Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Tea Tasting with Teavivre

Teavivre in China was kind enough to send me some samples of their teas to try, so over the weekend I decided I would have a bit of a "formal" tea tasting.

The teas were packaged with great care and even had bubble wrap around them. I've never seen such well-protected packages of tea!

I'm always impressed when I see a label that includes all the information I need for preparing tea. Many of them seem to provide only general directions, but this one was very specific about the Keemun Hao Ya. When I opened the tea, I first noticed a very fresh, woodsy scent. During my year of "tea tastings" a few years ago, I developed a real appreciation for that fresh, earthy scent, which usually meant I was going to like that particular tea.

First, I scooped some tea into my tasting cup before adding the water.

Then I let it steep for about 2 minutes, the low end of the timing scale, because I've learned I prefer my teas this way. With the china tea tasting set my husband got me for Christmas, I poured off the tea, which you accomplish by tilting the lidded mug over into the tea bowl.

Here's what the steeped tea looked like, a nice coppery red color.

And this is what the wet leaf looked like. The taste was a brisk black, woodsy tea flavor that I was happy to find had very little astringency afterwards. I very much enjoyed my first experience sampling a Teavivre tea, and in fact I was able to get three more cups of tea from subsequent steepings of these leaves, each one steeped for just a little longer than the first. For more information, visit the Teavivre website here.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Mad over macarons!

Friends, I am doing the happy dance because I attempted my first-ever batch of macarons this weekend and they turned out beautifully! I had been so intimidated at the thought of making these legendary French pastries that I'd put off even trying them. Yes, they were a little labor intensive at first, but I have to tell you I was absolutely thrilled with the results!

First things first: I found a terrific book that explained in great detail how to make them, and I highly, highly recommend you get yourself a copy of "Macaroons" with text by Angela Drake. I found mine for $3.99 at a Marshalls store back before Christmas. (I've also seen these at both Amazon.com and BN.com for $2.99-$3.20, so they're obviously on sale right now!) Now here I must address the macaron vs. macaroon issue. This book is printed by Parragon Books in the UK, and they call these treats "macaroons." In the U.S., however, we call these "macarons" to distinguish them from the more familiar coconut macaroons. Wikipedia says this about the matter: "Since the English word macaroon can also refer to the coconut macaroon, many have adopted the French spelling of macaron to distinguish the two items in the English language. However, this has caused confusion over the correct spelling. Some recipes exclude the use of macaroon to refer to this French confection while others think that they are synonymous." I am casting my vote for "macaron" and shall henceforth use it when describing these treats.

The book begins with photos of the 10 steps you need to take when making macarons. I read this chapter over several times before I started. One other challenge I found as a U.S. reader was that the recipe called for confectioners' sugar as well as "superfine" sugar. Say what? An internet search revealed that plain old granulated sugar can be pulverized very finely until it becomes "superfine" sugar. I used a (thoroughly cleaned and dried) coffee grinder to turn my granulated sugar into this light fluffy sugar. Amazing!

I thought about trying to summarize the macaron recipe here, but to be honest with you I would be doing you a disservice to shorten it, and I don't want the UK copyright police coming after me because I've copied so much of the book! So I'll just say this: if you can't find a copy of this book, search out a macaron recipe and some *thorough* step-by-step instructions on the internet. I believe this makes all the difference! When I got my little circles of batter piped onto parchment paper-lined cookie sheets, here's what they looked like before baking. The question of the day was, "Will they have that famous little 'foot' that macarons have?"

Yes! See the little puffy part peering out from beneath that nice, smooth top? The puffy part is the foot.

The filling was super easy to whip up, and sandwiching the pieces together to make a macaron was a breeze. Here's my very first one. Ever! (I'm so proud, I may send out announcements.)

The book includes 30 different flavors of macarons, and now I'm ready to liven up my teatimes by trying the Chocolate, Green Tea, Pistachio, and Nutty Banana & Toffee flavors. But considering that I had really anticipated a flop with my first batch, I am simply delighted with the crunchy little tops and the silky smooth filling in these oh-so-worth-it Vanilla Macarons!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Teatime Giveaway #4 - Seeds for your tea garden

Congratulations to the week #3 giveaway winner, Frivolitea! And now for this week's giveaway, we have a little something I hope will appeal to the garden lovers among us, a new set of gardening gloves and some seeds for tea-themed plants. It's going to be time to start seeds indoors soon, depending on where you live, so I thought I'd better go ahead and have this giveaway now!

The seeds were generously provided by Renee's Garden, and I've had very good luck with their seeds in the past. The seed packets include Earl Grey Larkspur, Zinger Hibiscus ...

