Charlotte Willis guides you through becoming the perfect host of your own hand-crafted afternoon tea, no matter what your baking abilities…
There’s one English tradition that really connects and unites the British nation. In times of uncertainty, the British people unite around a circular table at around the time of 3pm, joining friends and family in celebration. Of course, this would be the much respected and cherished afternoon tea. Platters of individually crafted petit fours laid with intricate beauty upon silver serving platters, alongside precision-cut, crust-less finger sandwiches. The finest clotted cream and jam adorning a freshly baked, warm, fruit-laced buttery scone. Traditional English tea poured with care and poise into the daintiest of fine bone-china teacups, served alongside dainty jugs of milk… not quite so traditionally vegan.
Traditional afternoon teas of old can be summarised thus: a true feast of vegan nightmares rolled into one prestigious occasion. All options on the menu (the black tea without milk most likely to be the only exception) were certainly not vegan-friendly. Ah yes, there’s the dairy in the baked goods, cane sugar in the jam, sandwiches filled with fish, meat and eggs, need I go on?
As you can imagine, when I was invited to attend an afternoon tea as a vegan, I was filled with the same disappointing anticlimactic anticipation of the food I was to receive as when selecting a vegan option on a budget flight or indeed at hospital (fruit platter, anyone?). Even worse, it was to be held at the utmost of set-in-its-old-ways hotels that could possibly have been selected by my seemingly-careless omnivorous friends. The venue: Claridge’s London. The dress code: “Elegant Smart Casual – No Sportswear, Vests, Trainers, Ripped Jeans.” My anticipated experience: starvation with a side order of judgement.
The reality? I almost choked on my Earl Grey, when to my table was delivered a fabulous platter of vegan delights, adorned with dairy-free scones, mousse cakes and tartlets, alongside an array of delightful creatively-filled finger sandwiches. I was smug, fully carbed up, and left with a sense of accomplishment that even the most revered of institutions would be willing to accommodate my dietary requirements, and to such a high standard. Oh how times have changed.
High tea or afternoon treat
As inspiring and aspirational as the menu at such fine establishments may be (asparagus and Kalamata olive tapenade sandwiches alongside coconut-whipped cream cranberry scones are a few of London’s top offerings to vegan tea-goers), I will be the first to admit that I don’t have a qualification from Le Cordon Bleu (although it’s on my to do list, right after finishing this article). Nor do most of us have the foggiest idea of how to create a gelatinous-sphere, the exact temperature at which chocolate should be tempered to have that beautifully satisfying sheen, or have a larder bursting with exotic ingredients (if you do, I am now accepting friendship applications. Many thanks).
However, don’t you dare even think of resorting to store-bought items. Where’s the fun in hiding your free-from packaging from your guests? Think of your beaming pride at serving up a plate full of vegan delights, lovingly crafted by your fair hands. Whether you’re a Delia, or a bit more of a Jamie, or perhaps you’ve never touched a sieve in your life – allow me to guide you through becoming the ultimate mad hatter.
A certified cake connoisseur. Baking is practically your side-job. You live for finding the ultimate vegan mousse recipe, hoard a collection of piping bags with assorted nozzles, and have a penchant for traditional tastes.
Classic afternoon teas typically have a selection of one or two individually sized cake portions. For a more traditional afternoon tea, an essential cake is surely the great Victoria sponge cake. Layered lovingly with raspberry jam (no bits, obviously) and vegan butter icing. Other popular tried and tested cakes will include lemon drizzle, orange and almond, fruit cake, and coffee and walnut.
All of the above can be easily veganised with simple recipe tweaks. Really pushing out that boat? Other petit fours may be served alongside your cakes, including pastry fruit tartlets laced with whipped coconut cream and fresh strawberries, a fruit-studded flapjack or individual tray bake slice such as a Bakewell or frangipane.
Think finger sandwiches with their crusts removed, cut lengthways, served on wholewheat loaf. There will be no sign of hummus on your sandwiches, instead why not opt for coronation chickpea, meat-style slices spread lovingly with vegan mayonnaise, mustard and a selection of pickles, cream cheeze with chives and cucumber and mushroom pâté.
Making vegan scones is simple! Simply substitute the butter for non-dairy vegan butter or spread (a harder set butter is better than using a vegetable oil here as you will require a short and crumbly texture) and use soya milk or almond milk instead of buttermilk in the recipe and also for glazing. Traditionalists will serve a selection of the freshest icing sugar dusted and vine fruit-studded scones alongside whipped coconut or soya cream and a vegan berry jam or marmalade. Doilies optional.
Earl Grey, Assam, Darjeeling or Breakfast teas are your most traditional of offerings. These full-bodied black teas incorporate flavours to help contrast the sweetness of the delightful treats and complement those of the sandwiches. Serve alongside professional or barista quality mylks to avoid separation. I find oat milk works the best here, and has little impact on the individual flavours of the teas.
The type of person that mixes sweet with savoury. Who plays with flavours previously unpaired regardless of the sometimes questionable outcomes? If you’re out to impress or stand out from the crowd, then I’m afraid the tried and tested, standard afternoon tea fair just won’t cut the vegan mustard. Avant Garde or go home.
Leave the Victoria sponge in the Bake Off tent. For a modern twist on cakes, try marrying seemingly contrasting flavours together in an old-meets-new culinary fusion. For example, use floral and spicy undertones from cardamom pods, rosemary and lavender alongside nutty ingredients such as pistachio, walnut and almond in your sponge cakes.
