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“Shall I Be Mother?”

I’m a huge fan of British murder mysteries. I especially enjoy the ones that are set from about 1880 until around 1920, before traditional English culture was so very changed by World War I.

In these stories by the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Patricia Wentworth, you’ll come across the phrase, “Shall I be mother?” It seems like a strange question until you realize someone is asking if they should pour tea for everyone.

It’s only fitting, then, that tea is a beverage associated with mothers, at least in the United Kingdom. And on my last visit to the U.K., I treated both my parents to afternoon tea at the inimitable Scotsman Hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland.

“Is there anything more luxurious than the simple thrill of the perfect afternoon tea?” queried the Scotsman’s tea menu, which featured classics like scones with clotted cream as well as dressed-up tea sandwiches featuring smoked salmon and truffled egg salad.

With its towers of dainty delicacies, Americans often think of this meal as “high tea,” perhaps because that name sounds as if it elevates the occasion to one worthy of inhabitants of Buckingham Palace. But “high tea” is actually the working-class meal served at the end of the day that features sturdy dishes like steak and kidney pie.

The elegant social occasion with tiny sandwiches and bite-sized desserts is referred to as “afternoon tea” and was purportedly started by the Duchess of Bedford in the mid-1800s as a way to make it from breakfast to late-evening dinner without fainting. A heaping helping of gossip with one’s friends didn’t hurt, either.

This week I’m combining one of the most classic British teas, Earl Grey, with a dessert that’s perfect for teatime: panna cotta. It’s an elegant, velvety, slightly sweet custard that’s lightly infused with the tea’s oil of bergamot and a hint of lemon. If you serve it in a china teacup, then you couldn’t possibly be more teatime.

And you should consider yourself lucky. Since I was reminiscing about this visit to Scotland, it could’ve been a recipe for haggis bonbons instead.

This week’s subscriber recipes: Pimiento cheese, to use the spelling favored by the Masters golf tournament and Southern Living magazine, is as southern as sweet iced tea. When I was a kid, I enjoyed mine on toast with peanut butter and dill pickle slices. (Hey, we all have our adolescent quirks.) But it’s also regularly found as a filling for English tea sandwiches on tiny triangles of crustless bread. You can also enjoy Southern-Style Pimiento Cheese stuffed into celery sticks, scooped up with pita chips, or spread on slices of cucumber. It also makes an amazing grilled cheese sandwich!

For something so simple, egg salad can be surprisingly hit or miss, especially if it’s underseasoned. My Egg Salad Tea Sandwiches give you plenty of flavor with fresh dill, watercress, and herbed butter, plus an optional dash of truffle oil if you want the full Scotsman Hotel tea treatment.

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Earl Grey Panna Cotta

This combines one of the most classic British teas, Earl Grey, with a dessert that’s perfect for teatime: panna cotta. It’s an elegant, velvety, slightly sweet custard that’s lightly infused with the tea’s oil of bergamot and a hint of lemon.

Panna cotta can be served in a teacup or in a ramekin or small dessert bowl. And since it can be made up to three days in advance, it’s perfect for hosting.

Don’t have half-and-half? Substitute an additional 1/3 cup heavy cream plus 2/3 cup skim or lowfat milk in its place.

2 tablespoons cold water
1 envelope unflavored gelatin (approximately 1 tablespoon)
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup half-and-half
1/4 cup sugar
6 Earl Grey tea bags
2 strips lemon peel (1 to 2 inches long each)

In a small bowl, dissolve the gelatin in the cold water and set aside.

In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, heat the cream, half-and-half, and sugar until it is just beginning to boil at the edges. Reduce heat to low and add dissolved gelatin, whisking to combine. When the gelatin has fully dissolved, remove the cream mixture from the heat, add tea bags and lemon peel, and cover the pot with a lid. Allow to steep for 10 minutes.

Remove the lemon peel and tea bags, gently squeezing the tea bags into the pot to release any remaining liquid. (Note: The tea bags will, of course, be hot. Scoop them up in a slotted spoon and use the back of a second spoon to press out the liquid.)

Divide the mixture among four to six teacups or ramekins and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least four hours or until firmly set. Serve chilled. Makes four to six servings.

For $5 a month, you can get an additional weekly issue of Around the World in 80 Plates that includes bonus recipes not available to the public.

This week’s subscriber exclusives:

  • Southern-Style Pimiento Cheese: Pimiento cheese, to use the spelling favored by the Masters golf tournament and Southern Living magazine, is as southern as sweet iced tea. When I was a kid, I enjoyed mine on toast with peanut butter and dill pickle slices. (Hey, we all have our adolescent quirks.) But it’s also regularly found as a filling for English tea sandwiches on tiny triangles of crustless bread. You can also enjoy Southern-Style Pimiento Cheese stuffed into celery sticks, scooped up with pita chips, or spread on slices of cucumber. It also makes an amazing grilled cheese sandwich!
  • Egg Salad Tea Sandwiches: For something so simple, egg salad can be surprisingly hit or miss, especially if it’s underseasoned. My Egg Salad Tea Sandwiches give you plenty of flavor with fresh dill, watercress, and herbed butter, plus an optional dash of truffle oil if you want the full Scotsman Hotel tea treatment.

Subscribe now

Food and folklore from my travels to over 100 countries.

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