In the past five years, the so-very-English ritual of afternoon tea has become a popular social event.
Tearooms offer scones with clotted cream and jam, fresh fruit, cheese and crackers, truffles, chocolate-dipped strawberries and pastries. But it's the tea sandwich that takes center stage.
Delicate and dainty, it can be filled with just about anything -- from a heavenly rich salmon pate to come-and-get-it peanut butter and jelly.
For the at-home tea, making wonderful sandwiches is a matter of timing, organization, experimenting with breads and fillings, and knowing how to present the assembled sandwiches, according to Carol Cox and Anne Ennis, tea-sandwich experts extraordinaire.
Cox is owner of the Victorian Manor Tea Rooms and Gardens in Orange, Calif., which serves some 1,300 tea sandwiches a week, while Ennis, who lives in Orange and is a native of England's County Durham, is an English tea instructor and author of the book "Fifty Favourite Tea Sandwiches."
When it comes to an at-home tea, says Ennis, some people see the sandwiches as a chore. "To me," Ennis says, "the sandwiches are the most creative part of the tea and should be approached that way."
"Don't use white air bread," Cox advises. "When you spread the filling, the bread has to be strong enough to handle it and has to cut cleanly and look good."
Experiment with different types of bread -- rye, dill, poppy seed, pumpernickel, date nut, pumpkin, even tortillas. Small cocktail loaves also will work (don't trim the crusts).
For rolled and pinwheel sandwiches, it's best to use very fresh bread, Ennis says. For other sandwiches, she uses day-old bread.
Cox's customers like sandwiches with a cream-cheese base mixed with crispy crumbled bacon, chopped green olives, chopped black olives, sliced sun-dried tomatoes and basil, or grated fresh carrots and black pepper.
Ennis' repertoire includes crab salad, sweet and sour beef, cashew chicken, ham and chutney, mozzarella cheese and prosciutto, and turkey and orange marmalade.
Some fillings can be made the night before.
Ennis puts a light spread of butter on each slice of bread, which helps seal it against moist fillings. Cox doesn't use butter.
Next comes the filling. If the filling has two parts (a spread and a thin slice of meat, for example), Ennis applies a thin layer of spread to both pieces of bread, places the meat on one of them, then tops it with the other slice of bread. The method gives a more decorative look to the filling.
Don't skimp on the filling, says Cox. After the large sandwich is filled, trim off the crusts, then cut into tea sandwiches. There are three traditional shapes: triangles (four per large sandwich), squares (four per large sandwich) and fingers (three per large sandwich).
For up to eight people, serve three kinds of sandwiches, allowing five to seven servings per person.
As a general rule, the more moist the filling, the closer to serving time the sandwich should be prepared. Sandwiches that feature more hearty ingredients such as meats and cheeses can be made two to four hours before serving.
Give each sandwich its own garnish. Depending on the filling, cocktail onions, pimento-stuffed olives, raisins, seedless grapes, button mushrooms, cornichons (tiny cucumber pickles) or cherry tomatoes can be speared on sandwiches with frilly toothpicks. Because it is usually moist, this type of garnish should be added just before serving.