NB: The pictures on this page are of my bakes, any of which would work well for Afternoon Tea. Most of the recipes (often my twist on classics) can be found on this website, with other recipes being added stage by stage. However, please do ask me if you are searching for a recipe and cannot find it.
Afternoon Tea is very much a weakness of mine and it is something of a hobby for me to visit as many Afternoon Tea emporia that I can! It is also one of the most pleasurable ways to spend what should be several unrushed hours with good company with plates of delicious treats: all little more than bite-size so that you can graze quite happily while chatting.
I waxed lyrical about my love of Afternoon Tea in one of my earlier posts. This page, however, is a more practical approach to preparing Afternoon Tea at home, with links to some of my recipes given further down the page.
I have also given ideas for getting ahead and for shortcuts at the bottom of the page.
While many of the pictures on this page are of bakes that are somewhat larger than you would want for Afternoon Tea, they can be scaled down so that each can be devoured in a couple of bites!
An Afternoon Tea prepared at home can consist of whatever you want: traditional classics, modern twists, savoury bites, sweet dainties, large cakes…….the only limit is your imagination!
A lot of the fun is the thinking through of ideas to ensure you and your guests eat well but, essentially, without you getting at all stressed.
As with any occasion that involves food and guests, forward-planning is important; with just a little planning, catering for Afternoon Tea should be very stress-free and enjoyable, not least if you aim for at least some of the items to be prepared (and even frozen) in advance.
More often than not I opt for a traditional approach for Afternoon Tea when preparing it for friends:
- a selection of sandwiches
- some warm scones with clotted cream and home-made jam or curd
- a plateful of small cakes and pastries (individual portion size)
- one larger cake for slicing (almost ceremoniously!)
- a selection of 2 or 3 good teas
Sandwiches are an essential part of Afternoon Tea and I am a firm believer that for most sandwiches they should be on thin bread, crustless, cut into finger-sized portions. And with plenty for another round or two.
You don’t need to worry about waste from the crusts as you can freeze them for later: blitzed in a food processor and fried off with olive oil, onions, garlic and fresh herbs, the breadcrumbs make an excellent topping for savoury bakes.
Just a small variety of breads, thinly sliced, will add an extra dimension to the sandwich element of Afternoon Tea, rather than having just one type, but even though the fillings are the star, the bread must taste good.
To save a lot of time, you can buy good quality breads to house the fillings rather than make them: white, seeded, wholemeal, rye breads and flavoured breads such as sun-dried tomato, onion, herb…………
When I am preparing Afternoon Tea for gatherings I aim for no more than 3 or 4 different types of sandwiches, although if I am making the bread I will usually make no more than two types of bread, rotating these for whichever fillings I have chosen.
The following are some of my favourite sandwiches to make:
– cheese: a good firm cheese, thinly sliced, with a chutney of choice. Or use grated cheese mixed with some finely chopped spring onions and just a little mayonnaise, yoghurt or salad cream to bind. I love serving this on an onion bread.
– egg and cress: a classic filling, and rightly so. Use a well-flavoured mayonnaise to bind the eggs. Alternatively, use a little salad cream (which is a guilty pleasure of mine as I love the flavour it adds to egg sandwiches!). A few snipped chives in there do not go amiss either! I am quite partial to it being served between thinly sliced sourdough bread.
– coronation chicken: poach chicken breasts gently in stock or water before cooling them, chopping and mixing with the sauce. For a simple sauce mix together mayonnaise with a little cooked-out and cooled curry paste (or add some curry powder to a little water and simmer for a few minutes). A spritz of lime juice, some finely chopped mango, chopped sultanas and flaked almonds are all great additions.
– cucumber and cream cheese: very thinly sliced cucumber, unpeeled, a little seasoned cream cheese and a good white bread, thinly sliced. Simplicity personified!
– ham, mustard and rocket: mix butter with some English mustard to spread over the bread, and use good quality off-the-bone ham and some rocket leaves.
– roast beef with horseradish sauce: brilliant with rare to medium-rare beef and the gutsy taste of horseradish and black pepper. The horseradish is best tempered by mixing it with a little crème fraîche.
– smoked salmon: my current favourite smoked salmon sandwich to serve is an open sandwich on slightly toasted (and cooled) brioche with a little dill and caper butter spread over. Simply mix fresh dill, finely chopped capers and softened unsalted butter together and spread generously. Top with good quality smoked salmon. The contrast of the slightly sweet bread, tangy capers and salty salmon is heavenly!
– poached salmon with shrimp butter: lightly poached and crushed well (almost to a paste) with a little mayonnaise that is just enough to bind. This is excellent with bread that has been spread with shrimp butter (which is just puréed brown shrimps mixed with unsalted butter, seasoning and a little lemon juice).
On many occasions, however, an Afternoon Tea with a bias towards savoury items is the order of the day. It might be getting into the realms of High Tea but nobody will complain…..surely?
