TEA JUST FOR TWO Rekindle romance on Valentine's Day with a tempting basket of delectables

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Looking for a way to rekindle or ignite your loved one's passion this Valentine's Day? Then consider a gift or a romantic basket brimming with the makings for an intimate tea for two.

If you are under the misconception that afternoon tea is just for "the girls," then picture this cozy scenario: It's a blustery day, you and your sweetheart have just returned from an outing, chilled to the bone and ravenous. While he stokes the fire, you put the water on to boil and set out your tea basket.

It's filled to the brim with everything one could possibly need for a lover's tea party -- thin china tea cups and saucers, a tea pot, spoons, dessert plates, a variety of teas, sugar cubes, honey, lemon wedges, cakes, scones, spreads, petit pastries, cotton or linen napkins, a red rose in a bud vase and even a pretty tea cozy to put over the tea pot to keep it warm.

Your true love may find this basket to be the most intimate valentine he or she has ever received -- a few stolen hours together, an escape from a hectic world of pressures, a chance to indulge in warmth and comforting delicacies. And while you're at it, consider assembling a basket for a dear friend as well. Who wouldn't welcome such a gift to share with a special loved one?

A tea basket is an extremely versatile gift, too, since you can make it as elaborate or simple, costly or inexpensive as you choose. If you don't have a basket, cut down the sides of a carton or use a shallow box, covering the outside with contact paper or fabric, gluing on snippets of ribbon and lace. Or, use a shallow tray or fill a shopping bag with colored tissue paper. If the container is a deep one, fill the bottom with crumpled newspaper or tissue, hiding the paper with fabric or colored shredded cellophane or straw.

Arrange baked goods in tins, boxes lined with doilies, disposable pie plates, small pails, or on paper plates. Wrap them in plastic wrap and then, if desired, cover with colored cellophane and tie with ribbons. (Don't put colored cellophane directly next to food -- it may be toxic.)

To embellish the tea theme, bake homemade goodies that incorporate aromatic tea into the batter. Strongly steeped tea with its variety of herbs, fruits and spices reduces the number of other ingredients needed in a recipe. For example, in the Constant Comment cake, the tea of the same name adds the rind of oranges and sweet spices that permeate the dense, buttery, sponge cake. The flavors are further enhanced when the cake is consumed with a cup of orange and spice tea.

The powdered sugar glaze on the cake is optional; you may prefer to cover the cake with a paper doily, sprinkle it heavily with powdered sugar and then carefully lift up the doily, leaving a pretty powdered sugar pattern on the top of the cake.

Raspberry royale brownies are rich, dense and fudgy, with a delicate hint of berries. To dress up the brownies, bake them in miniature muffin cups (1 1/2 inches in diameter), either greased or lined with paper. They can be filled quickly if you put the batter into a large zip-lock freezer bag, snip the corner and press it into the cups.

Cranberry apple scones are light, fluffy biscuits with a mellow fruity flavor. Experiment with different types of fruit-based teas for a variety of tastes -- it will vary dramatically with each type used. Try substituting currants, raisins, chopped apple or blueberries for the cranberries. Spoon pretty, valentine-red cranberry spread, spiked with a splash of Grand Marnier, into a pretty glass jar or spice bottle, and cover the top with a round of fabric tied with a pretty bow.

Once the basket is assembled and given to your special love, don't be surprised to find that you are the recipient of the best valentine of all!

Raspberry royale brownies

Makes 48 mini-brownies or 42 bars.

3 raspberry flavored teabags (such as Bigelow's Raspberry Royale)

1/2 cup water

10 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, finely chopped or chips

1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter or margarine

4 large eggs

1/2 cup packed golden brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup flour

1/3 cup walnuts

Fudge frosting (optional)

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 tablespoon heavy cream

Decorative candies or candied flowers for garnishing, if desired

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 1 1/2 -inch mini-muffin cups with vegetable cooking spray or line a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with foil, letting it extend 2 inches over the sides; grease foil.

Bring water to a simmer in small saucepan. Add teabags -- submerging them completely. Cool, remove teabags, squeezing out liquid.

Melt chocolate and butter in top of double boiler over hot water or in large microwavable bowl on high power for 2 to 3 minutes or until melted. Cool slightly.

Whisk in eggs and sugars. Add cooled tea and whisk to combine. Stir in flour and nuts. Pour into prepared pan (or pans). Bake muffin cups 15 to 18 minutes; bake 9-by-13-inch pan for 25 minutes or until center feels firm but still appears moist. Cool and remove from muffin cups or, using foil, lift from pan.

If desired, make frosting by stirring all ingredients in top of double boiler or in microwave on high power until melted and smooth. Spoon a dollop onto each brownie cup, or spread over top of brownies in pan. Cool and cut in to 2-by-1 1/4 -inch bars. Decorate with candies or candied flowers, if desired.

Cranberry apple scones

Makes 30 (2-inch) scones.

5 cranberry-apple or other fruit-flavored teabags

1/2 cup milk

2 sticks ( 1/2 pound) unsalted butter or margarine

1/2 cup sugar

3 large eggs

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

1 cup coarsely chopped fresh or frozen cranberries

Cranberry Grand Marnier spread, if desired

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

In a small saucepan, bring milk to a simmer until small bubbles form around edge of pan. Do not boil. Remove from heat and add teabags, submerging them completely. Set aside to cool. Squeeze liquid from bags back into milk.

In large mixing bowl with electric mixer, cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs and mix until blended; batter will appear separated.

Add flour and baking powder, mixing until incorporated. Mix in milk and walnuts, if using, until incorporated; do not overmix.

Gently fold in cranberries.

On a lightly floured board, roll dough to 1 1/4 -inch thickness. Cut into 2-inch circles or hearts. Place on greased baking sheets.

Bake for 15 to 18 minutes until center springs back when lightly pressed with fingertips. If desired, serve with cranberry Grand .. Marnier spread.

Cranberry Grand Marnier spread

Makes 1 1/2 cups.

2 1/2 cups cranberries

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon water

2 heaping tablespoons cornstarch

3 tablespoons Grand Marnier

In a medium saucepan, bring cranberries, sugar and water to a boil, stirring constantly, until the mixture comes to a full boil and berries begin to pop. Remove from heat.

Dissolve cornstarch in Grand Marnier and stir into cranberries. Return to heat and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture comes to a full boil and thickens. Remove from heat and divide among hot jars and seal or cool and refrigerate.

Constant Comment tea cake

Makes eight servings.

CAKE

5 Constant Comment teabags

1/2 cup milk

1 stick ( 1/4 pound) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup sugar

3 large eggs

1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

ORANGE GLAZE:

3/4 cup powdered sugar

3 to 5 teaspoons orange juice

Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a small saucepan over low heat, heat milk until bubbles begin to appear around the edge of pan. Remove from heat and add teabags, submerging them completely. Set aside to cool. Remove teabags, squeezing liquid back into milk.

Grease and flour a 9-inch round or heart-shaped cake pan. In large mixing bowl with electric mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, beating well after each. Mix in the cooled milk. Mix in flour and baking powder until incorporated.

Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake for 35 minutes or until center of cake springs back when pressed with fingertips.

Cool five minutes and turn out of pan onto rack to cool completely.

To make glaze, place powdered sugar in a medium bowl. Stir in just enough orange juice to make a thick, pourable consistency. Spoon onto cake, letting it drip down the sides. Let sit until firm.

' The cake may be frozen.

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