A good scone is hard to find. And do you know why? Because a scone’s reputation lives and dies on its lightness and freshness. That’s probably why it’s almost impossible to find a decent specimen at any of the chain store coffee shops or markets in this country. They are best eaten fresh from the oven, perfect material for home cooks and really don’t keep for more than a day. Someone should pass that little gem along to the powers that be at Starbucks – their hockey-puck excuses for scones are number one of my “Crudiest Scones” in American list.
When we are catering our tea parties we like to take the pre-cut out frozen scone dough to our clients home and bake them up on site – that way freshness lies!
The humble British Scone, that innocent looking wee thing might not be as fashionable as some baked goods, but they can be gussied up to fit any occasion. Plus, unlike those gooey cupcakes, idiotic cake pops and over hyped French macarons, our classy British scone isn’t loaded down with sugar and butter nor is it slathered in sickly icing or gooey ganache. Right now we are making delicious fresh fruit scones: blueberry, strawberry, raspberry, peach…Satisfying all on their own or accompanied by the requisite toppings – I’m a clotted cream and jam girl myself, but please feel free to top your scone with whatever floats your boat. And of course there are endless variations using dried fruit: traditional currant, cranberry/orange, apricot/ginger, black cherry/chocolate, lemon/poppy seed, or you can go savory route: cheddar cheese and chive, black forest ham and Guyere. Get creative!
So what constitutes a good scone? To find out I donned my pinny and headed into the kitchen for a marathon scone baking session.
My idea of a perfect scone is a moist, light and airy confection that’s capable of standing on its own merit without any additional toppings, well maybe just a smidgen of butter. The light and airy part is all about the raising agent. Up until now I’d just been using baking powder along with unbleached plain flour, but after looking over dozens of recipes, American and British I discovered a whole new world of possibilities.
Some recipes just used self raising flour and nothing else – which just didn’t do it for me. The result was a truly disappointing excuse for a scone. Others called for a combination of self raising flour and baking powder which produced a fairly light and, airy scone, but my favorite combination was definitely the unbleached plain flour with baking soda and cream of tartar – that had a rich golden crumb and a soufle like texture and towered over all our other contenders.
Another important component is the moistening agent. Many batches of scones later the overall winner was buttermilk combined with a little bit of egg, it produced a wonderfully moist texture, that wasn’t cakey and stayed fresher longer than the scones made with whole milk.
And then of course there’s the question of what kind of flour to use? You can’t make a great scone without a good quality flour. Our favorite is King Arthur’s all purpose unbleached flour. We’ve also tried using a light Italian 00 flour, which was brilliant, if a bit pricey.
All scones are made using basically the same method; Sieve together the flour, raising agent and salt (if required) - rub in the butter until you have a fine breadcrumb texture, stir in the sugar, then add the moistening agent. To my mind making scones is rather like making pastry; the little dears don’t like to be man -handled. We use a Cusinart to blend the butter and flour, then we mix in the liquid by hand, being careful not to over mix. We then knead the dough gently on a lightly floured board and we don’t use a rolling pin, instead we flatten them by hand, no thinner than 2.5 cm- using a really sharp plain cutter to make the individual scones.
There’s a dizzying array of scones recipes out there in the baking world. In my experience most of the American recipes are more cakey and sweet than their British cousins. There’s nothing wrong with a cake-like scone and I must say my clients love them. But a truly authentic British scone doesn’t have a lot of sugar or butter, it’s light and airy and honest. Here’s our winning recipe adapted from celebrity British baker Rachel Allen. Of the four batches of scones we made this was by far and away everyones favorite. Rachel is big name baker in the UK and I love her down to earth always reliable recipes and baking tips. Oh one thing – the Brits are very keen on “rounded tsp & Tbs – this roughly translates to “heaped” – Give them a try!
LIGHT SWEET SCONES:
1 IIb 2oz plain unbleached flour
1 rounded tsp of baking soda
2 rounded tsp cream of tartar
1 tsp salt
4 1/2 oz unsalted butter
2oz caster sugar
1 egg beaten
9 fl oz (275ml) buttermilk
1. Preheat oven to 425
2. Add flour, baking soda, cream of tartar and salt to cuisinart and combine with 2 or 3 pulses.
3. Cut the butter into cubes and add to the flour mixture. Mix until you have a fine crumb. Add the sugar and mix again. Dump the flour mix into a large mixing bowl.