Freshly made quiches (individual portions or small tartlets), sausage rolls, savoury scones and the like all are great if you want some savoury elements in addition to the sandwiches. It’s a picnic on a plate, really, and can be served warm or cold, but everything should be small-scale so that a couple of each does not feel over-indulgent, and there is room left for the sweets.
I have sometimes served some hot toasted sandwiches. Focaccia is particularly excellent for these: slice horizontally, and use some Parma Ham and Fontina before toasting or griddling. Seriously divine!
And hot, buttered savoury crumpets always go down well.
If serving savouries with Afternoon Tea, go for a small selection (probably no more than a couple) from the list below, so that it is all manageable.
This is by no means an exhaustive list as I am always coming up with new ideas, but it gives a flavour of what could work well:
Smoked haddock tarts
Vol au vents
Tomato & pesto tarts
Toasted focaccia sandwiches
Warm crab choux bites
Goats cheese & beetroot tartlets, with walnut pastry
Mini caramelised onion & smoked cheese tarts
Chorizo and fennel sausage rolls
Scones are an integral part of Afternoon Tea: plain scones or scones with sultanas, served warm, they deserve clotted cream and a good quality jam. But extra such as a sharp fruit curd rings the changes wonderfully.
Although I usually use home-made preserves, it is worth hunting down some of the excellent quality preserves that you can buy.
If shortcuts are made with the other components of Afternoon Tea, and there is no shame in that, I would highly recommend that you make the scones. They are easy and take just minutes to make.
The recipe I use for plain scones is here. And if the scones turn out a little lop-sided, it simply adds to the quirkiness of it all!
However, I sometimes ring the changes and serve miniature doughnuts that I split and fill with clotted cream and home-made jam, although wholemeal crumpets served with jam and butter make a lovely change.
I have been known to serve savoury scones in place of sweet scones, which makes for a fun surprise element of proceedings:
My recipe for savoury scones is here.
For me the sweet finale should consist of a small selection of 2 or 3 small treats that guests can help themselves to. As with the sandwiches and any savoury items, it should be a case of a few mouthfuls and they’re gone!
I also like to serve a whole cake as well, to be sliced ceremoniously at the table and add to the sense of occasion. Not that the entire cake is expected to be eaten on that occasion! Favourites of mine that serve just that purpose are in the gallery below:
But balance is important: whatever choice I go for, there will always be something light and something fruity to balance any of the richer items.
Sometimes for the sweets I have been known to serve just a macaron medley, plus one main cake, but have made sure there is a nice combination of flavours with the macarons so that there is no hint of boredom!
Creative flair can really be exercised if making the sweets from scratch. However, simplicity is certainly not to be sniffed at!
As with my savoury suggestions above, many of these sweet ideas can be made several days ahead, and some can be frozen quite happily.
Battenberg cake (any flavour combination that hits the spot)
Salted caramel shortbread
Coffee & walnut fancies
Home-made jaffa cakes
Miniature rum babas
Small pecan & maple syrup Danish pastries
Blackcurrant & raspberry éclairs
Chocolate & salted caramel éclairs
Mango & passionfruit cheesecakes
A tangy drizzle cake
Mini Joconde mousse cakes
I would opt for no more than a couple of teas, going as elaborate or as simple as you want. Loose-leaf teas, with strainers for each guest certainly adds to the theatrics and creates a greater sense of occasion, but the standard teapot approach works very well indeed.
Particularly in the summer months, cordials go down well as a refreshing beverage to be served although a few jugs of ice cold water with a few sliced lemons, oranges and the like popped into the jugs can hit the spot!
Shortcuts and advance preparation
While I love the planning and preparation for Afternoon Tea, and I cannot wait to get stuck into the baking of the items and indulging in my more creative side with some of the sweets, you don’t need to make everything.
I have had many excellent Afternoon Teas by adopting the easiest of approaches: buying the components from bakeries, farm shops, supermarkets and the like, so that the catering merely became a matter of assembling and serving everything. Simple and totally fuss-free!
Don’t go mad with planning an Afternoon Tea. It is important to have an over-view, but limit yourself so that it is as enjoyable and as stress-free for you as it can be.
If you are making elements yourself, it is far better to have a few items done well than diluting their impact and building up stress levels by planning and baking too many types!
Certainly there are many shortcuts that can be taken without sacrificing quality: there are many excellent quality breads, cakes and pastries which make the entire occasion much easier.
Dear guest, you are most welcome please bring an item!
In my experience with entertaining, be it an Afternoon Tea, buffet. barbecue or full-on meal, guests are often eager to help or want to know if there is something they can bring.
Let them! Whether it is a tea, bringing some of the sandwiches, a cake, the scones, the preserves………
I am not sure what those who are au fait with social etiquette would say, and to be honest I am not that bothered (!), but it lets you focus on other elements and bringing it all together. And with everyone having contributed something. it does help with the social side of the occasion.
Get ahead and use the freezer!
Bakes such as mini quiches and savoury tarts, macarons, sausage rolls and some of the cakes freeze well.
And with many of the components for an Afternoon Tea that can be made ahead of time, it is mainly about making the sandwiches and setting up the tables and the like that takes the time. But partners are a God-send for this!