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Maybe it's due to Dickens and Tiny Tim, maybe it's all those British-origin Christmas carols full of hearty tidings of comfort and joy -- the warm 'n' fuzzy fascination with Merrie Olde England felt by most Americans (including Latin Americans, if the astonishingly positive feedback to a review I did several months ago on afternoon tea at the Biltmore Hotel is any indication) magnifies during the December holidays. This almost irresistible attraction for English accoutrements includes, naturally, holiday food like plum pudding -- which, regardless of its source, invariably tastes exactly like one would imagine a dessert whose main ingredients are stale bread and beef fat would taste.
Fortunately for those planning holiday parties featuring traditional foods, there's an Anglophile alternative to animal fat-filled sweets and the gamey birds cited so enthusiastically in "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (which most don't even realize is a food song, mostly about edible poultry; the "five golden rings" are ring-necked pheasants). It's a Do It Yourself afternoon tea, preferably set outdoors (so the house won't even get messed up) now that South Floridians can once again venture outside for a few months. Not only is a holiday tea party Brit enough to bring out the Merry Gentlemen/women in all of us, it also pays more than just lip service to the "God Rest Ye" part of the carol, since there's not all that much to make for a tea. Most of the food can be made in advance, allowing hosts to have fun, too; and, most important, even a fairly elaborate multicourse affair doesn't require cooking so much as assembly.
Take the impressive Full or Cream Tea, a three-course event of savories, mainly thin buttered -- and crustless, please -- tea sandwiches, scones with accompaniments, and dessert; Cream Tea means the signature scone accompaniment is clotted cream. Ingredients can be found in one tiny store, the Afternoon Tea Bake Shop, hidden in a Miami mini-mall. The shop, which has been around since the late 1980s, recently changed ownership, but since new owners Claudio and Madelyn Soberanes happily retained fourteen-year veteran baker Dana Artin while adding new features (like kosher holiday platters), DIY tea party hosts needn't look elsewhere for the dessert course.
A highlight among Artin's exquisite-looking and -tasting pastries are her petits fours which, unlike in most bakeries, can fit your requirements for both outside icing and inside filling. You find the usual marzipan layers overpoweringly almond-liqueurish? Have mocha, raspberry, or lemon filling instead. Afternoon Tea's regular-sized petits fours (which are actually about twice the size of most) are $1.50 each, but different sizes are available by request. Buttery Russian tea cookies -- confectioners' sugar-dusted shortbread drops -- tart lemon bars, or over-the-top Rocky Road Brownies take care of your tea's third course.
Afternoon Tea also has most of the second course covered; it'll be an eye-opener to those who, having sampled only leaden gourmet shop scones made many hours (or even days) before, have never grasped their appeal. Hence Afternoon Tea sells not scones but, by advance order, ready-to-bake scone dough ($8.50 per lb.), good for roughly 24 hours. Baking is a cinch and takes only fifteen minutes or so, making it possible to pop the scones in during the first course. To accompany the warm, flaky nuggets, imported clotted cream (also called Devon cream) is available at local gourmet markets including Epicure (1656 Alton Rd., Miami Beach) and Gardner's Markets (several locations in Miami). At roughly five bucks for a small bottle, it's expensive, but don't try to economize by substituting heavy cream/buttermilk mixes.
For jams, a glass bowl of whole berry preserve and another of lemon curd are perfect -- the problem being that virtually all jarred lemon curds have unappealing texture. An exception is the lovely light butter/sugar/egg/lemon spread from Stonewall Kitchens in Maine, whose native wild blueberry preserves are fabulous too. Both are available online at www.stonewallkitchen.com.
As for the "savory" first course, Afternoon Tea's only sandwich platters are cream cheese on a choice of about a dozen-and-a-half tea breads. So party-throwers will want more variety -- typical British Full Teas feature three to six types of sandwich.
Although overstuffed sandwiches are musts to avoid, I'd strongly suggest tastier upgrades on England's classic spartan fillings (stuff like plain cucumber slices or watercress sprigs). Possible combos include: thinly sliced deseeded red-ripe tomato with a dollop of white horseradish; imported Italian prosciutto with thin cucumber slices; cooked honey ham with thin-sliced, sautéed fresh mushrooms; curried egg or chicken salad; pear slices and Roquefort cheese; even goat cheese, olive tapenade (Gardner's chunky green/black type, $6.50 per lb., is perfect), and -- believe it or not -- a layer of Bubbe's leftover sweet 'n' sour carrot slices from Hanukkah. And smoked salmon, of course, but for a tour de force, instead of plain fish on buttered bread, sub pinwheels. Completely cover four overlapping slices of smoked salmon wth a thin layer of softened scallion cream cheese; line up gherkins along the top of your rectangle lengthwise; and roll it. Wrap the "log" in cling wrap and freeze for 45 minutes until fairly firm, then cut it into one-fourth-inch slices and place resulting pinwheels on buttered soft pumpernickel.
Hmm. Seems I'm forgetting some little thing ... oh right. The tea. Which means loose tea, not bags, and not supermarket stuff. "Most of the tea sold in the USA is dust!" dismisses Claudio Soberanes. Fortunately Afternoon Tea sells 27 varieties of quality Southeast Asian-grown loose-leaf tea (at about $1 per serving), plus teapots with convenient built-in strainers. Warm your pot, add fresh boiling water to leaves in proportions of roughly one rounded teaspoonful per cup, cover and infuse for three to five minutes, remove leaves (overlong exposure makes the brew bitter), and you have a classic cuppa.
The only possible supplement I can imagine for a holiday tea party would be Bisquets Roses de Reims, hard pink cookies made in the Champagne region of France (available at Cookworks, 9700 Collins Ave., Bal Harbour), which are made for dunking. In champagne, not tea. Which upgrades your Full Tea to a Royal Tea -- a legit Brit category, honest -- and makes all those end-of-the-afternoon karaoke Christmas carols sound infinitely better.