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Tea Cakes

A couple of the tea houses I’ve reviewed serve a slice of tea cake with their scone course, and it got me thinking (as so many things do) about what exactly is a tea cake. Since it’s a cake and a lot of the mini desserts served at tearooms are little cakes, why is it served in the scone course and not the dessert course? Burning questions!

Well I did some digging. Turns out the answer is as simple as you’d think!

 

Are they cakes?

Tea cake as a cake (no it's not the scone or the muffin)

Tea cake as a cake (no it’s not the scone or the muffin)

In some parts of the world, yes. When a tea cake is literally a small slice of cake (typical of Australian, North America, and India), it is usually a pound, heavy sponge, or spice cake.  Only a single layer, these tea cakes are not frosted, but instead are topped with a dusting of powdered sugar or a light glaze. The spice cake is more common in North America, while the heavy sponge variety is found in Australia or India. When a tea cake is basically a pound cake, it’s just a tearoom’s variation on the slightly more traditional cake served. Tea cakes—when they are cakes—can also contain fruits such as cranberries, blueberries, or apricots.

 

Are they bread?

In some parts of the world, yes. A tea cake is more akin to a bread when served in the United Kingdom. A small, sweet, yeast-based bun often containing dried fruit, a tea cake is typically split, toasted, and buttered to be served with tea. The most famous tea cake is served in Bath, England and is known as a Sally Lunn. Top it with cinnamon butter and be prepared to die from deliciousness overdose.

Bread-like tea cakes are also served in Sweden where they are a sweetened wheat soda bread served with butter and jam.

 

Are they cookies?

Tea cakes as a cookie (photo credit foodsofourlives.com)

Tea cakes as a cookie (photo credit foodsofourlives.com)

In some parts of the world, yes.  Cookie tea cakes are dense cookies made with sugar, butter, eggs, flour, milk, and additional flavorings.  Common flavors are nut-based like almond or hazelnut.  They are very dense and crumbly, and can be quite messy as they are usually coated in a layer of powdered sugar.  When they first crumbed into the world, they were an accompaniment to bitter teas; the sugar both in the cookie and the coating were meant to balance the astringency from black tea.

Now a cookie tea cake by any other name is still a cookie tea cake, but they are also commonly known as Russian tea cakes, Mexican wedding cakes/cookies, polvornes, or butterballs.

 

Hmmm…with all these different answers for “what is a tea cake” I may have to do a recipe series for you so you can try them all!

Review: The Huntington Library Rose Garden Tea Room

Rose Garden Tea Room

Rose Garden Tea Room

The standard for tearooms in Pasadena and Los Angeles—according to the casual partaker of afternoon tea—seems to be the tearoom at The Huntington Library. When people discover that you are a tea aficionado and are trying all the tearooms you can find, they usually ask if you have gone to The Huntington yet. So at the behests of Once Upon an Afternoon Tea readers, I took the plunge and made reservations for this must-do afternoon tea.

 

Follow the Signs to Afternoon Tea

Follow the Signs to Afternoon Tea

First Impressions and Service

The first thing I noticed when we entered the one room restaurant was the noise, followed by the beehive of servers running around like rabid dogs were nipping at their heels. I understood that it was a Sunday and the place was full, but was it necessary to seem so panicked? A good server who is overwhelmed knows how to hide that from the customers. Server 101, Lesson 1: Your guests should never know that you can’t handle your section. Once seated, the server situation only felt worse.  No sooner had we sat then she ran over with a breadbasket of mini scones, rattled off the flavors, and pushed us into ordering the house tea. The entire hour we were there (and note most afternoon teas we do take between 90 minutes and two hours from start to finish) we felt like they wanted nothing more than for us to scarf down food, pay our check, and leave so they could flip our table to another party. It became an act of defiance to sit there and sip tea slowly. I personally would rather have an almost nonexistent server than one who overzealously tries to push me out the door.

 

Décor

IMG_4347The walls, curtains, and upholstery were all in shades of “old crazy cat lady” yellow, tan, and peach. The curtains were an ancient floral pattern in desperate need of updating. But the worst part of the décor came not from the paint or fabrics, but from the room’s arrangement. You are literally less than six inches from the nearest table with only the narrowest of walkways behind your chair for the mad servers to run behind. China is no china at all, but plain white porcelain? Whatever the material that typical restaurant plates and coffee cups are made out of? Nothing felt comfortable or inviting in the slightest. It was less a tearoom than a room that serves little sandwiches and desserts and whose only beverage is tea.