Looking for an afternoon kick? Tickle your taste buds and use a touch of booze and infuse liquor into your cake batters. Spirits such as rum and whiskey pair well alongside nutty cakes, while cleaner liquors such as vodka and tequila will add a punch to simpler fruity cakes. These can be soaked into the sponges or incorporated into a glaze with ease. Even the newly-vegan Guinness can add some serious dark punchy flavour to the most chocolatey of indulgent baked goods.
And why stop at simple cakes? Use aquafaba to create vegan meringue kisses or macarons. Create vegan mousses served in shot glasses. Craft a tower of mini trifles. Express your inventive skills with pastries. Let your imagination run wild.
When it comes to designing savoury offerings, who’s to say you can’t serve alternative fair such as smaller canapés or savoury crêpe rolls as a part of afternoon tea? Even sushi could be served with a cup of miso broth as an inventive alternative to traditional sandwiches. However, if you simply want to get inventive with your fillings, some of my favourites include; smashed avocado, roasted vegetables and chilli flakes. A minted pea and cannellini bean purée. Pulled jackfruit in a BBQ sauce with relish. Smoked tofu with marinated Asian mushrooms. Spicy chipotle hummus with nut loaf.
Sandwiches not your style? How about serving mini-slider burgers with all the trimmings in a fusion of traditional with irregular. For a lighter alternative, use corn cakes and make open sandwich crackers garnished with micro-salads and sprouted legumes.
Scones are scones, right? Wrong! Transform the humble afternoon tea staple by introducing a variety of different fruits, flavours and even vegetables (no, really, hear me out). A chocolate scone with marmalade will create a Jaffa Cake-style dessert, or just the simple addition of coconut flour and dried Caribbean fruit to a savoury scone gives you a tropical twist on the classic recipe.
My ultimate scone however has to be a carrot cake scone. Grated carrot, allspice and dark sugar transform the normal recipe. Serve alongside a whipped crème cheeze topping for an indulgent treat.
When experimenting with more complex foodie flavours, my advice would be to use a traditional tea pairing such as Assam or Breakfast, so as not to overwhelm the senses. However, if a theme is what you are going for, the tea can reflect this. There are a multitude of flavours to suit the most adventurous palette. Try serving the tea in a fanciful infuser, or in less traditional cups and saucers. I am in love with traditional Japanese mugs, which have no handles and are made from cast iron. They give dramatic impact on an Instagram-worthy display.
Looking to host a stunning free-from traditional afternoon tea, or perhaps you’re in need of some ideas in preparation for catering your first gluten-free tea party? Being gluten-free doesn’t have to make an impact upon the quality of your food on offer, it just simply involves a few adaptations and tweaks to some of your recipes.
Gluten-free? Just as tasty. Thanks to the ever-expanding range of baking flours and raising agents available in most supermarkets, you can be sure of no soggy bottoms or dense brick-cakes in your efforts to create the gluten-free and gourmet. A quick scroll online will tantalise your taste buds with exciting recipes.
Why not design a menu of sweet treats that are intrinsically gluten-free? Serve up distinctively denser cakes, including double-chocolate brownies and nut-flower cakes alongside flapjacks and gluten-free oat-baked biscuits. Almond and orange cake is a winner for sure.
The obvious choice would be to serve simple sandwiches on gluten-free breads. While this is pretty easy, you may want to consider going off-piste! Swerve the sandwiches, opting for lettuce cups filled with pan-fried spinach and mushrooms, rice cakes smothered in smashed avocado with chickpeas and peppers, baked rounds of sweet potato with a Mexican salsa on top, or even a dip-based lunch with raw veggies. The possibilities are endless!
Simply substitute the regular flour for gluten-free versions, and make sure you add in a binding agent such as a fruit purée, coconut cream or xanthan gum. As for the fillings, you can be as inventive as you like! For a higher success rate, try baking the scones in larger sizes (around a fist-sized round) as the ingredients will be more likely to bind.
All teas are naturally gluten-free, so this is really up to your tastes.
The kind of person who would add salt to a dough instead of sugar. Perhaps your idea of baking involves a cake mix and water? Or maybe you’ve never baked anything vegan before. No problem. I’ve got your back on this maiden voyage into the unknown world of vegan bakery.
Keep it simple. An all-in-one cake batter mix needs few ingredients and no complicated methodology, but is guaranteed to generate a gloriously golden baked delight. Remember to line the cake tins with baking paper and ensure the oven is at the correct temperature. Use a toothpick in the middle of the sponge to test if the cake is fully baked – if it comes out clean, you’re good to go! Cool, and then fill with a vegan buttercream and strawberries, or for a lighter cake opt for a plain jam sponge. Simple? Yes. Delicious? Absolutely.
One of the simplest ways to incorporate savoury into an afternoon tea is to do a selection of smaller filled savoury bread rolls. No cutting of crusts or precision presentation needed here, it’s as easy as fill or spread with your favourite fillings. You could use bagels sliced in half as open sandwiches, and don’t be afraid to use your imagination when it comes to fillings and toppings.
Don’t let the dough intimidate you. Scones are one of the more practical and user-friendly baked goods that are almost novice-proof! Remember to flour the worktop when rolling out and shaping the dough. Avoid ‘overworking’ the dough by handling it too much, and, importantly, line your baking tray to ensure no sticking.
You can’t go wrong with a pot of loose-leaf breakfast tea, served in a traditional teapot with a strainer. It’ll take your guests back in time and is sure to add a little fancy to your first afternoon tea event.
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