You've noticed a bit of a break in my blogging recently because we took a trip down to California. We drove straight through from Seattle to Orange County, with many stops (I mean many stops) in between filled with food and wine and everything in between. One such stop had to include my new Happy Place: Yountville, CA.
Situated unassumingly in Napa Valley's wine country, it's a small town made to look like a French village complete with perfectly manicured bakeries, people strolling about in the abundance sunshine on a cloud of food-and-wine-infused heaven, and a special air of total bliss and comfortability. Even with two small kids who also miraculously seemed to tame down and relax. We had the pleasure of staying at the Vintage Inn located in the heart of Yountville and rext next to Michael Chiarello's Bottega, so I was extremely happy. This would be The Hubsters and my second stay at the Vintage, first time with the kids, and so worth the drive down!
After we settled in, we changed and headed to the Inn's main courtyard to have a light afternoon snack of various traditional tea delights (pictured above). I wanted to blog about it because it's everything that's right about afternoon tea: small, packed with flavor, light, finger-food, and delightful.
Afternoon teas, be it super traditional English or Irish style to a more modern take, have to abide by a few rules:
Rule #1: Small finger-foods.
Afternoon tea is aka "afternoon snack" and you want everything to be able to be picked up by the hand and popped in the mouth, no utensils necessary. You want the only utensil you're using to be a spoon to stir your tea or coffee. You want foods (savory or dessert) that are small enough to be eaten in a maximum of two bites.
Rule #2: Sweet AND Savory please!
A proper tea has both sweet and savory foods, beginning with the savory and naturally progressing with the sweet. Even better, you want the flavors to be as such that you could even eat them both together at the same time! Sandwiches with delicate mild meats like turkey or ham are great, a milder smoked salmon is perfect, milder chives instead of pungent white or red onion is a better choice; fresh berries instead of powerful tropical fruits is a great idea, and simple desserts revolving around creams, pastry, chocolate, and nuts is classic and delicious. Scones are always wonderful -- sweet or savory -- and require minimal garnish by way of a fresh clotted cream for something super traditional or a fresh fruit preserve. Hello lemon curd!
Rule #3: Don't forget the tea!
Whether it's hot or iced, herbal or caffeinated, tea is a wonderful drink to have for afternoon...tea! I've done teas with traditional English Breakfast, Earl Grey, herbal fruit teas, hot and iced teas with fresh fruits. Let your imagination run wild and don't forget the tea cups!
But back to the food...
The Vintage Inn's afternoon tea was a perfect example of French-inspired tea selections. It was a great balance of casual elegance, everything fresh and tasty without out-shining the next thing you ate. Tea not your thing? Take a cue from Vintage and serve freshly made lemonade for a wonderful uncaffeinated twist!
Vintage Inn Afternoon Tea
mini-croissants (buy at your local bakery or make yourself)
assorted chocolate petit-fours (buy at your local bakery)
mini-biscotti (buy at your local bakery)
chive gougeres with smoked salmon cream cheese mousse
ham and cheese sandwiches
watercress and raspberry cream cheese sandwiches on cranberry bread
assorted fruit preserves, lemon curd
assorted teas, lemonade
Set out your items on platters and tiered serving platters, buffet style. Provide an area with cups or chilled glasses if using iced tea or lemonade, napkins, and appropriate sweeteners along with lemon slices for garnish.
At the Vintage I loved seeing gougeres. Otherwise known as "cream puffs" when filled with cream or "cheese puffs" when flavored savory with sharp cheeses, they are bite-sized and light and airy and just so much fun to eat. Often even I get stocked down with the basic scone for an afternoon tea, so seeing and tasting these gougeres was a bit of a "duh" moment for me and I excitedly wait to experiment with different flavors for gougeres very soon now that spring is upon us. The Vintage used chives to give a subtle onion flavor, and filled each puff with a cream cheese mousse. I'm taking it one step further here and adding smoked salmon to that mousse to make a play on the traditional smoked salmon tea sandwich. This recipe makes an obscene amount of gougeres, so make half them all and freeze half of them for another tea. Enjoy it!
Here is a recipe for Chive Gougeres based on Dori Greenspan's perfect recipe for basic gougeres with my own twists:
Chive Gougeres with Smoked Salmon Cream Cheese Mousse
for the gougeres:
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup water
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
5 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups coarsely grated sharp white cheddar cheese
1/4 finely chopped fresh chives
for the smoked salmon mousse:
5 ounces mild smoked salmon (recommend Irish or Scottish style)
1/4 cup ricotta cheese
1/4 cup sour cream
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
pinch of salt
freshly ground black pepper
Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper.