 

Tea Selection

What selection? If The Huntington had a tea selection, we had no knowledge of it. There is no tea menu (there is no menu at all) and our aforementioned pushy server immediately did a hard sell for the house tea. She never said anything about other options of tea, so we kind of assumed that there wasn’t another option until we heard her tell the table next to us—or rather on top of us—that if they weren’t going to succumb to her forcing the house tea on them, they could choose Earl Grey. By then we were almost done and the blackberry black tea was fine enough to drink. I wonder if she makes commission on how many tables order the blackberry tea?

Hope you like blackberry

Hope you like blackberry

On top of that, warming up the tea consisted of adding hot water to the tea already brewing and becoming bitter in our table’s teapot. I don’t understand how people really believe that adding hot water makes a difference in the bitterness of over-steeped tea, because it doesn’t. The tea is just as over-brewed with extra water as it was before the second pouring.

 

Food

The Huntington Tearoom does not do a traditional afternoon tea service, no matter what they claim on their website. Instead of the typical three-tiered stands with finger sandwiches, scones, and little desserts, they have a buffet in the middle of the room. IMG_0621While great for those with appetites that surpass a usual afternoon tea quantity, a buffet only serves to enhance the feeling of being rushed through like cattle for the rest of us. Note, however, that at the end of your meal the server will bring by a plastic bag for you to bag your scones to-go in, so eat your fill of the sandwiches and desserts and save the scones for later to get the most out of your money.

Take them away...literally

Take them away…literally

Sandwiches

The advantage of a buffet is that there are more options than most tearooms offer for finger sandwiches and if you like particular ones you can have more of those and not waste your stomach on those you dislike (no mayo for me! Extra smoked salmon!).

Grab only what you want to try :)

Grab only what you want to try :)

A debate between Mom and me arose with the Tarragon Chicken Sandwich (chicken, tarragon, mayo, walnuts, and celery on wheat bread): She tasted tarragon; I did not. I felt that there was too much of a mayonnaise and relish taste to the sandwich, but Mom still insists that there was tarragon mixed in with the nicely not pureed chicken salad. We did both agree that the bread tasted very fresh.

The Carrot Ginger Sandwich (chopped carrot and candied ginger with cream cheese on fig walnut bread) was definitely a new favorite that I want to recreate. It was sweet, more like a finger sandwich best served for breakfast than lunch, and the fig-walnut bread was a sophisticated take on cinnamon raisin bread. I had two of these!

Salmon Canape, Carrot-Ginger, Cucumber-Mint, Chicken-Tarragon

Salmon Canape, Carrot-Ginger, Cucumber-Mint, Chicken-Tarragon

Mom’s assessment of the egg salad on white bread was that the bread was once again soft and fresh, but that the salad needed more flavor. There was no seasoning or herb mixed in, so the egg sandwich literally taste like simply egg and bread.

The Cucumber Mint (freshly sliced cucumber and mint with cream cheese) fell victim to the not enough cucumber trap of cucumber sandwiches. Although the mint was strong and refreshing, without any cucumber for substance the sandwich was just too airy.

There is also an assortment of salads.

There is also an assortment of salads.

The smoked salmon (smoked salmon with cream cheese Dijon spread, dill dollop, and cucumber garnish on marble bread) was surprisingly good. I think dill is the best herb to pair with smoked salmon, but not enough places combine the two, choosing capers instead for that briny taste. But dill brings a touch of the pickled sourness of capers with a more refreshing note. This open-faced canapé was tangy, creamy, and worthy of seconds and maybe thirds.

Scones

Every table gets a breadbasket of mini scones in different flavors. The flavors are luck-of-the-oven, completely dependent on what the kitchen is churning out in mass quantities when you sit down. The table next to us received maple bacon scones and chocolate chip scones. We were given almond, cranberry, and apricot scones.

You can take them home.

You can take them home.

In hindsight, I don’t think it really matters what flavor you are brought, since they all sort of tasted the same. I liked how they were brought warm to the table, but since you should take them home anyway it doesn’t really make a difference. All the flavors were rather bland with only little pieces of their mix-ins for not much added flavor. When topped with jam and cream, they all taste the exact same. The texture was nice, particularly noteworthy since they were mini scones, which tend to end up over baked and dry.

