Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Tea Time Tuesday

Recently, I've been working my way through Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management - I find old etiquette books, "receipt" books, and household management guides to be endlessly fascinating. Mrs. Beeton's guide has advice for everything from managing servants to bathing children to serving a proper dinner, down to the number of slices of ham.

Naturally, she covered tea.

In order to make good tea it is necessary that the water should be quite boiling, but it must on no account be water that has boiled for some time, or been previously boiled, cooled, and then re-boiled.  It is a good plan to empty the kettle and refill it with fresh cold water, and make the tea the moment it reaches boiling point.  Soft water makes the best tea, and boiling softens the water, but after it has boiled for some time it again becomes hard.  When water is very hard a tiny pinch of carbonate of soda may be put into the teapot with the tea, but it must be used very sparingly, otherwise it may impart a very unpleasant taste to the beverage.  Tea is better made in an earthen than a metal pot.  One good teaspoonful of tea will be found sufficient for two small cups, if made with boiling water and allowed to stand 3 to 4 minutes; longer than this it should never be allowed to stand.  The delicate flavour of the tea may be preserved, and injurious effects avoided by pouring the tea, after it has stood 3 or 4 minutes, into a clean teapot which has been previously heated.

According to Mrs. Beeton, a "little tea" should include a "pretty little afternoon tea service" which is  "placed upon a small table, and there are plates of bread and butter, as well as biscuits and cake." Sandwiches intended for afternoon tea "are dainty trifles, pleasing to the eye and palate, but too flimsy to allay hunger where it exists." The goal was to provide light refreshments which would not soil a person's gloves. 

This would be considered a proper British "low tea" - indicating a more refined environment, with small finger foods, served a low table (what Americans call a "coffee table"). Many people think a "high tea" is the fancier outfit, but in actuality, a high tea is served later, on high-topped tables, with more substantial food. A high tea is not relegated to the working class, but would also be a more informal dinner at home for the upper class during Mrs. Beeton's time. Often, families would take high tea on Sundays, in order to give their servants a rest.

Tea Time by Mary Cassatt.

Although later in time, a few suggested home tea menus are provided in Cookery Illustrated and Household Managment by Elizabeth Craig (1936). This will give you a better idea of the differences between an afternoon (low) tea and a high tea.
  • "Afternoon Tea: Brown Bread and Butter, Potted Salmon Sandwiches, Picklets Rock Cakes, Scotch Jam Sandwich.
  • High Tea: Fried Fillets of Haddock, White Bread and Butter, Toast, Strawberry Jam, Eccles Cakes, Gingerbread. Note.--Serve fish with Piquante or Tomato sauce, and a green salad, if liked."---(p. 619)
  • "Afternoon Tea: Hot Buttered Toast, Mustard and Cress Sandwiches, French Biscuits, Maids of Honour, Dundee Cake. Note--If liked, spread hot toast with butter creamed with caster sugar and ground cinnamon to taste. 
  • "Afternoon Tea: Milk Bread and Butter, Whitstable Sandwiches, Rice Buns, Ginger Snaps, Caramel Layer Cake.
  • High Tea: Grilled Kidneys, White Bread and Butter, Ballater Scones, Damson Cheese, American Doughnuts, Chocolate Nougat Cake. Note.--Serve scones buttered hot, or split, buttered and spread with greengage jam."---(p. 622)
  • "Afternoon Tea: Kentish Oatcakes, White Bread and Butter, Blackberry Jelly, Cornish Splits, Ginger Biscuits, Chocolate Cream Cake.
  • High Tea: Fried Fresh Herrings, Toast and Watercress, Carievale Nut Bread and Butter, Balmoral Tartlets, Chelsea Buns, Raisin Slab Cake. Note.--If preferred, substitute potted meat sandwiches and watercress for the herring."---(p. 623)
  • "Afternoon Tea: Bloater Cream Sandwiches, White Bread and Butter, Lemon Cheese, Rice Biscuits, Meringues, Canadian Layer Cake.
  • High Tea: Fried Fish Cakes, Celery or Watercress, Toasted Brown Bread, White Bread and Butter, Potted Beef or Game, Quince Marmalade, Lemon Cheese Cake, Coffee Cake."--- (p. 625)
  • "Afternoon Tea. Egg and Anchovy Sandwiches, Northumberland Griddle Cakes, Ayrshire Shortbread, Bath Buns, Marshmallow Layer Cake.
  • High Tea: Boiled Salmon, Mayonnaise Sauce, Cucumber Sandwiches, Nut and Raisin Bread, Bread and Butter, Plum Jam, Ayrshire Shortbread, Spiced Raisin Cake."---(p. 626)
  • "Afternoon Tea: Buttered Irish Barmbrack, Abernathy Biscuits, Windsor Cake, Fudge Layer Cake. Note.--If a savoury touch is wanted, serve toast or white bread and butter with Potted Cheese and spring onions.
  • High Tea: Galantine of Veal, Lettuce and Tomato Salad, White Bread and Butter, Brown Bread and Butter, Black Currant Jam, Sponge Sandwich with Whipped Fruit Filling, Scotch Lawn Tennis Cake."---(p. 628)

Source: 123rf.com

After all this talk of food, I can't end without leaving you with a recipe for Mrs. Beeton's Victoria Sponge. It's a bit tricky at first, and you'll need a precise food scale, but it's well-worth the effort. You can't find cake like this in America very easily.


  • Unsalted butter, softened, plus a little more for greasing
  • 4 eggs
  • Golden caster sugar
  • Self-raising flour, sieved with a pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • A little milk, if necessary 
  • Raspberry jam
  • Whipping cream
  • Icing sugar or caster sugar, for dusting

Here's where it gets tricky. Weigh your eggs in the shells and measure out the same amount of butter, sugar, and flour. So, if you have 100g of eggs, you would measure out 100g of butter, 100g of sugar, and 100g of flour. It won't work out so easily, but you have the general idea. 

Preheat the oven to 350F. Lightly grease two cake pans with butter, and line the bases of each pan with parchment paper.

In a bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla extract, and then slowly beat in the flour. The mixture should be somewhat thin and drip off your whisk. If it is too thick, add a tablespoon or two of milk to thin, and mix well.

Divide the batter equally between the two pans, making sure the mixture is an even plane. Use a spatula or knife, if necessary, to even out the top surface of the batter. Bake for 25-20 minutes. You know the drill - it is done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out cleanly. Let the cake cook for a few minutes in the pan before turning out onto a cooking rack.

Once the cake has cooled completely, turn one of the cakes upside-down onto your serving plate so the flat bottom is right-side-up.  Spread a generous layer of raspberry jam, and then top with a good portion of whipped cream, spread evenly. Place the other cake on top to make a lovely sandwich, and dust with sugar before serving. If you like, cut the cake into dainty fingers for easier eating.


  1. I enjoyed reading this Alexandra! We had high tea on our honeymoon and it was so much fun. I also enjoy reading tidbits from Mrs. Beeton. Thank you for sharing this week on the Art of Home-Making Mondays :)

  2. Good evening, Alexandra! What a joy to visit you and read this lovely post. I thoroughly enjoyed the information your shared :)

    I am so glad you joined Roses of Inspiration and I hope you're able to join us again this coming Tuesday. Hugs!