Tuesday 28 February 2017

Recipes: Brenda Costigan with teatime treats

An afternoon tea of small sandwiches and little cakes is a wonderful Victorian custom we can use to entertain friends, says Brenda Costigan, without all the fuss of serving a meal

Sponge cake
Sponge cake

Tea drinking hit England in 1661, when Charles II married the daughter of the king of Portugal, where tea drinking was already a habit.





However, it didn't become really popular until one of Queen Victoria's ladies-in-waiting, Anna, Duchess of Bedford, who couldn't stand the long gap between the two meals of the day (breakfast and dinner -- no lunch!), asked her servants to bring her tea at four o'clock. This grew into afternoon tea, very much a ladies' event -- so much so that they decided corsets could be left off and tea dresses became fashionable. Posh people in Ireland then adopted the custom and it is a nice way to entertain friends, both women and men, without the fuss of serving a meal.

Small sandwiches and little cakes, with a larger cake as a centrepiece, all presented in a pretty, feminine way, make up typical afternoon-tea fare.

SUMMER SPONGE CAKE

(Pictured)

Light as a feather, an egg sponge is a wonderful summer recipe. Poached blueberries are a delicious moist filling.

You will need:

4 large eggs (at room temperature -- not cold from the fridge)

110g (4oz) caster sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla essence

110g (4oz) flour (not self-raising), sifted

Poached blueberries (see below)

1-2 tablespoons blackcurrant jam

200ml fresh cream, whipped

1-2 teaspoons caster sugar (optional)

Strawberries and blueberries, to decorate

Use two sandwich tins, 18cm (7in) in diameter. Grease the tins with butter and dust with flour. Ideally, put a circle of baking parchment in the base of the prepared tin to make turning out simple.

Preheat the oven to 190 C, 375 F, Gas 5. Lightly whisk the eggs with an electric mixer, then add the caster sugar and the vanilla essence. Whisk until pale and doubled in volume -- maybe 3-5 minutes, or more, depending on the temperature of kitchen and so on. You can judge when you have whisked the mixture sufficiently by lifting up the beaters. The trail of mixture should fall back in a thick ribbon into the bowl and should hold its shape on the surface for about 40 seconds before sinking back in.

Add the sifted flour and, using a metal spoon, gently stir and 'cut' the flour through the mixture, taking care to preserve the little air bubbles, until well mixed. Pour at once into the prepared tins, spreading carefully or tilting the tins to spread the mixture evenly, and put into the oven without delay. Bake for about 12-15 minutes or until the sponge springs back when pressed lightly with your finger. The edges of the sponge will be drawing away ever so slightly from the side of the tins. Turn out on to a wire tray to cool completely.

When cold, place one layer of the sponge, top-side down, on to a plate. Drizzle half of the juices from the poached blueberries over the sponge. Spread the blackcurrant jam gently over them and then scatter half of the cold poached blueberries on top. Spread half the whipped fresh cream, lightly sweetened with the caster sugar, if using it, over the top. Sit the second layer of sponge, top-side up, on the cream. Drizzle the remaining juices from the poached blueberries over it and then scatter over the remaining poached blueberries and spread the remaining cream over the top. Decorate with strawberries and blueberries. Leave to sit for an hour or two before serving, to allow the flavours to mellow together.

POACHED BLUEBERRIES

To provide contrast, these should not be too sweet. They are great on ice cream.

You will need:

150ml (5fl oz) water

1 generously rounded teaspoon cornflour

125g (4 1/2oz) blueberries

1 tablespoon blackcurrant jam

1-2 teaspoons caster sugar

Blend the water into the cornflour in a small saucepan. Add the blueberries and the blackcurrant jam to the saucepan. Bring quickly to the boil, stirring all of the time to thicken slightly. Draw off the heat, sweeten with the caster sugar, cover with a lid and leave to cool.

SWEET SCONES

These melt-in-the-mouth, sweet scones are inspired by the classic American shortcake recipe. Makes 6-8.

You will need:

225g (8oz) self-raising flour

75g (3oz) caster sugar

75g (3oz) butter

1 large egg yolk

120ml (4fl oz) milk (approx)

1/2 teaspoon vanilla essence

To serve, you will need:

175-225 ml (6-8fl oz) fresh cream, whipped

1-2 teaspoons caster sugar (optional)

Raspberry jam (home-made if possible)

Preheat the oven to 190 C, 400 F, Gas 6.

Put the self-raising flour and the caster sugar into a bowl. Add the butter, cut in lumps, and rub in with your fingertips until the mixture is like breadcrumbs. A food processor will do this job in seconds, transfer the resulting mixture to a mixing bowl afterwards.

