Friday 8 July 2011

Tea Sandwiches

When Victorian ladies attended "At Home" teas they could expect that the menu would include a plate of dainty sandwiches.  These were always cut into small enough portions that a woman could eat them without requiring utensils or soiling her gloves.  This custom continues into the present day.  Most formal teas still include in their service a sandwich plate.

Tea sandwiches are, by custom, small servings.  They contain less filling than a luncheon sandwich might, and they are always served with the bread crusts removed.

Traditional tea sandwich fillings do not include onions or garlic but in this, as in all aspects of a formal tea, you should consider your guests when preparing the menu.  Onions and garlic should always be omitted if your guest list includes elderly people, new acquaintances, or if you are serving a work meeting of any sort.  If you're among friends and know that they will enjoy the more robust flavours that garlic and onions impart, by all means include them in your sandwich fillings.

It's always good policy to include a liberal garnish of parsley on your sandwich plate.  Parsley contains chlorophyll, affording your guests the opportunity to freshen their breath after they have eaten.

Aside from those already mentioned, there are few rules about what can go into a tea sandwich.  As you can see from my photos, presentation is important but perfection is not required.  

Here are a few traditional tea sandwiches, and a couple that are less traditional.  I'm sure that you'll improvise to include your own favourites, and to use the ingredients you have on hand.

Nothing could be more tea-time traditional than a cucumber sandwich but a soggy sandwich filled with slippery slices is not at all desirable.  To prepare a cucumber sandwich, start by slicing the cucumber as thinly as you can and then layering it in a sieve or colander, salting each layer as you go.  Allow the cucumber slices to sit in the sieve or colander for about two hours so that some of their moisture can drain off.  Once the cucumbers have been prepared, make your sandwiches from thinly sliced brown bread.  Butter each slice with sweet butter, layer in the cucumbers and then season each sandwich with pepper.  No more salt need be added.

Tomato sandwiches are another tea-time staple, especially in the late summer months.

I use basil butter in my tomato sandwiches.  It's easily made:  Just chop some fresh basil and mix it into room temperature butter.

To make tomato sandwiches for tea, you will first need to peel the tomatoes.  Cut a small X in the bottom of each of your tomatoes and blanch them for about 30 seconds in boiling water before transferring them to a bowl of very cold water.  The skins should come off easily.  Slice the peeled tomatoes into quarters or eighths, depending upon the size of the tomato, and then remove the core and the seeds.  The remaining petal-shaped pieces should be blotted dry with paper towel and then laid flat to make the filling for your sandwiches.  Season the sandwiches with salt and pepper.

When I had tea with my grandma salmon sandwiches were an absolute requirement.  If you have fresh salmon that you can poach to make the filling for your sandwiches, that's great.  If not, canned sockeye salmon is perfectly acceptable, provided you remove the skin and bones.

The salmon filling shown here was made with canned sockeye salmon, finely diced celery, finely chopped bread and butter pickles, homemade mayonnaise, salt and pepper. 

These chicken liver pâté sandwiches are not the prettiest girls at the dance but if you have any men attending your tea, they'll thank you for them. 

The pâté is an exception to the "no onion" rule. To make it, place 1 lb. of chicken livers in a saucepan and add a sliced onion.  Add water, just enough to cover the ingredients, and simmer the chicken livers for about 20 minutes.  Drain the livers and remove the onion.  Allow the chicken livers to cool completely and then transfer them to your food processor.  Add 4 Tbsp. grated onion, 1 tsp. dry mustard, 2 Tbsp. dry sherry, 1/2 c. room temperature butter, and a pinch of mace.  Pulse the food processor until the ingredients are well combined but there is still some texture left.  (When you turn the mixture out of the processor, you may have to fold it together a little more to ensure that the ingredients are evenly distributed throughout the pâté.)  Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as required.

I used pumpernickel bread for these sandwiches, and a good quality grainy mustard.  I cut the sandwiches out with a biscuit cutter.  They're topped with a slice of dill pickle and a sprig of parsley.

Cheese and chutney sandwiches are a working class tradition, not usually included on a tea sandwich plate, but I love them and often serve them.  I used brown bread, sweet butter, homemade peach chutney, and sharp cheddar cheese to make these.  If you don't have homemade chutney, store bought mango chutney or Major Grey's chutney will work perfectly well.

Layered sandwiches like these are always very popular.  They look pretty on the plate and guests find them intriguing.  The fillings in this sandwich are seeded, finely diced tomato with cream cheese (in the top layer), and finely diced celery with cream cheese (in the bottom layer). Both fillings were seasoned generously with freshly cracked black pepper.

There are lots of visually appealing fillings, suitable for layered sandwiches.  Do experiment to find your own favourite combinations. 

This last sandwich is more thé moderne than traditional tea, but it will appeal to guests who have a more adventurous palette.  The filling is smoked chicken breast seasoned with a hot pepper rub.  It's served on brown bread with sweet butter and pepper jam.

A variety of interesting cold cuts can add a lot to a sandwich plate.  A word of caution though:  Health Canada does not recommend serving deli meats to elderly people or to people with weakened immune systems.  If your guest list includes someone to whom this warning applies, save the deli meats for another time.

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