Pause for a holiday tea

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

Joanne Ciccarello/Staff
Tea Party: English scones and tea make a cozy holiday treat.

After college, when I wasn't quite sure what to do next, I went to live with a British friend and her family in a London suburb. Tamsin had moved into a flat on the third floor of the house, and I slept down below in the narrow room where she had grown up. We used the flat as a kind of hideaway after supper and on weekends.

Each night, we ate the evening meal with her mom and dad, tucked around the circular table in the downstairs kitchen. The table glowed with decorative oil lamps, and the four of us would sit there long after the dishes had been cleared, discussing our days and playing games. Even the cat, Mouse, had a perch on an old piano stool strategically positioned in front of the radiator. It was a cozy time.

Cozy is important, because what I most remember from my fall in England (besides working as a checkout girl at the local grocery store) was how dark it was. England may have a mild climate, but it is also close to the Arctic Circle, which means that the sun drifts to the horizon by 4 p.m. come late October.

Enter the traditional English teatime.

Between 4 and 5, everyone would begin to arrive home as the streetlights came on. First me, with a half gallon of milk picked up on my employee's discount (the family called me "the milk maid"), then Tamsin, from her day of teaching school, and finally John, her father, returning from the university where he taught.

We'd light the fire in the sitting room, sink into the overstuffed couches, and have tea and cake in front of the television – all this before supper. I felt as though I was in heaven.

As the Christmas holiday neared, and strings of lights and boughs of evergreens were hoisted above the shopping plazas, stopping for tea and cake or a scone in between finding the perfect gift was part of the flow of our weekends.

On the topic of scones: Do not think you've had the traditional British variety if the scone was dense and larger than the palm of your hand. The scones I relished in England were small, round, and light. And while saying the words "Devonshire" or "clotted cream" can make one feel very British, the fact is that thick cream on a scone was the exception rather than the norm during my time there.

"When I was growing up, you would have to get Devonshire cream by post," remembers Tamsin. "But now you can get it in the supermarket because it is shipped up from the West Country." The quaint and pastoral West Country includes Devon, located in the far southwest of England.

Before Devonshire cream expanded its market beyond speciality shops, many Brits living in central England as recently as 15 years ago were accustomed to spreading only a bit of butter and jam on a scone.

My favorite was a warm scone, topped with jam and then crowned with unsweetened whipped cream. At first bite, the whipped cream floated on your tongue followed by the sweetness of the jam. Finally, the whole experience was grounded by the comfort of the humble scone. Then it was washed down with a mug of spicy Christmas Tea with milk. (A good American counterpart is Bigelow's Constant Comment, which has hints of clove, cinnamon, and orange.)

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.

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!

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