... Cathedral Bells (also known as Cup and Saucer Vine) and Teatime Four O'Clocks. For your chance to win, just leave an "Enter me" between now and Friday, Feb. 3, at noon EST. Good luck!

Friday, January 27, 2012

My (tea) cup runneth over - with paperwhites!

A few days before Christmas, I decided I should try to grow some paperwhites. I bought one of the last boxes of bulbs at a Whole Foods in Atlanta, and when I got home I carefully planted them. Following package directions, I put them in growing medium and then placed them in the cool garage for two weeks. Here are some early results!

Just as promised, after two weeks some leaves appeared, and soon enough I had flowers!

They're temporarily in a large teacup planter on the dining table.

Strong roots appear to have developed, and I can't get over how easy these are to grow!

I've read these can be transplanted to the garden pretty easily, so when the blooms have run their course I'll give them a new home outdoors. If you have any advice in this area, please chime in!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

"Secret Recipes of Famous TeaRooms"

One of my more obscure tea-themed collections is old booklets pertaining to opening a tea room. This one, "Secret Recipes of Famous TeaRooms," was offered by the Lewis Tea Room Institute as a marketing brochure for their program.

One of its recipes that especially intrigued me was this one for the "Frozen Teapot Dainty." If you double-click on the image you should be able to read the whole page, and the part I liked best was where we're told "teapot-shaped molds for dainties may be ordered from any can factory or tinner." I seem to have misplaced the number for my local can factory or tinner, so if you would like to share yours that would be great! ;)

It's interesting to note that at one time, opening a tea room was one of the few occupations a "respectable" woman could aspire to, and here Mary Catherine Lewis seems to be encouraging readers to give this career some serious consideration. There's no date on this booklet, but I'm guessing it's from the 1920s or 1930s. And meanwhile, if you should ever run across a teapot-shaped tin ice cream mold, please let me know!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"Tea With Bea" from Bea's of Bloomsbury

It was the sort of moment that makes me nervous. A friend and I were at lunch a few weeks after Christmas and she was apologizing for the lateness of my Christmas gift. I happen to *like* late gifts, because it helps extend the holiday season, but then my friend had me look down in the bag and I realized it contained a book. As I started to unwrap it, she said, "Promise me something before you open it." I said, "OK ... what?" "If you've already got it, you'll tell me." My heart sank as I agreed, because chances were good this would be a duplicate of one of my many tea books. So I was more than a little happy when I removed the tissue paper and found a book that existed only on my Amazon Wish List, "Tea with Bea."

Bea Vo, who was born in the D.C. area, graduated from Cornell, studied at Le Cordon Bleu and opened London's Bea's of Bloomsbury in 2008. Bea's has been noted for having one of the best afternoon teas in London. She writes that she was initially hesitant when asked to write a cookbook, figuring "all of the greats have already covered almost every single possible recipe and technique there is to think of that we currently use in our own kitchens." But then she realized "cookbooks aren't just textbooks—they are a reflection of a particular chef's point of view," and readers will be glad she decided to go ahead with the project.

Oh, my, do these recipes look terrific! They range from perfect little squares of Lavender Shortbread to Ultimate Afternoon Tea Scones, a decadent Frangipane Raspberry Cake, a sweet and tart Key Lime Pie and some fine looking Doughnut Muffins (a doughnut lover, she shares my love of Krispy Kreme!). She also offers tips on preparing "perfect tea" and "perfect coffee," and her tips on baking are both helpful and fun to read.

If you don't happen to have any more belated Christmas gifts on the way, I say just go ahead and gift this book to yourself!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Just cutting up!

Sometimes, it's those items I use the most I have the hardest time replacing. But when my trusty old cutting board started looking a bit raggedy, I knew it was time to act. I just didn't know I would find a new one with teacups on it!

OK, so technically it's a tempered glass cheese server, but in a household of two people a small cutting board is just hunky dory. It has padded feet on back, too, which keep it from slipping around on the counter.

I just love this cute teacup design! It was also nice that this board was on clearance at a T.J. Maxx in Marietta for just $5 (and I had a gift certificate, too, so really it was free; it has occurred to me that if T.J Maxx would sell eggs, produce and milk I'd hardly ever have to visit another store!).

If you've got to spend some time in the kitchen chopping up the vegetables, I say, why not do it in style!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Kusmi Tea Sweet Love

Kusmi Tea sent a press release offering to let me try their Sweet Love blend, and naturally I said yes, I'd love to try it! With Valentine's Day not too far away, I thought I'd better go ahead and review this tea now so those interested would have plenty of time to order.