IMG_4346The whipped cream is very sweet and fluffy (which I don’t like, see my clotted cream rants). I can’t comment on the marmalade because as I discovered at one of my first tea places, I really don’t like marmalade. These two toppings set me up for disappointment with the watery jam, but I actually was surprised at how tasty the raspberry jam was. It had a great flavor, not too sweet and not too tart, and its only problem was consistency.

Desserts

Dessert Buffet

Dessert Buffet

The brownie and the chocolate mousse cup were laughably polar opposites. While the brownie was rich, thick, and basically a block of fudge (nothing wrong with that 😉 ), the mousse cup was light and airy and shatters in one bit. Talk about dessert antithesis.

The fruit tart’s custard was rather bland, no strong vanilla flavor like so many excellent fruit tarts have, so it tasted more like a raspberry topped cookie than a fruit tart. I will say, though, the fruit they used was wonderfully ripe and fresh. You can taste that it was made that day and not defrosted from mass baking earlier in the week. The nature of a buffet probably makes a difference with that aspect as the food turnover is high.

IMG_0631The pecan bar was a disappointment, especially as I just recently learned at my job that I like pecan bars. Maybe that liking only applies to the pecan bars at work? This one was heavy on the pecan, but there was something about the filling that just didn’t work. I don’t know ingredients of pecan bars yet so I couldn’t put my finger on where it went wrong. And my crust fell off which is always sad.

Grab extras of the tea cookies. They are nice and crumbly like Russian Tea Cakes without all the powdered sugar and if you sneak a couple extras into your scone basket before the plastic bag comes, they’ll blend right in and you’ll have dessert to go.

Tea Cookies

Tea Cookies

On the dessert side was also an assortment of fresh fruit and cheeses. I like the addition of fruit because it allows me to trick myself into thinking that afternoon tea is healthy.

 

Extras

Stroll around the gardens before and then again after your afternoon tea. The Huntington has the most beautiful themed gardens and right now the roses are in bloom. And since you have to pay for admission to the Library in addition to your tea, you may as well get your money’s worth.

Untitled

I can officially say that all those who rave about The Huntington Tea Room need to try some of the other places I’ve reviewed. A few food items stood out as good offerings, but between the buffet style service and the being rushed and pushed throughout the whole meal, this place no where near lives up to its reputation as a must-do tearoom. With so many better tearooms minutes away in Old Town Pasadena, unless you are coming for the gardens, The Huntington can be skipped at no loss.

 

Visit The Huntington’s Rose Garden Tea Room at 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, CA, 91108. (626) 683-8131. Closed Tuesday. Cost per person $29.50 plus cost of admission to The Huntington Library.

 

Recipe: Rustic Chocolate Cherry Almond Scones

It’s a Sunday, which means I have a new recipe for the afternoon tea party I know you are throwing your mother or mother-in-law today. Mother’s Day is the perfect occasion for an afternoon tea, and it’s a great way to get the men in our lives hooked on one of our favorite pastimes. Because since it’s Mother’s Day, they have to go along with whatever their mothers want, and every mother should want afternoon tea. More importantly, every mother should want these scones at their afternoon tea.

Rustic Chocolate Cherry Almond Scones

Rustic Chocolate Cherry Almond Scones

Cherry and almond extract is a traditional combination; cherry and chocolate is a traditional combination. Chocolate cherry almond should be a required combination. The flavors just complement each other perfectly in a delightfully sweet scone. Baking fruit enhances and concentrates its natural sugars, so the cherry flavor really pops against the almond extract. Almond extract is a tricky ingredient. It seems that any recipe that uses even the slightest bit of almond extract tastes overwhelmingly of marzipan (anyone else notice that almond extract tastes nothing like the almonds we snack on?). So the fresh cherries and the semisweet chocolate are necessary contrasts to the strongly sweet almond.

I made these scones two ways as part of my fresh fruit vs. dried fruit experiments. You can use either, but the verdict around the house was that the fresh fruit was a small margin better than the dried fruit. But the dried cherries were tart, adding an new flavor profile to these sweet scones that cut through the saccharine almond extract taste.