4. Mix the egg with the buttermilk and slowly add to the crumb mix – using a wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Mix until the dough begins to come together. Then using lightly floured hands gather the dough together and dump it onto a lightly floured board. Pull it together and knead gently. Then press it flat with your hands until it’s roughly 2.5 cm thick.
5. We use a 1 3/4″ cutter for our mini scones.
6. Brush scones with some of the beaten egg & buttermilk mixture, sprinkle with sugar (the Brits won’t approve of that part, but I think it’s a nice touch) and bake in the oven for 10-12 minutes or until golden brown on top. Eat as soon as possible!
On the front lines of the tea party catering business there are two thing that are inevitable: breakages and losses. Tea cups are dropped, lost, cracked or just too stained and crackled inside to measure up our exacting standards. Saucers are packed into the wrong boxes, dropped (usually by one of my staff while washing up- I love you girls but you know who you are- Marie! ) or damaged during transit (one of my staff packing too many saucers into one box – Marie!!).
And so I find myself to be the owner of great stacks of saucers without teacups and teetering towers of teacups that have been abandoned by their mates.
Now I’m one of those people who hate throwing ANYTHING away. So I keep all my orphaned beauties on the off chance that one day their long lost mate might somehow miraculously appear – poof! Or perhaps I’ll come across a perfect match at a flea market or antique store. Oh happy day! I swear my brain has a separate compartment where most people probably store terribly important and very useful factual information, but mine is jam-packed with individual snap shots of each and every member of my lonely hearts club. I am on a mission to reunite each and every one of them with their true love.
However, on the off chance that some of my beauties never find their sole mate… I started thinking about ways to recycle them – Heaven forbid I should chuck them. I’m no Martha Stewart, mainly because let’s face it, who has the time to be Martha Stewart? I’m sure she’s the first person in the world to have been cloned, there’s no way she does all she does, is there?
The first thing I came up with was some beautifully ornate cake stands. And I admit that I cadged the idea from an interior design client who was only too willing to share her inspirations. I used a lot of our cast off china pieces along with plates I found in antique stores. God bless Epoxy. Only problem with the stuff is that it tends to come unstuck when it gets a little hot under the collar – note to self – don’t leave cake stands in boiling hot car, there will be tears! And check out “cement” alternatives – it’s a learning curve, I’m sure Martha understands .
The trick, when building your stand is to make sure that the layers are graduating – starting off with a large plate and reducing as you build your tower of china.
My first one looked like the leaning tower of pisa – measuring and marking the center of each plate is a must – so is having an extra pair of hands and eyes around to make sure the plates are centered, plus it’s more fun getting epoxied to a plate when you have someone around to laugh with!
Also, it helps the end result to have some kind of color scheme in mind. The end result is spectacular – see for yourself:
I love Mother’s Day, I think it’s much more fun than a birthday – it’s a great excuse to be queen for a day! Now how often does that happen? I find that birthdays are always rather anti-climatic,they almost never live up to expectations. But Mother’s Day is a sort of “no pressure included” kind of a holiday for mums of every kind. And I don’t just mean mum’s with kids, I think Mother’s Day is a holiday for anyone who’s nurtured and taken care of anyone or anything – most of us girls are nurturers by nature but not all get the opportunity to bear children, which doesn’t mean they should be excluded from this day of mummy worship.
Our Mother’s Day weekend was a busy one with two mother daughter tea parties. Once again I failed to conjure up a clone of myself and so wasn’t able to be in two places at once. I settled for our Brentwood party, mainly because (it was close by) and we were trying out our cupcake decorating activity for the first time. In the past we’ve always hired an outside company to carry ou this sugar fueled deed, but I thought it was time for me and my girls to get down and dirty
Here is my motley crue – a no- nonsense gang of tea pot weilding Brits. Well 2 of them. The middle beauty is Canadian, so that’s close!
