If you're going to go to serve a traditional English afternoon tea menu with finger sandwiches, homemade scones, biscuits (cookies), shortbread, cakes, fruit tarts, etc., my feeling is that you might as well take the small amount of extra work to brew a traditional pot of loose leaf tea, which will result in a more flavorful beverage. But since these days even proper Brits often use tea bags when brewing their daily cuppa, feel free to do the same if you prefer.
What You'll Need
Start by assembling the necessary supplies. Here's what you'll need:
- A tea kettle for boiling the water on the stove; ideally one that whistles to let you know when the water has built up a good head of steam.
- Note: You can't achieve the necessary full head of steam by boiling water in a saucepan or in the microwave!
- Clean-tasting cold water, either soft tap water or filtered water.
- Good-quality loose black tea or tea bags, preferably from a tin.
- Earl Grey, Darjeeling, Assam and Lapsang Souchong are popular choices; note that Lapsang Souchong, which has a deep, smoky flavor, may be an acquired taste for people outside the UK.
- A proper teapot made of ceramic or china, preferably one that has sieve-like small holes inside where the spout is attached.
- Note: Silver is more formal, but china or ceramic works better.
- A tea cosy (AKA tea cozy) to keep the tea hot for proper steeping and serving.
- A tea strainer or small mesh sieve to strain the leaves while pouring (unless you are using tea bags).
How to Brew a Pot of Tea: Step-by-Step Instructions
- Warm the teapot and place it next to the stove. To do this, boil some water (the microwave is fine for this part) and pour it into the teapot. Cover the teapot with its lid and swirl the water around inside of the pot to warm it up. Then pour out the water and place the teapot next to the stove (where you will boil the fresh, cold water for the tea). It's important to keep the teapot right next to where the kettle will be boiling to minimize the loss of heat and steam inside the kettle between the time it is lifted from the stove top to the time the water is enclosed inside the covered teapot - hence the old saying, "Bring the pot to the kettle, not the kettle to the pot."
- Add the loose tea or tea bags to the warmed teapot. The general rule of thumb is one teaspoon of loose tea or one teabag per full cup of water, plus one extra teaspoon or bag for the pot if you prefer strong tea.
- Boil fresh cold water in a tea kettle. Always start with fresh, cold water (if the water is hard where you live, use filtered water). Pour it into the tea kettle, leaving enough headroom at the top so that the water can boil vigorously and develop a strong head of steam. (Some kettles have fill lines.) Heat it on the stove until it reaches a full, rolling boil and builds up enough steam to make the kettle whistle.
- Steep the tea leaves. Even if you don't use a whistling tea kettle, you'll know when the water reaches a full, rolling boil because steam will be pouring out of the spout. The moment that happens, immediately pour the water over the tea leaves in the warmed teapot and cover it with the lid as quickly as possible. Cover the pot with the tea cosy to keep the tea hot and steep for 3 minutes. Stir the tea and remove the tea bags, if you're using them.
- Pour the tea. If using loose tea, place a tea strainer over each cup before pouring the tea. Allow it to drain and then remove the strainer to a drip cup.
- Use a good-quality tea kettle to boil the water. Don't be tempted to boil the water in a saucepan or a microwave oven, neither of which will allow the water to heat evenly to the proper temperature. I doesn't matter whether you use a stovetop whistling tea kettle or an electric tea kettle as long as it brings the water to a full rolling boil and builds up a good head of steam. I'm partial to the whistling type, because I know that the water is hot enough when I hear the whistle. (There's also something delightfully traditional and British about using one.)
- Don't leave the water boiling before you pour it over the tea; as soon as the kettle is steaming, immediately pour the water into the teapot. This ensures the perfect water temperature for brewing and retains the maximum oxygen in the water.
- Don't allow the boiling water to cool and then bring it back to the boil before pouring it into the tea pot. Twice-boiled water has less oxygen in it, which can flatten the taste of the tea. If you aren't able to pour the water over the tea as soon as it builds up a good head of steam in the kettle, pour it out and start again by boiling fresh, cold water.
- Take care not to burn your hand on the scalding hot steam when you pour the water into the teapot; consider using a potholder.
- Use a proper teapot for brewing. Earthenware teapots hold in the heat best, but a more elegant bone china or porcelain tea pot is fine, too, if you use a tea cozy. A cozy keeps the water in the teapot hot while the leaves are steeping, and also keeps the brewed contents hot for those who want to enjoy a second or third cup.
- Don't let the tea steep any longer than 3 minutes (or the maximum recommended steeping time for the type of tea you are using) so it doesn't become bitter. The key to strong tea that tastes good is adding more tea to the water, not extending the steeping time.
How to Serve Champagne
Before your event, read my article that explains how to properly chill, uncork and pour champagne and the best shape of wine glasses for serving it. Follow the four simple steps to learn to serve champagne like a professional sommelier!
Questions & Answers
© 2013 Margaret Schindel