House & Home

Host the Perfect Tea Party

By Catherine Owsianiecki

In Courage in a Dangerous World, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, "A woman is like a tea bag; only in hot water do you realize how strong she is." And today, women who have more than proven their strength are taking a breather from modern life to bask in the hospitality and rare civility of the tea party.

Spurred on by tea's considerable health benefits (research claims that it protects from certain cancers, heart disease, and stroke), women are making tea parties the theme of many formal and informal gatherings-from bridal and baby showers to birthday parties and girls' day out.

In the process, many have also found that calm conversation over fine bone china, etched with delicate pink roses, is an effective key to renewal, revival, and relief. With a little planning, you too can lift the hearts and spirits of the overbooked, overextended, and just plain overburdened ladies in your life.

What Do I Need to Hold a Tea?

  • First and foremost, you need company. Keep in mind that the tea ritual was designed to be a cozy and intimate gathering. Limit your guest list to eight of your favorite people.

  • Send invitations two weeks ahead of time. Written invitations are always elegant, but telephone or email summons will do just as well. Visit for festive, customized invitations that provide maps and reminders for your guests.

  • Gather the following accoutrements: a teapot, teacups and saucers (they do not need to match), a tea strainer and small dish to deposit the tea leaves, a pitcher of milk, lemon slices, jam, sugar and artificial sweetener, small plates, utensils, and napkins.

  • On the day of the tea, bring refreshments in on trays or a cart and set the table so that guests may serve themselves. The hostess should always pour the tea and pass it to each guest.

What Kind of Tea Shall It Be?

  • Cream tea, or light tea, is a simple repast consisting of scones, jam, and Devonshire cream. It is ideal for girl talk on a rainy afternoon with your closest friends. And it's informal enough to serve right in the kitchen!

  • Afternoon tea, or low tea, is traditionally served between 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. It was invented by Anna Maria, the seventh duchess of Bedford (1783-1857) when she experienced "a sinking feeling" in the middle of the afternoon. The menu consists of light fare-finger sandwiches, scones, assorted pastries, and a layer cake or trifle. Hold this elegant tea in a comfortable setting such as a living room or den. In warm weather, move the party to a lawn, deck, or even poolside.

  • High tea is a hearty sit-down meal traditionally served after 6:00 p.m. Originated by the English working classes during the Industrial Revolution, high tea consists of robust meat dishes, bread and cheese, and a dessert of cake or pie.

Which Cup of Tea Shall It Be?

While there are thousands of varieties of tea, they all come from one Asian plant, the Camellia sinensis and its hybrids. It is the processing that determines whether the tea you drink is black, white, green, or oolong.

  • Black tea is fully fermented, or oxidized. Its green leaves are plucked and left to wither. They are then twisted so the natural enzymes are released and oxidized. Next, they are dried until the leaves turn black and develop their full-bodied flavor, which can range from flowery and fruity to nutty and spicy.

  • White tea is generally processed by steaming and drying the youngest, unfermented leaves of the plant. The most popular of these rare teas are White Peony, Snowbud, and Silver Needle.

  • Green tea is unfermented. The green leaves are first spread out to wither and are then steamed, rolled, and dried. While the Chinese variety is known for its mellow flavor, the Japanese version is often described as "grassy." These teas are high in nutrients and minerals and are thought to provide great health benefits.

  • Oolong tea is semifermented. The oxidation period is halted after 2 hours and the resulting flavor is a compromise between black and green teas. Oolong teas are produced almost exclusively in China and Taiwan.

  • Blended teas are combinations of different teas, and flowers, fruit, herbs, or spices are often part of the mix.

  • Herbal teas are not really tea at all since they derive from plants other than the Camellia sinensis. These caffeine-free drinks are also referred to as infusions or tisanes and are, like green teas, lauded for their medicinal properties.

What to Serve, What to Serve?

Visit your local library, bookstore, or the Internet, and you will find a plethora of tea sandwich, scone, and pastry recipes. But start with these three, and you will be well on your way to a memorable tea:

Cucumber Mint Tea Sandwiches
½ stick butter
2 tbsp fresh mint leaves
8 slices of bread, crusts removed
½ large cucumber, thinly sliced

In small bowl, mix butter and mint until well blended. Spread mixture onto slices of bread. Lay cucumber on 4 slices of bread. Sprinkle a dash of sugar on cucumber. Top with remaining slices of bread. Cut diagonally and serve.
8 servings.

Cranberry Scones
2 cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup butter, diced
1 cup whipping cream
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 egg white
1 teaspoon orange zest
1 cup fresh cranberries, chopped

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In large bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Gradually add butter until mixture is course and crumbly. Add whipping cream and stir until mixture is moist. Mix in cranberries, nutmeg, and orange zest.

Place on a lightly floured surface and knead 6 or 7 times. Roll until ½ inch thick. Cut with a biscuit cutter and place each scone 2 inches apart on a lightly greased baking sheet.
Brush tops of scones with egg white and bake for 20 minutes or until golden brown.
12 servings.

Devonshire Cream
3 ounces cream cheese
1 tablespoon powder sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup whipping cream

Beat cream cheese, sugar, salt, and vanilla until well blended. Add whipping cream and beat until mixture is stiff. Cover and chill at least 2 hours. Spread on scones.
Today's tea ceremony is graciousness and geniality minus the stuffy Victorian etiquette. So the next time you and your twenty-first-century friends experience "a sinking feeling," dust off that teapot and drown your sorrows in the warmth of the cup that cheers.

How to Brew the Perfect Cup of Tea

Fill your kettle with freshly drawn cold water.
Preheat your teapot with nearly boiling water and discard through the spout. If you skip this step, the water temperature will drop on contact with the cold pot, and the tea will not brew properly.
Add 1 teaspoon of loose tea per cup or 1 teabag for every 2 cups of tea. Add one extra if you like it strong.
Pour on water as it boils. Water that is over-boiled or not hot enough will result in flat-tasting tea. Place the lid on the pot and cover with a tea cozy or pot holder in order to retain heat.
Brew for 3-5 minutes.
Remove the leaves/bags to prevent further steeping. Stir and serve immediately. Cover any remaining tea to keep it hot.

Catherine Owsianiecki is a feature writer and editor based in Bel Air, Maryland. To contact her, telephone 410-879-2709 or e-mail