Bring the milk, water, butter, and salt to a rapid boil over high heat in a heavy-bottomed 2-quart saucepan. Add the flour all at once, lower the heat to medium-low and quickly start stirring energetically with a wooden spoon. The dough will come together and a light crust will form on the bottom of the pan. Keep stirring - with vigor - another 2 to 3 minutes to dry the dough. The dough should now be very smooth.
Turn the dough into the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or you can continue by hand). Add the eggs one by one and beat, beat, beat until the dough is thick and shiny. Don't be concerned if the dough falls apart - by the time the third egg goes in, the dough will come together again. Beat in the grated cheese and chives. Once the dough is completed, it should be used immediately.
Using about 1 tablespoon of dough for each gougere, drop the dough from a spoon onto the lined baking sheets, leaving about 2 inches of puff space between each mound of dough. Conversely, place the dough in a pastry bag and pipe it out onto the baking sheets. Take your finger and dip it in some water, then lightly press down the peaks on the top of the gougeres; otherwise they'll burn when baking.
Slide the baking sheets into the oven, bake for 15 minutes, then rotate the sheets from top to bottom and front to back. Continue baking until the puffs are golden and firm, another 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from sheet and if serving as is, plate and serve.
To make the mousse, place the smoked salmon, ricotta cheese, sour cream, lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste in the bowl of a food processor. Process until well combined and smooth, a little under a minute.
To stuff gougeres, simply cut each gougere in half, but not all the way through, leaving one side still connected. Pipe in or spoon in a small amount of the smoked salmon mousse, then top it with the gougere half. Set on platter and serve.
*You can shape the gougeres and freeze them for up to 2 months before you bake them. There's no need to defrost the frozen puffs, just bake them a couple of minutes more.
Another super easy sandwich for afternoon tea is a ham sandwich. This version uses spicy Dijon mustard for flavor and a kick, sweet black forest ham, and creamy brie cheese. You can also use camembert for a nuttier taste if you can't find brie. The best part of these sandwiches is they can be assembled up to 6 hours in advance of a tea party, then sliced right before serving.
French Ham and Cheese Sandwiches
honey wheat bread sliced 1/4" thin, crusts removed
black forest ham
brie or camembert cheese at room temperature, rind removed
Take a slice of bread and spread some cheese on it. Take the other slice of bread and spread some mustard on it. Place a slice of ham on the cheese, top with the mustard-bread slice, cut into strips, squares, or triangles and serve.
*It's important to use room temperature brie or camembert so it spreads more easily.
Another delightful twist on the afternoon tea sandwich from Vintage was this one using watercress. Often we use cucumber which is great but can be a little bland and boring. This sandwich using sweet raspberry cream cheese is sweet and pairs so beautifully against the peppery watercress. If you can't find watercress, you can use arugula in a pinch. But watercress is lovely here.
Watercress and Cream Sandwiches on Cranberry Bread
cranberry bread (or other multi-grain nut bread), cut 1/4" thick and crusts removed
1/2 cup fresh raspberries (or 2 Tbsp raspberry preserve)
1 cup cream cheese, at room temperature
fresh watercress, washed and spun dry
To make the raspberry cream cheese, simply place the fresh raspberries (or jam if using) and cream cheese in a food processor and mix until combined. You can add the raspberries to taste, so add more or less to your liking. To assemble the sandwiches, simply spread some of the cream cheese on two slices of the bread, then top one slice with the watercress, top it with the other slice of bread cream cheese-side down, slice and serve.
And of course, no tea would be complete without a scone. Vintage offered pecan scones that were lovely and a perfect accompaniment to the rest of the dishes served as well as the various fruit preserved offered. You can use any nut for this -- pistachio would be amazing too -- but the key is to have the finely ground.
2 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup sugar
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons shortening
3/4 cup cream
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
1 cup finely chopped pecans
Heat oven to 375 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, salt and sugar and mix with a fork. Add the butter and shortening and using the fork and/or your hands, mix in the butter and shortening. This is called "cutting in the butter." You want the butter and shortening to be coated with the flour mixture, and break down into pieces the size of peas. In another bowl, combine the cream, egg, and vanilla. Add this cream mixture to the flour mixture and mix until combined. Add the pecans pieces and fold in. Turn the dough out onto a floured working surface and roll it out into a large rectangle. Using a square scone cutter (or freehand), cut out squares and then using a sharp knife, cut the squares on the diagonal to make triangles. Place on baking sheets lined with parchment paper and bake in oven until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Serve.