Cooking with Oonagh - Article - Holidays 2000


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Holidays 2000
Published in New Hampshire Seasons Holidays 2000
Oonagh's Kitchen

"You are cordially invited to join us for Afternoon Tea on Boxing Day"
Table - click for bigger picture

Tea, and particularly Afternoon Tea, is a longstanding English tradition and never more so than during the Christmas Season. Many parts of Europe start celebrating the holiday season beginning with December 6th when St. Nicholas visits the children of the Netherlands and so it continues until the Feast of the Epiphany (the visit of the Magi or Three Wise Men) on January 6th which is also the last day of the official twelve days of Christmas that started on Christmas Eve.

In England we also celebrate the day after Christmas Day as Boxing Day, a day when horse racing reigns supreme, or a visit to the Pantomime for the children or perhaps a get-together with friends for a Christmas Tea. We are all so careful about calories but Christmas is the time to indulge and what better way to do that than by tempting ourselves with a delectable selection of goodies, many of which can be made in advance.

The centerpiece of a Tea Table - the pièce de resistance- has to be a cake. Of course, at Christmas, this has to be truly spectacular and indulgent and what else fits the bill but chocolate. In England we have the Yule Log, known in France as Bûche de Noel. This is a very old tradition dating back to the time of the Druids when a log would be dragged into the home on what is now Christmas Eve and left to burn slowly throughout the twelve days of Christmas. This was meant to keep away evil spirits, burning away bad luck. A small piece of the log was kept in the home until the following year when it would be used to light the new log. Since so few homes have a fireplace capable of a log of such a size we make a chocolate version. In France it is usual to fill it with a chestnut filling since it is possible to buy sweetened chestnut purée ready made.

Yule Log
Easy Mousse au Chocolat
The Art of Tea
The habit of Afternoon Tea came about in the 1700's. It was customary for the Aristocracy in London to dine quite late, party until even later and then only rise for breakfast at about 11 a.m. The men would partake of ham, or steak with ale for breakfast but the ladies were only expected to require bread and butter. This left a long afternoon with no refreshments until dinner at 8 or 9 p.m. It is said that Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford would get quite hungry during the long summer days and would call for a pot of tea and some food to allay her pangs of hunger. This practice became popular with the other ladies of the aristocracy and so continues to this day.
In those days tea was a luxury, kept in a locked tea caddy (normally of silver) and the key was kept by the lady of the house in the chatelaine hanging from her waist. Tea was originally served in small bowls with saucers but no handles. These had come from China as ballast with other more valuable commodities. So instead of talking about a cup of tea, it would be described as a dish of tea. In England we use teapots to make tea, knowing that this is the way to extract the full flavor from the tea.            
Fresh cold water should be drawn from the faucet and quickly boiled. While still boiling, take the teapot to the kettle and pour in a small quantity of boiling water. Quickly swirl this water around the inside of the teapot and pour it away. This 'scalds' the teapot, leaving it hot and dry for the tealeaves. Pour boiling water on top of these tealeaves and leave the tea to infuse for five minutes. Then pour out the tea according to individual tastes, with or without sugar, cream, milk or lemon. Have additional boiling water available for those who prefer weaker tea.

There are many teas easily available in America. My personal favorite is Earl Grey so named for Charles, the second Earl Grey. I drink this constantly, always made in a teapot, not with a tea bag in a mug. Other choices are Orange Pekoe, Darjeeling, and English Breakfast Tea. It is possible to buy boxes with a variety of different teas to explore. This time of the year, there are many gift sets available. For those of you new to tea, tea does contain caffeine and will also produce withdrawal symptoms the same as coffee.

We would also serve a selection of small cakes or pastries as part of the tea. Imagine the days when the ladies would gather together in the afternoon with beautiful big picture hats, gloves and pretty dresses. Choose pastries that would evoke this atmosphere. Nut breads and donuts have no place here.

My web site,, has recipes for the following, which would be suitable:

Apple Cheesecake
Snow Queen
Rum Baba
English Scones with jam and cream

- these are an absolute necessity!

Then we would still need to add in some savory items to round out the tea party. Make sandwiches from white or whole meal bread. Choose thin bread lightly spread with butter or mayo and filled with slices of cheese and cucumber, cut off the crusts and cut into triangles.. You can also cut the sandwiches into decorative shapes with metal cookie cutters, stack white and whole meal together and cut in fingers, or make into pinwheel sandwiches. Everything should be dainty and last for only two mouthfuls. No doorstep sandwiches allowed.

Other fillings could be:
  • Smoked salmon blended with cream cheese, butter and lemon juice. (I buy imported smoked Scottish salmon)
  • Egg salad with mayo, chives and a touch of ranch dressing.
  • Your favorite shredded ham or chicken salad
  • Canned salmon mixed with mayo and lemon juice
  • Small shrimp mixed with cucumber salad
All these fillings could also be used to top tiny white bread rolls known as bridge rolls in England - so called since they are served at afternoon bridge parties. Also to fill bought baked filo pastry shells or mini quiche shells and garnish them all so they look attractive to the eye. One should eat with the eyes prior to eating with the lips.

Then finally, to turn this into a really special Afternoon Tea since it is Christmas after all, we could have some Champagne. It doesn't have to be the most expensive bottle available. Ballatore make an acceptable bottle of champagne for about $6 and there are good non-alcoholic champagnes available. To make the champagne go further and be less intoxicating, mix it with orange juice to make what we call 'Bucks Fizz' which sounds so much more mysterious than mimosa. Was this drink named for Buckingham Palace also known as Buck House or was it named for the aristocratic young males also called Bucks who would drink champagne they way we drink juice or soda?

To finish, have fun getting out your prettiest china. It doesn't matter if you don't have matching cups and saucers. Encourage your friends to bring their own cup and saucer and a story to go with it. Set the table with a tablecloth, small plates, forks and real napkins and prepare to enjoy yourself.

Happy Holidays!

For your own printer friendly copy, go to my web site at

Oonagh Williams has a Culinary Arts Degree, is a qualified teacher, a frequent guest on WMUR ABC channel 9's Cooks Corner, teaches a variety of International Cooking Classes and offers a catering and Personal Chef service. Contact Oonagh on 424-6412 or visit her web site at

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Last modified: Nov 5, 2000
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