In a separate container, mix together the egg yolk, the milk and the vanilla essence. Add enough of the liquid ingredients to make a dough that is neither too firm nor too stiff. Knead the dough very gently on a lightly floured board for a few seconds and then turn up the smooth underside. Press the dough with your hands until it is about 2.5cm (1in) thick. Using a scone cutter -- 5cm (2in) in diameter -- cut out the scones, cutting as close together as you can. Gather the scraps, knead lightly and reroll to cut out more scones. But work it minimally, because the more you handle the scone dough, the tougher it gets.

Place on a greased flat baking tin and bake in the oven for about 20-25 minutes until cooked through and golden brown. Cool on a wire tray.

Serve with the raspberry jam and the whipped fresh cream, lightly sweetened with the caster sugar, if using it.

MINI ECLAIRS

If you have not made eclairs before, I would suggest that you shape only one first and bake in the oven. This will allow you to see the size to which the choux pastry will expand during baking and the length of time it takes in the oven and you can make any changes you see fit for the rest. Makes about 20.

For the choux pastry, you will need:

50g (2oz) flour, preferably strong flour (or use white flour, not self-raising)

40g (1 1/2oz) butter, cut into lumps

110ml (4fl oz) water

2 fresh eggs (large)

A few drops vanilla essence

150ml (5fl oz) cream

Caster sugar (optional)

For the chocolate icing, you will need:

110g (4oz) dark chocolate

25g (1oz) butter

2 tablespoons cream

Sieve the flour on to a piece of paper. Put the lumps of butter into a saucepan with the water. Bring to the boil. Immediately add in all the flour -- delay will allow evaporation and upset the balance. Stir this stiff mixture over a gentle heat for about 2-3 minutes, without colouring, to cook the flour. Remove from heat and allow to cool a little.

Add one of the eggs, beating the mixture until smooth -- I use an electric hand mixer for this. Add the vanilla at this stage. Break the second egg into a cup and whisk with a fork. Add gradually to the pastry, beating after each addition until the correct consistency is achieved: soft and glossy yet stiff. The idea is to add as much of the egg as you can, but not too much, otherwise the pastry will be too soft, resulting in flat, not puffed-up, eclairs. Judge this by placing the back of a spoon on to the surface of the pastry. Lift it off with a quick jerk so that the bit of pastry underneath stands in a little peak which should not flop sideways too easily.

Lightly grease a few baking tins or, better still, line with baking parchment. Preheat the oven to 200 C, 400 F, Gas 6.

Using a forcing bag with a plain 2cm (?in) nozzle, pipe out the eclairs about 5cm (2in) long, gently lifting up the pipe and bag with a very gentle flick to disconnect.

Bake for about 15-20 minutes, until well risen, crisp and golden. Don't open the oven door for first 15 minutes or they will collapse. Cool on a wire tray.

Make the icing shortly before serving by melting together the dark chocolate, the butter and the cream in a bowl over a saucepan of simmering boiled water, and then stirring to a smooth mixture.

Whip the cream and sweeten lightly with caster sugar, if you are using it. Slit the side of each eclair with a sharp knife and insert the whipped cream with a spoon or a forcing bag. Spread the icing on top while it is still warm and soft. Chill a little before serving.

SANDWICHES

Sandwiches for afternoon tea should be small and elegant and should always have the crusts removed. Use fresh sliced bread, with a good rectangular shape. Have a very sharp, serrated knife to cut them neatly. Make them a little while in advance, arrange prettily on a plate and decorate with a sprig of parsley. Cover carefully with cling film and store in the fridge to keep fresh. All recipes below serve 3-4.

Cucumber sandwiches

If cucumbers are very juicy, dry briefly on to a paper towel. The filling should be generous. I prefer to leave the skin on the cucumber. Don't forget the salt.

You will need:

6 slices fresh bread

Softened butter

50-75g (2-3oz) natural cream cheese with herbs (see note)

Approximately 1 cucumber, very thinly sliced

Salt

Note:

Buy ready-herbed cream cheese or add your choice of fresh herbs -- parsley, chives, thyme -- very finely chopped, plus salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Butter three slices of bread with the softened butter and the other three slices with the flavoured cream cheese. Arrange the cucumber in two layers on the buttered slices and lightly season with the salt, and top with the slices with the cream cheese. Press firmly, cut off the crusts and divide the sandwiches into triangles or finger shapes.

Egg sandwiches

Mash the eggs while they are still warm, add flavouring and use when cold.

You will need:

3 eggs, hard boiled

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives (optional)

6 slices fresh bread, buttered

Chop the hard-boiled eggs on a large plate and then mash with a fork until finely chopped. Add the mayonnaise and the salt and freshly ground black pepper and the chopped fresh chives, if you are using them.

Divide the filling between three slices of the buttered bread and cover with the remaining three. Press firmly, cut off the crusts and divide into triangles or finger shapes.

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