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Pause for a holiday tea

A Christmas tea with light-as-air scones is the perfect way to relax during December.

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Cream on scones is delightful, however, and it is usually an option when enjoying "high teas" offered by restaurants and fancy hotels. High teas can include small sandwiches, scones, and cakes displayed on a stand and pots and pots of tea. But high teas are more ceremonial events and can serve as a meal. "Afternoon teas" are the daily teatime in nearly every English home – and a perfect pause during the holiday rush.

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Scones are as simple and quick as biscuits to make, but the key is in the technique to ensure a light texture instead of something you'd rather smother in gravy. In other words, heavy hands make a heavy scone. Use just your fingertips to rub the butter into the flour and to spread out the dough. Move quickly and make sure the oven is very hot for the best results (see recipe).

The frothy cream for the top is also just as quick: Use a 1/2 pint of whipping cream and mix on high speed. Open a jar of your favorite fruit preserves, and you will feel as British as the queen.

It's been years since those cozy English evenings in the Advent season. But I still think of them.

Now living in Boston, I again find the late fall dark and cold. I have no fireplace in my city condo, but that doesn't stop me each year from inviting a few friends to a candlelit Christmas tea. As the scones get passed around, it isn't long before holiday planning pressures ease away. The comfort of Christmas, after all, can also be found in simple things, such as a warm mug, a sweet treat, and maybe my cat, Cricket, perched on your knee.

English scones

The key to making perfect scones is to use self-rising flour.Sifting the flour will add air and ensure that the scones are light.Work quickly and lightly and handle the dough as little as possible.

2 cups self-rising flour

2 tablespoons sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

5 tablespoons butter, room temperature

1 egg

1/2 cup milk, approximately

1 cup whipping cream

Jam, to taste

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. and grease a baking sheet.

Sift the flour into a mixing bowl. Add sugar and salt. Cut thebutter into the bowl with a knife or pastry cutter. Using yourfingertips, rub the butter into the flour until the mixture resemblesfine bread crumbs. (You can also use a hand mixer to do this.) Make awell in the center of the mixture and drop in the egg. Adding a portionof the milk at a time, stir the egg and milk into the dough using arounded-edge knife. How much milk you use depends on the size of theegg. The dough should incorporate all the flour, but it shouldn't bewet and sticky.

Turn the dough onto a floured surface. Using your fingertips, gentlysmooth out any cracks in the dough. Lightly press out the dough or rolllightly with a rolling pin until about 3/4 inch thick. Cut with a2-inch round cutter dipped in flour. Place rounds on the greased bakingsheet and brush the remaining milk on top with a pastry brush. Bake 10to 12 minutes or until golden brown.

After removing the scones from the oven, put them onto a coolingrack covered with a tea towel. Place another tea towel on top of thescones to trap the steam and to keep the scones from drying out as theycool. Serve warm with jam and whipped cream (simply whip whipping creamon high with a mixer until soft peaks form). Makes 8 scones.

Fruit scones

Add 1/4 cup dried fruit, such as currents, raisins, or cranberries to the dry mixture.

Savory scones

Omit sugar. Add 1 teaspoon dry mustard and 3 to 4 ounces of grated cheese to the dry mixture.

Leftover scones can be frozen for several weeks. To reheat, wrap afrozen scone in a paper towel and microwave for 30 seconds. Enjoy!