How To Put On An Elegant High Tea

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In the world of catering and hospitality, there is almost nothing more divine to behold as a beautifully prepared high tea table.  Each detail, from a posie in a teacup, to a glass of homemade lemon cordial, a tasty savoury or a sumptuous sweet, says: “I have been lovingly prepared.  Please enjoy me!”  Perhaps you have a sister’s graduation, a girlfriend’s baby shower or your mum’s birthday coming up.  In the event that you should take the role of hostess extraordinaire upon yourself, here is my How-To-High-Tea guide to help you on your way to planning a lusciously elegant afternoon.

The Planning

As with any event, the planning is the most crucial and time consuming of all the tasks.  It is thorough planning and preparation that will bring everything together with a flourish.  Rest assured that no detail is too insignificant to be noted down.  It’s the little things that you often forget: folding the napkins, preparing garnishes, removing old wax from candlesticks.  Keep track of the page numbers of your recipes.  Write down anything that will save you time later!
In the weeks before the event, I pop menu ideas down on a trusty excel spreadsheet when I think of them.  I try to select items that cover the range of hot and cold; meat, fish and vegetarian; rich and light; filling and ‘amuse-bouche’; savoury and sweet etc.  If you have invitees who have catering requirements, it is not always necessary to make a menu especially for them.  There are plenty of recipes that are inadvertently gluten or dairy free or don’t have eggs in them that are enjoyable for your whole party.

Things To Consider When Planning Your Menu

high teaYour Style:  I personally like the food items on my high tea menus to be the size of a mouthful or two, so I tend to put time into making little quiches or pies, bite-sized cakes and the like.  If you are not really into preparing lots of fiddly items, then work towards a menu that you feel comfortable doing.  Quiches and cakes don’t have to be individualised – they can be cut into wedges or squares when served. 
The weather: a mulled wine will be sidelined next to a cool punch in the height of summer, but if it’s a frosty afternoon there could be no better choice!  And although cucumber sandwiches are a high tea classic, a wintry event might call for a heartier alternative.

Timing Food Preparation: If you are embarking on a multi-faceted menu and doing it with little assistance, then allowing an appropriate amount of time is essential.  Having six complicated dishes to conjure up on the morning of the day is not a happy experience!  Some recipes are, in fact, improved by advance preparation, so put some of those in your menu.  Obviously, there will most likely be things you want to include on the menu that can’t be made too far in advance, but it’s wise to limit these to as few as possible so that your workload in the run-up to the day is always manageable. 

Storage Facilities: Storing your food is an important part of the planning.  Doing whatever you can to prepare in advance is a simply wonderful way to be organised – you do not want to be making biscuits the eve of your event when they can be made much earlier and stored in an airtight container, ready to be plated and served – but you must have a place to keep the food fresh once it has been made, so bear that in mind when choosing your menu items.
I try to have the menu sorted about a week or so prior to the day so that I can see clearly what needs to be done in the time leading up to it.  Below is a sample menu to consider.  I believe this menu could comfortably cater for about 15 people.  I have worked this out by making sure that there are roughly eight savoury and five sweet portions for each person.  By a single portion size, I am meaning 2-3 mouthfuls.

Sample Menu High Tea

Savoury Options:

Item name Category Number of portions When to Prepare
    •   Caramelised onion and feta tarts Hot/Vegetarian 24 portions Up to two weeks prior and frozen; heated just prior to serving
    •    Chicken and leek tarts Hot/Chicken 24 portions Up to two weeks prior and frozen; heated just prior to serving
     •    Salmon and herbed cream cheese pinwheels Cold/Fish 24 portions Filling made day before; assembled on morning
     •    Cheese platter Cold/Vegetarian 38 portions Assembled on day

Sweet Options:

    •    Little raspberry chocolate cakes Cake 15 portions Up to two weeks prior and frozen; iced the day before
    •    New York style baked cheesecake Cheesecake 15 portions Made 2-3 days ahead and refrigerated
    •    Lemon coconut slice Slice 15 portions 3-4 days ahead and refrigerated or dry-stored
   •    Melting moments Biscuit 15 portions A  week prior and dry-stored
    •    Fruit platter/fruit salad Fruit 20 portions Fruits that don’t brown can be cut the night before


    •    Sparkling Punch Fruit for punch cut night prior
    •    Fresh orange juice  
    •    Coffee Make sure you have milk and sugar
    •    Tea Make sure you have milk and sugar

The Preparation:

Once my menu has taken shape, I start cooking food and squirrelling it away to be brought out with delight when the day arrives.  Of the thirteen items on our sample menu, four are drinks that are prepared on the day. Six items can be made at least two days before the event.  That leaves only three items that have to be fitted in around any other preparations the night before and morning of.  These other preparations might include:

    •    Preparing garnishes for food
    •    Icing/decorating cakes
    •    Cleaning stored platters, tea sets, glassware that you’re going to use
    •    Polishing silverware (although I highly recommend doing this the week before because it can be very time consuming depending on how tarnished your silverware is!)
    •    Assembling flower arrangements (if your flowers will last well, then you may be able to afford doing this two or three days early)
    •    Ironing tablecloths, napkins, your outfit
    •    Writing/printing a display menu, name place cards
    •    Choosing/finding music
    •    Cleaning the house!
    •    Last minute dashes to the shops!
    •    Putting drinks in eskies ready to be iced down

The Day:

Once I’ve been running around all morning, the last thing I feel I can manage is to sit still and do my hair and make-up, so I have (recently) decided that this is best done first thing in the morning.  Freshening up later is easier than completely having to start from scratch as people are coming in the door!!   I can then launch into bringing all the elements together!

high tea 3

Being a hostess is a wonderful opportunity.  It’s true that you can’t sit and chat for hours on the veranda with the ice in your glass melting into nothingness (at least not initially), but you get the opportunity to greet everyone, make them feel welcome, see what will make them more comfortable, introduce people to one another, get conversations moving.  Taking platters round to people is, I believe, the world’s best way of mingling: it gives you both a reason to interrupt the conversation and a reason to depart the company.  Most importantly, your guests feel really special when they are looked after, and are always delighted to welcome you and your armful of food! After all, you are sparing them taking subtle sideways glances at your luscious table, and wondering how they’re ever going to get there while trying to politely maintain their conversation!

Here’s to you, and to putting on many a splendid afternoon of high tea merriment in the years to come!

Other tips
    •    Don’t forget to taste test and season your food! Many a good mouthful was ruined by blandness.
    •    If people offer to help then accept it – there is always something you have forgotten to do or the need of an extra pair of hands.
    •    I have sourced 99.3% of my platters/glassware/silverware/teacups/dinner sets etc from op-shops.  It might take a bit of looking around to find what you want, but if you’re a foodie person and love having people round for dinner, then it’s worth starting a little collection.  Look in op-shops for linen too, as there are many ways of improving on stained tablecloths and napkins.
    •    Do think about what you’re going to wear, regardless of how unimportant a task it seems next to all the other things you’re doing.  You won’t regret having it decided upon when you rush to your room at five minutes to 2 o’clock!

Filed Under: Cooking TipsEntertainingOrganisation

About the Author: Katie is a Kiwi living in Melbourne with her husband and little baby boy. She loves the idea of bringing family and friends together around a campfire, to a beautifully set table or to a musical soiree around the piano. She has boundless energy for creative pursuits and explores colour and beauty on a daily basis. Katie loves writing little articles for YCM because she sees families as the cornerstones of our communities and believes that families need to be happy and flourishing before society can flourish.

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