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teacupTea, anyone?

by Chef Tara Davis



The trees are springing to life, and with the first hint of sunshine and longer days, I am beginning to feel semi-human again.


I find spring to be an ideal season for entertaining. And next to the cocktail buffet, afternoon tea is one of my favorite ways to do so. However, unlike planning a cocktail hour with a multitude of savory bites that are sensitive to time and temperature, the components of a traditional afternoon tea are largely enjoyed cold or at room temperature and can be done ahead of time, plated up, and laid out before guests arrive.


Translation: no running things from the oven, looking for trivets and replenishing empty trays. Instead, you can impress guests with a lavishly decorated table featuring plenty of delectable dishes that require little actual cooking. Save boiling water for the tea itself.


I especially love afternoon tea for its versatility. For example, if you’ve made a few types of finger sandwiches and don’t feel confident in your baking skills, then you can easily supplement the menu by purchasing good scones, muffins, or a beautiful cake. You also can pick up assorted pastries at your favorite bakery. And if you’re serving tea as a larger, buffet-style event, then you can add miniature hors d’oeuvres to amplify the meal. It can be as elaborate or as simple as you’d like.


Now is the time to put on that special tablecloth that you never have an occasion to use. And if you’re like me and don’t have enough teacups to serve a crowd, then by all means mix and match. This is where I use all of my antique, one-off pieces of china that I’ve collected over the years. Leave the matching to the cocktail party; afternoon tea should be charming and pretty.


As for the menu, I like to make a curried chicken salad finger sandwich with toasted cashews and plump raisins and a smoked salmon finger sandwich with some creamy Boursin or flavored cream cheese. Of course, tea wouldn’t be complete without cucumber finger sandwiches. These are quick and easy to assemble. When making them ahead, simply put them on a platter with a damp paper towel over them so that they don’t dry out in the refrigerator.


Nothing beats warm scones, so I’ve included my recipe for a strawberry cream variety. They’re small, buttery morsels that get elevated to transcendent when slathered with Devon, or clotted, cream and strawberry preserves. These also can be prepared beforehand; just heat them through before guests arrive.


Lastly, a sweet treat is needed. The Brits — and I — go wild for lemon tarts. The chef-purist in me says to make everything from scratch; however, the practical mother in me says it’s perfectly fine to take some shortcuts, as long as the end result saves precious time and tastes delicious. With this in mind, I’ve streamlined what could be a rather lengthy process into about five minutes. Start with prepared tart shells, mix lemon curd with whipped topping to form a mousse-like filling and garnish with whipped cream. It doesn’t get much easier than that. 


Tara Davis is a personal chef and cooking instructor based in Chapel Hill. An active member of Slow Foods USA/Triangle and supporter of the local farm-to-table movement, she frequently offers group cooking demonstrations through her company, The Studious Chef. To learn more, visit

Spring recipes


Recipes by Chef Tara Davis   |   Photography by Flint Davis


finger sandwichesCurried Chicken Salad Finger Sandwiches

(makes 2 dozen)


1 cooked rotisserie chicken

6 ounces lemon-flavored yogurt

1 stalk celery, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon curry powder

1/8-cup raisins

1/4-cup chopped cashews, toasted

Salt and pepper to taste

12 slices thin white sandwich bread


In a mixing bowl, make the chicken salad by combining all ingredients but the bread. Season with salt and pepper to taste.


On a large, clean work surface, lay out six slices of bread. Place a small amount of chicken salad on each slice, and top with remaining slices. Press gently to make the filling adhere to the bread.


With a sharp knife, carefully slice the crusts off of each sandwich, then slice in half diagonally and then in half again to make four triangles of each.



Smoked Salmon Finger Sandwiches

(makes 2 dozen)


4 ounces sliced smoked salmon

1 5.2-ounce package Boursin cheese at room temperature
(shallot and chive flavors work well)

12 slices thin wheat bread


Lay bread on a large, clean work surface. Spread each slice with a thin layer of cheese. Top six of the pieces with salmon slices, breaking them accordingly to fit the bread.


Place the remaining six slices on top and pat down gently on each sandwich. Cut the crusts off of all sides and then slice into four rectangles, or fingers.



Cucumber Finger Sandwiches

(makes 2 dozen)


1 large English seedless cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced

3-4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

12 slices thin white bread

Salt to taste


Lay cucumber slices onto paper towels and sprinkle with salt to draw out excess moisture. Lay bread on a large, clean work surface, and spread each slice evenly with softened butter.


Place four cucumbers on each of six slices of bread. Top with remaining slices and pat down gently on each sandwich.


Cut the crusts off of all sides and trim to a desired shape: triangles, squares or cookie-cutter creations.



sconesStrawberry Cream Scones

(makes 1 dozen)


2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4-cup sugar, plus a little extra for sprinkling on top of scones

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2-teaspoon salt

1/2-cup dried strawberries, diced

1/2-cup or 1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1/2-cup heavy cream, plus a little extra for brushing the tops of scones

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 egg, lightly beaten


Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and dried strawberries. Add butter and mix with a pastry cutter or your hands until the mixture comes together as coarse crumbs. (Note: You want little clumps of butter to remain; this gives the scones their flaky texture.)


In a separate mixing bowl, combine cream, vanilla extract and egg until smooth. Add to the flour mixture and stir with a fork until just combined; do not overmix the dough.


Gently knead the dough five to six times until it holds its shape, then pat it into a round. On a lightly floured surface, gently roll the dough to a one-inch thickness. Cut scones with a 2 1/2-inch biscuit cutter. Gather scraps together and roll again until all 12 scones are rolled.


Place scones on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Brush the tops with extra cream and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 18-23 minutes or until tops are lightly golden.


For traditional tea, serve scones with strawberry preserves and Devon cream, which can be found in the specialty cheese case at area supermarkets and gourmet stores.




lemon tartsEasy Lemon Tarts

(makes eight)


1 8-ounce container whipped topping, refrigerated or thawed if frozen

1/2-cup lemon curd

8 tart shells (I use 3 1/2-inch miniature ones, which can be purchased frozen)

Sweetened whipped cream or lemon zest for garnish, if desired


If tart shells are frozen, then bake them before filling. Refer to the package directions for time and temperature, then remove from oven and let cool.


In a mixing bowl, combine lemon curd with whipped topping until smooth. Spoon into tart shells and top with sweetened whipped cream or lemon zest.