As for the scones themselves, they don’t rise much, yet they aren’t dense so they retain their “sconeness” instead of becoming like a pound cake. The three flavors are wonderfully sophisticated and well-matched. The key to the flavors working is good, fresh, ripe cherries. When baking with fruit, your result really is only as good as the produce you use. So investing in sweet cherries is definitely worth it. Dad LOVED them. If we served them at afternoon tea, he’d be there every time.

IMG_3900 - Version 2_FotorThese are best served with only an unsweetened whipping cream or traditional clotted cream (everything is improved served with clotted cream). Jam is a big no-no since there are already three flavors and a fourth would just overpower your taste buds and drown everything else out.

Happy Mother’s Day! So go make these incredibly delicious scones to make up for all the missed phone calls over the last year; you may even make up for some future ones!

Rustic Chocolate Cherry Almond Scones

Rustic Chocolate Cherry Almond Scones

Rustic Chocolate Cherry Almond Scones

Recipe adapted from Scones & Tea from TeaTime Magazine

Ingredients

  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 ultrafine baking sugar
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, cubed (1 stick)
  • 3 ounces cream cheese
  • 3/4 cup chopped fresh cherries or dried tart cherries
  • 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1/3 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1 tsp almond extract
  • almond slivers to top

Preheat oven to 425F. Place oven rack at the top of the oven. These scones don’t rise much, so don’t worry.  Line baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

In a large bowl, sift the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt together. Cut in the butter and cream cheese (the recipe says use a pastry cutter, but I use a different method that’ll be coming up in another post) until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add cherries and chocolate chips, mixing until evenly distributed.

In a measuring cup, combine cream and almond extract. Add to flour mixture, folding it in until dry ingredients are moistened. (When doing the dried cherry version, the dough will be drier without the moisture from the fruit, so add more cream 1 tbsp at a time until the dough comes together. I only needed one additional tablespoon.)

Knead dough a few times until most of the ingredients are incorporated into a single ball of dough. Be careful not to overwork it. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll or pat out to desired thickness (my standard is 1-1.5 cm). Cut out scones with a floured 5 cm scone cutter. Place on parchment paper. Optional to sprinkle with slivered or sliced almonds.

Bake 11-13 minutes until scone edges are beginning to turn a golden color. Immediately let cool on a wire rack.

Rustic Chocolate Cherry Almond Scones

Rustic Chocolate Cherry Almond Scones

Serve with clotted cream, your favorite black tea, and a hug for Mom.

Recipe: Almond Bliss Scones

Why name these scones “Almond Bliss”? Because almond and scone is such a delicious and delicate combination that it inspires utter bliss when eaten warm out of the oven, topped with true clotted cream. A dollop of spring strawberry jam may be traditional and adds a sweet treat to this scone, but it is far from necessary. Fun, exotic, unique, and complex flavor blends all have their place, but with these almond scones the pleasure is in the simplicity.

I considered starting off Scone Sundays (I kind of have a thing for alliterations: Tea Room Review Tuesday, Fun Fact Friday) with my current go-to cream scone recipe. Plain, versatile, well-honed, and classic. Cream scones are the most traditional type of scone alongside sultana. But why do we always have to start with the basics? Dare to be different! Make these almond scones; a cream scone recipe will always be there in the event of recipe tragedy, but I promise you won’t need it.

Almond Bliss Scones

Almond Bliss Scones

Almond Bliss Scones

Recipe adapted/edited from Scones by Genevieve Knights

Ingredients

  • 200 g plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 50 g soft brown sugar
  • 70 g ground almonds
  • 200 mL double cream (heavy whipping cream)
  • teeny bit of water
Preheat the oven to 220°C (450°F). Place oven rack very close to the top of the oven, but obviously not so high that a rising scone with touch the top.
Sift together into a medium mixing bowl the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Add the ground almonds. Rub in the cream. Add only enough water to bring all the mix together (barely a teaspoon!). Knead until almost smooth, about 5-6 times.
Place on a heavily floured surface and press down to desired thickness (1 cm). Cut out into desired scone size (5 cm). HINT: dip the scone cutter into some flour before cutting dough for easier removal.  Place scones on a parchment paper lined baking sheet.
Bake about 8 minutes until lightly browned or until you lack self control anymore.
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