The preparation was a bit of pain – pre-filling 30 icing bags with frosting… We did chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and lemon. But in the end using pre-loaded bags was much easier for everyone – the kids & my staff. Actually it was a totally selfish inspiration in that the clean up is a breeze, plus the kids don’t smear frosting all over themselves and everything else within reach. It’s also fun for the kids to learn a new skill.
The day before the party we baked up full size chocolate and vanilla cup cakes, one of each for every child. This way they got to decorate both cakes, eat one at the party and take the other one home in a cute box to share with mum. Or not.
It was a full service sit down tea and a scorchingly hot day. We had mums at one long table in the blissful shade of the veranda and kids at two round tables in the garden. However, fried children were not on the menu, so we ended up moving two 60 inch round tables fully set with tea china up onto the veranda, no small feat let me tell you! It was a five woman job per table, followed by an ice cold lemonade chaser.
Mother’s feasted on curried chicken salad and arugula salad with shaved parmesan along with traditional tea sandwiches, scones with clotted cream & organic strawberry jam and fruit. For the children we made adorable heart shaped tea sandwiches, fruit wands and hand decorated heart shaped cookies. As usual the children didn’t eat much because they couldn’t wait to get to the cup cake decorating dessert!
Once the kids had finished picking at their tea time spread we cleared the tables, took away the chairs and set the stage for the cupcake decorating madness. Two staffers per table to help the kids master the icing bags and prevent total sugar overload (we failed). Everyone had a blast, kids and staff alike. They produced some wicked cupcakes, loaded down with multicolored icing and enough sugar to feed the entire population of America for a year!
The clean up was simple, no mess, no fuss – By jove, I do believe we nailed it! Our maiden voyage into the world of children’s party activities was deemed to be a huge success by all who sailed in her.
I have to say I was glad to get home later that afternoon, put my feet up and swig down a good strong cup of tea (without a cookie). Sugar overload is a sure fire way to put you off the sweet stuff for days.
Catering two sit down tea parties on the same day in two far flung reaches of Los Angeles is not a job for sissies. It requires military like precision, lots of list making, a love hate relationship with Costco, and plenty of back-up from a team of dedicated tea mavens. But I’m happy to report that we aced them both.
We were up bright and early on Saturday morning – 5.00am call (groan) at our kitchen, making a shed load of sandwiches and baking up dozens of our fresh strawberry, blueberry and raspberry scones. Of course we had to taste test a few of those babies- quality control you understand and you can’t expect an army of tea pot wielding staffers to pour on an empty stomach.
By 9.00am we were ready for business. Both orders were packed up, checked, double and triple checked (it’s my worse nightmare to arrive at a location only to discover that someone forgot to load in the scones – and yes it’s happened, but only once and never again!) One set of staffers headed off to Pasadena and me and my team to Brentwood. For those of you who know nothing about the geographical layout of Los Angeles -both places are about an hours drive apart – that’s on a good day with very little traffic and when you’ve lived in LA long enough you learn to always allow yourself plenty of time to get from point A to point B – Traffic is totally unpredictable, but a fact of life in the City of Angels (none of whom drive). I had thought of trying to clone myself so that I could be at both parties at once, but I soon learned that was not possible, learning to delegate was a much more realistic option and so that’s what I settled for.
One of the many things I love about my job is all the gorgeous homes we get to work in. And believe me we get to see some incredible homes, many of which are featured in glossy architectural magazines. But this mediterranean style home in Brentwood definitely made it onto my top ten favorite homes ever. Our hostess had pitch perfect taste, everywhere you turned there was something beautiful to feast your eyes upon. It felt as if we had been transported to the South of France.
It was a picture perfect sun drenched California Saturday and the outdoor garden setting for the party couldn’t have been more beautiful. The garden was a glorious overflowing mass of colors with cascading deep pink bouganvillia covering the walls, delicately scented white roses scattered here and there and Meyer lemon trees heavy with fruit.
As guests arrived they were directed to the downstairs pool area for hors d’oeuvres & chilled rose wine and were encouraged to get creative at a crafts table decorating plain white baby ones-ies with colored markers & glitter.
