Saturday, June 11, 2011

Afternoon tea with the bishop

Irish high tea is my idea of elevated dining, and so when we had the chance to invite Irish native Bishop Patrick J. McGrath over for afternoon tea this week, I jumped at the chance to make a couple of beloved things that I've refined over the years, as well as one Irish tea cake that looked marvelous, but which really required a proper occasion like this one.

For sure I knew I'd be making my Currant Cream Scones. Served with a soft Irish butter and my favorite recipe for Lemon Curd, this were no-brainers as far as I was concerned. Fresh organic strawberries are in season and full of flavor right now, plus I'd finally be able to use that sugar sifter that looks so pretty but just sits in the cupboard begging to come out. 
My lonely sugar sifter with berries

But I needed a tea cake, and as soon as I saw the recipe for Seedy Cake in an old copy of The Scottish-Irish Pub and Hearth Cookbook that I'd found in a used book store, I couldn't wait to try it... it was a lovely pound cake speckled with caraway, a flavor I hadn't enjoyed in a very long time. Joy of Cooking has a recipe for "Seed Cake," but the description said that it reminded the authors of "antimacassars and aspidistras," which wasn't exactly the mood I was looking for. So I ran out and got a nice new handful of caraway seeds to celebrate my discovery.

Roses, honeysuckle, and statice
Everything turned out as well as I could have ever hoped for...  as he spread some of the Lemon Curd on a slice of the Seedy Cake, Bishop McGrath looked very wistful as he recalled how his family's housekeeper used to make exactly the same thing for him and his siblings when he was still young. The cake and curd also passed muster with our other two guests - Father Tim Johnson and Will Sousae - as did the Currant Cream Scones.

The Seedy Cake should be made a day or two ahead of time so that it can mellow, firm up, and give the caraway seeds a chance to meld with the cake. I put it in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, and it was very easy to slice thinly once it had chilled thoroughly. (Tea cakes should be served as dainty slices so that they can be slowly enjoyed, and the bishop was especially pleased that I got that part right.) The cake can be made even a month in advance if you have lots of willpower, as it freezes well in a Ziploc freezer bag; just  defrost it in the fridge overnight. 

Lemon Curd can be made days ahead of time and stays perfect as long as it is refrigerated, so you only need to bake the scones at the last minute; however, the scones are a snap if you have a food processor and will be ready within 45 minutes of thinking of them. And I adore these scones; they chock full of currants, and a crust of demerara sugar and cream lends a delightful crunch.

Thinly sliced Seedy Cake
Afternoon tea is a great reason to haul out your grandmother's china and decorate the table with roses from your garden so that you can fully enjoy this cultivated ritual.  So I encourage you to do like I did and set out mismatched cups and saucers, Depression glass, and a couple of pretty plates... it really makes everything taste so much better!

So now, without any further ado, here are the makings for a nice Irish tea.

Seedy cake 
(from The Scottish-Irish Pub and Hearth Cookbook, Kay Shaw Nelson, Hippocrene Books, 1999)
Makes 12 to 14 servings [I got about twice that many slices; suffice it to say that this makes 1 loaf cake]

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
½ cup sugar
3 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
⅛ teaspoon nutmeg [I just grated away over the cake until it looked more like 1 teaspoon]
½ teaspoon [sea] salt
½ cup milk [more or less]
Irish cake and Irish butter
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter and flour the bottom and sides of a 9x5x3-inch loaf pan.

2. In a large bowl cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating to blend well.

3. Into a medium bowl sift the flour, baking powder, nutmeg, and salt. Stir in the caraway seeds. Add to butter-sugar mixture, alternately with milk, using enough to make a smooth firm batter. [It will look very firm at this point, much more so than conventional cake batters, so don't add more liquid unless necessary.]  Turn into the prepared pan and spread out the top evenly. 

4. Bake the cake in a preheated oven until the top is golden and a tester inserted into the enter comes out clean, about 50 minutes. Cool in pan 10 minutes. Remove from pan to a wire rack. Cool. Wrap in foil [or place in a plastic bag]. Store in a cool, dry place [the refrigerator works well here] for 1 to 2 days. Serve the cake cut in thin slices. Makes 1 loaf.

Luscious lemon curd
Lemon curd 
Makes about 1½ cups

2 lemons (preferably Meyer and organic)
6 tablespoons good unsalted butter, cut into cubes
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1 cup sugar
3 large organic eggs, beaten well
1. Scrub the lemons well and wipe dry. Grate them on the small holes of a grater and place the lemon zest in the top of a double boiler (or a nonreactive bowl set over a pot of water). Squeeze the lemons, strain the juice, and add 5 tablespoons of the juice to the zest along with the butter, salt, and sugar.

2. Heat the lemon mixture over simmering (not boiling) water; check the bottom of the double boiler now and then to make sure that the water isn't boiling away.

3. Remove the top of the double boiler and set it next to the stove. Wait 1 minute for the lemon mixture to cool down slightly, and then dribble the eggs into the lemon mixture with one hand and use the other hand to beat the mixture with a wire whip. Return the top of the double boiler to the bottom and continue to stir the mixture constantly over the simmering water until the lemon curd is thick and glossy.

4. If you see any threads of egg white in the curd, pass the curd through a sieve so that the texture is absolutely smooth. Cool the lemon curd to room temperature, pour into a sterile jar, and store in the refrigerator for a few day at the most. This is great on toast, scones, and Seedy Cake, and also is wonderful served as is in small bowls with a few raspberries and crisp cookies on the side.

Yummy scones

Currant cream scones 
[evolved over the years from Marion Cunningham's Brown Scone recipe in The Breakfast Book, Knopf, 1987)
Makes 12 scones 

1½ cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup bran
2 teaspoons baking powder
 ½ teaspoon sea salt
6 tablespoons demerara (or raw golden) sugar, divided
4 tablespoons (½ stick) chilled unsalted butter
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons cream
1 large egg
Extra flour
1 cup currants
1. Heat the oven to 450 degrees F and line a baking sheet with a Silpat sheet or parchment paper.

2. Combine the flour, bran, baking powder, salt, and 3 tablespoons sugar in the work bowl of a food processor. Pulse the dry ingredients a few times to mix them together. Cut the butter into smallish cubes, sprinkle them over the flour mixture, and pulse the flour and butter until the butter looks like gravel. 

3. Measure out  ½ cup of cream in a measuring cup and beat the egg into the cream. With the machine running, quickly pour the cream and egg mixture into the flour. Pulse the machine a few times to combine the ingredients into a sticky clump.

4. Turn the dough out onto a smooth work surface that has been sprinkled with a bit of flour. Pat the dough out and pour the currants evenly over the dough. Use a dough scraper to fold the dough over onto itself about 10 times to incorporate the currants and slightly smooth out the texture, adding a little more flour if necessary.

5. Pat the dough out into a circle that is around half an inch thick, and then use your dough scraper to cut the circle into a dozen wedges.

6. Place the wedges on the prepared baking sheet so that they have at least half an inch of space between them. Use a pastry brush to cover the tops of the scones with the reserved cream and then sprinkle the remaining demerara sugar evenly over each piece.

7. Bake the scones for about 10 minutes, or until they are golden on top and a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean.

8. Serve hot or warm. These freeze well in freezer Ziploc bags. To reheat, wrap in foil and heat in a 275 degree F oven, or defrost the scones, split them with a fork, and toast the cut side under a broiler. Serve with good butter or Lemon Curd or just by themselves.