Opening the box I expected great things, because I have had a good experience with the few Kusmi Tea blends I have tried in the past. A friend gave me a tin of their Spicy Chocolate Tea a year or so ago, and I rediscovered it recently and it is still terrific.

The bright pink box was packed with their nice muslin tea bags.

Cute graphic on the side, too, but the best thing of all was the wonderful peppery/spicy taste of this tea! Spice notes are what greet you when you open the box, and the blend contains black tea, liquorice root, guarana seed (which is a stimulant, and I'm definitely open to the boost in energy!), pink peppercorn and spices. Best of all, this tea is incredibly sweet tasting, and I observed that it really did keep me from wanting anything else sweet the night I first tried it. It is a wonderful dessert tea. If you're looking for a new blend to try ahead of the month of love, I can highly recommend this one! Go here to find out more about this tea and see Kusmi's other offerings.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Teatime Giveaway #3 - Teapot Stamp & Notepad

The winner of the Week 2 gourmet teas giveaway is Judith of Lavender Cottage. Congratulations! And for this week's offering, I came across a couple of goodies in Michaels the other day that gently whispered "Teatime Giveaway" to me. First, there's a rubber stamp with a classy looking teapot design. This could be used for something as simple as stamping the back of an envelope containing a tea invitation or as elaborate as stamping repeated images onto scrapbooking paper or as part of a collage.

It's also the design featured on this pretty weekly calendar notepad. Don't you think you would enjoy recording the week's activities on pretty paper like this?

Both items can be yours if you leave an "Enter me" to this post anytime between now and Friday, Jan. 27, at noon EST. Good luck!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Halle Bros. Almond Rarebit

The first time I ate the curiously-named Welsh Rarebit, pronounced like "rabbit," I was at the Pavilion Tea House in Greenwich, England. I had just enjoyed a terrific visit aboard the Cutty Sark, the famous tea clipper ship in dry dock, and I had stopped for a bite to eat. I wasn't quite sure what Welsh Rarebit actually was, but it sounded like the sort of thing one should have in England, so I did. And it was basically cheese and toast--good cheese and toast, but cheese and toast just the same.

Legend has it that the name is a corruption of the word "rabbit," which in England was the poor man's meat. The "meat" of the poor in Wales was said to be cheese, and thus the name Welsh Rarebit. This dish was one served at the Halle Bros. Tea Room in Cleveland, Ohio, and I decided to make it for supper one night. It's fast and easy comfort food with an interesting history, and a tea room connection to boot.

Halle's Almond Rarebit
Adapted from the booklet "Holiday Treats and Elegant Buffet Dishes"

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tablespoons flour (add another spoonful if needed to thicken)
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1 cup milk
1 cup whipping cream
A drop or two of Tabasco sauce
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 pound sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
1/3 cup slivered almonds, toasted

Melt butter in top of double boiler and using a whisk, stir in flour, mustard, salt and paprika. Stir in milk and cream slowly until smooth and thick. Add Tabasco sauce, Worcestershire sauce and cheese. Whisk until lumps disappear. Pour over toast. Sprinkle generously with almonds. Yields 6 servings.

Halle's and its tea room seem to be on my radar this winter, because I recently came across an old pewter looking teapot online which came from the Halle's Tea Room. Now while I have various china pieces from old department stores (like the Strawbridge & Clothier teacup I wrote about last week), I have only a few teawares that I'm sure were actually used in the store's tea room. This 5-1/2-inch-tall teapot is one such piece, and I know that because ...

...it is marked "The Halle Bros. Co. Tea Room" on the bottom. A fun find, and I'd love to think some customer had tea poured from it to enjoy with her Halle's Almond Rarebit! (Question: Would you try polishing this or leave it as is? Maybe I could try a spot on the back?)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

E & J Bass silverplate sugar tongs

Several years ago a friend needed sugar tongs so I gave her a vintage silverplate set I'd gotten at a tearoom (now closed) which had stocked lots of old ones. I still had a couple of new pair, and an old sterling silver pair, but I always knew I'd like to find some old silverplate ones again one day. I wasn't in any hurry, though, so I was quite pleased when I happened upon this pair for $6.95 at an antique mall the other day. Ladies at my tea parties always seem to enjoy using the sugar tongs, perhaps because this is an accoutrement we don't tend to use in everyday life.

Now first of all, I must say right up front I am *horrible* at photographing silver items, so bear with me today! But I wanted to show what I originally believed to be an antique finish on this design. I polished and polished—and I happen to love polishing silver—but still had blackness around the design. I thought perhaps it's supposed to be this way, but then I saw this same pair online (for $48), all nice and sparkly with no black. Back to the drawing board! (Or the polishing board, as it were.)