The highlight of the afternoon unfolded just before the guests sat down for lunch. No one (except the expectant parents) knew the gender of the new baby. There was of course much debating amongst the guests and lots of stroking of the mum to be’s baby bump, trying to predict the sex of the unborn one. Guests were ushered from the pool area up to the dining patio and presented with a champagne toast and then to great fanfare…. hundreds and hundreds of pink balloons were released up into the blue, blue California sky. Glasses were raised in congratulations as everyone cheered and chanted ”It’s a girl, it’s a girl!” Only in Hollywood!
And so to lunch…Which was a witty modern interpretation of a traditional tea, just the way I like it. No fuss, and not a lace doiley in sight. Guests feasted on a buffet of lightly curried chicken salad with fresh mango and grapes, a delicious tabouleh salad loaded with fresh mint, parsley, cucumber & tomatoes, Organic arugula salad with shaved parmesan and mini heirloom tomatoes tossed with a balsamic vinaigrette, along with a selection of delicate finger sandwiches and an organic vegetable platter with homemade hummus and spinach and kale dips. Favorite desserts included our fresh fruit scones (of course) with homemade strawberry jam and devonshire cream, cupcakes with baby bottle decorations, masses of homemade cookies and (for those ladies watching their figures) a beautiful fresh fruit bowl. All washed down with more champagne and loose leaf English breakfast, fresh mint and Darjeeling teas. A perfect contemporary tea time inspired luncheon!
Once the guests were fed and my staffers were busy pouring the drinks I made my exit and headed over to the Pasadena party. Thankfully the traffic was relatively light and by the time I arrived at my destination everything had been cleared away ready for me to collect and bring back to the kitchen. Actually I was rather disappointed, I’d hoped to get an eye-full of the beautifully orchestrated Bridal shower tea – in yet another picture perfect home. But hey, I shouldn’t complain, at least I didn’t have to do any washing-up. My staff did a stellar job and the client was blissfully happy. There was a professional photographer taking pictures, which I hope to be able to share with you very soon.
We loaded up my SUV and then it was back on the road for the return trip to Brentwood, to help clear up and make sure the client was still smiling. The party was winding down by the time I finally arrived, exhausted but relieved that the day had been a success.
Guest’s party favors were 2 deliciously delicate pink macarons from Botegga Louie – presented in the most exquisite pink and white jewel boxes. A perfect ending to a perfect day.
Finally! We have a beautiful new website that brings our vintage tea party catering business into the 21st century. I hope you’ll find the site easy to navigate and that you’ll enjoy visiting our social media pages- I know I certainly have fun posting on them sharing our adventures in the tea business. Plus I now have this blog to keep everyone up to date on our tea party adventures.
Anyone for tea? Catering is on a mission to take the stuffy out of tea parties. This is not your grandmother’s tea party! No pinkie waggling, no lace doilies (I hate doilies) and no hockey puck scones or soggy cucumber sandwiches. Our vintage tea parties are full of fun, fancy and fantastic food. Tea with a sense of humor and some quirky British style. Throw in a bottle of bubbly or maybe a tea infused Mar-tea-ni and well, I’d say you have the makings for a perfect afternoon with friends and family.
We’re gearing up for two tea parties this coming Saturday, a bridal shower and a baby shower, one in Brentwood and the other in La Canada Flintridge – I’ve decided to clone myself so that I’ll be able to be at both parties (horrible control freak that I am – this is where it’s time for me to learn how to delegate and have faith in my trusty staffers -) The Mad hatter madness begins on Thursday when we start prepping and baking. Check back with us on Sunday – when hopefully I will have pulled myself together and be in a fit state to start blogging our party reports.
I like pouring your tea, lifting
the heavy pot, and tipping it up,
so the fragrant liquid streams in your china cup.
Or when you’re away, or at work,
I like to think of your cupped hands as you sip,
as you sip, of the faint half-smile of your lips.
I like the questions – sugar? – milk? –
and the answers I don’t know by heart, yet,
for I see your soul in your eyes, and I forget.
Jasmine, Gunpowder, Assam, Earl Grey, Ceylon,
I love tea’s names. Which tea would you like? I say
but it’s any tea for you, please, any time of day,
as the women harvest the slopes
for the sweetest leaves, on Mount Wu-Yi,
and I am your lover, smitten, straining your tea.