The other fun thing about finding old silver is that it sets me on a mystery hunt to find out about the maker. I'm always pleased to be able to see the hallmarks on silver, and this time I was searching for E & I B until I cleaned the tongs and found the letters are actually E & J B. My hopefully helpful hint: Sometimes I have trouble seeing the hallmarks even with my reading glasses and a magnifying glass, but if I take a photo and enlarge it on my computer, that always works! (And the spoon part isn't mildewed, by the way. That green color is a reflection of trees or grass since I was outdoors!) A little online surfing revealed the letters stand for the E & J Bass company in New York, which made sterling and silverplate pieces from 1890-1930. There are so many websites devoted to silver hallmarks these days that if you don't know whether something is American or British, or whether it's silverplate or sterling, by all means start typing what you *do* know about the piece into a search engine and you'll soon have plenty of helpful information!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"Vintage Tea Party" by Carolyn Caldicott

Last week I received a review copy of a soon-to-be-released book I'd been itching to get my hands on, "Vintage Tea Party" by Carolyn Caldicott, who with Chris Caldicott once ran a café in London's Covent Garden. This book is even more lovely than I'd hoped it would be, picturing flea market stalls of chintz teawares, close-ups of freshly-made tea sandwiches and sweets, and thatched-roof cottages in the English countryside. And while the book is full of terrific eye candy for tea lovers, it's also quite an inspiring read. Giving advice on "Where To Find the Vintage Look," Caldicott says a collector of vintage teawares first should always check with family, who may have unused pieces they're willing to share. "Once you have exhausted the possibilities at home," she says, "it is time to hit the local charity shops, the final destination of many a spring clean, offering an endlessly changing supply of bric-a-brac, linen and cutlery."

A brief history of tea is a nice addition (and would make this book a great gift for those new to tea), but as always I learned something new myself. While I'd read about Anna, Duchess of Bedford and her legendary "sinking feeling" which led to the beginning of afternoon tea, Caldicott surprised me by tossing in a tidbit I've never read before. "Fortified by her tasty repast she soon decided to share the experience with her lady friends by sending out invitations for 'Tea and a walk in the fields.'" So the Duchess and friends were walkers! Nice to know!

Following a few pages on the basics of selecting and preparing a good cup of tea, the book offers recipes for jam, finger sandwiches, cakes, cookies, bite-sized sweets, and all manner of treats you'd love to make or eat. I especially like the recipes for High Tea, which the author notes is "a much more generous meal" and "traditionally served at the end of the working day." Welsh Rarebit and Crumpets are two of the recipes featured here, with other chapters spotlighting Tea in the Drawing Room, Tea in the Garden, Fireside Tea and Nursery Tea. With terrific photography by Chris Caldicott, this book is a must for those of us who favor all things vintage—and all things tea!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Herbal Essences with Citrus Blossom & Green Tea

Last week's list of must-have grocery items included new shampoo and conditioner, and since the Herbal Essences brand was on sale I looked through the different choices to see if anything struck my fancy.

Naturally, I had to try the ones with Citrus Blossom & Green Tea!

Both products do indeed contain camellia sinensis leaf extract, so that was a plus. And the scent is just incredible, a strong (but pleasing) floral. While the shampoo and conditioner were not quite as thick as I like, for aromatherapy reasons alone I'm happy I gave these products a try. If you've tried them, I'd like to hear your review!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Some weekend scone-baking

Over the weekend I spent a lot of time de-cluttering and organizing, from the pantry to the craft room. But before I began, I'd had a hankering to try a new scone recipe I saw in the February issue of Martha Stewart Living, so Saturday morning I baked up a batch!

Martha devotes her column this time to scones, which she says are one of America's three favorite breakfast breads, the other two being muffins and biscuits. She includes recipes for four varieties of scone, including Candied Orange and Golden Raisin Scones, Potato Scones, Rich Cream Scones and ...

... the ones I made, Apple and Oat Scones with Cinnamon and Nutmeg. (I don't have permission to share the recipe, but I've noticed Martha usually ends up putting many of hers online eventually.) She shares a technique for easily baking them in square shapes, but I have a square brownie pan which did the same thing fuss-free.

And now may I share a word about the pretty glass plate my scones are on? It was a gift! A few weeks back, I mentioned finding some square plates I'd been seeking. A few weeks later, I arrived home one evening and a surprise package was on my doorstop from reader Margie in California.

She had remembered how happy I was to finally locate some affordable square glass plates, and she thought this lovely handled plate she had would be a good blend. Indeed it is! I love the pretty etched design—and I especially love the thoughtfulness behind the gift.

Even the handle is elegant, and this was just the thing for turning some "Saturday scones" into something special!