Saturday, December 29, 2012

Forward To The Next Half Century (Or: It's My 51st Birthday...Let's Have Tea!)

I have a confession to make: I love celebrating my birthday! I always have and I imagine I always will. Some of my fondest early memories of my birthday include geeky gifts such as a transistor a.m. radio from – get this – Radio Shack and mint chocolate chip ice cream cake from Baskin Robbins (Mmmmmm.... Mint chocolate chip....). As a kid I thought that the two best things about my birthday were 1) it was two days before my father's birthday and 2) it was early enough in December that no one could combine it with Christmas. In all honesty, though, I still think that.

That being said, I remember the year that changed the way I thought about celebrating my birthday: my thirtieth. Thirty was a milestone for me if for no other reason than that I was leaving my twenties behind me. I was so happy not to be twenty-anything that I made up my mind to extend my thirtieth birthday for as long as I could afford to. I decided on a three-pronged attack. First I would bake my own cake and take that to work to share. Then I would have a small group of people over for dinner the night after that (which I would plan and cook). Finally, I'd invite a larger group over for brunch the following afternoon. A day's celebration for each decade of my life. I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams and had my happiest birthday since I first discovered Baskin Robbins mint chocolate chip ice cream cake. (Mmmmmm.... Mint chocolate chip....)

One of those wildest dreams was the cake I chose to bake. At the time I had a subscription to Bon App├ętit and that summer the cover of one issue featured a beautiful wedding cake that really made an impression on me: three tiers, dark chocolate inside, white chocolate outside, with white chocolate ribbons and bows. I fell in love with it and became determined to make it someday. Well, that day turned out to be thirtieth birthday. It took four days to make, what with all the different kinds of chocolate I had to work with and the four different forms it needed to take (cake, icing, ganache, fondant). I needed two trips on the subway, from 96th Street and Broadway to 16th Street and 5th Avenue, to get it to the office. And then it took some minor engineering to set it up. Quite a trial! But it was, and remains, the best chocolate cake I've ever baked, served or eaten.

Look, Ma! No gray hair on my chinny chin chin!
The folks in my office thought I was nuts. And they were right. But that didn't stop them from enjoying the cake! (I know I have other pictures from that day and when I find them I'll be sure to post them.)

So. How did this change my attitude about my birthday, you may ask? My thirtieth gave me my first taste of celebrating by serving. I got such great joy out of planning, preparing, baking, cooking and sharing those meals with my friends that I was smitten with the idea from then on. I found it much more fun than having someone plan a party for me. That extended celebration led to the idea of gathering a group of friends for occasional afternoon teas, which led to what I called my "Big Dinners" (seven-course meals – I'll talk about those at some point). These eventually inspired my Birthday Teas.

For the last twenty years (with only a couple of missed opportunities) I've had a Tea to celebrate my birthday. I invite several good friends (all girls, well, just because), plan the menu, which always includes scones, cucumber sandwiches, some form of ginger cookie and at least a one "show stopper".

2005: cranberry scones, cucumber sandwiches, gingersnaps and apple-pear pie
A Tale of Two (Types Of) Scones: I've been baking scones for more than twenty-five years. Back in my life BNYC (Before New York City), I dated a young lady from England and one year for her birthday I decided to bake her something from her country. I chose scones because they are odd cousins to biscuits (although the English would deny such a connection). I used the recipe from my favorite quick breads cookbook, Carol Cutler's Greatest Fast Breads, and the young lady pronounced them almost as good as what she could get at home. My scones are small, rounded, light and easy to slice and spread with whatever jam, jelly, butter is on the table. That's one type, the correct type, of scones. The other type, the type usually found in bakeries and coffee shops and similar places in America, are gigantic, mutant shaped and generally scoffed at by anyone from the British Isles. I will not eat any of these and I suggest you run like mad if ever anyone tries to serve you one.


I always have a variety of teas for the tea drinkers and good coffee for those who enjoy their cuppa Joe. The menu is usually pretty easy, since, as I said, I know the dishes that will serve as the anchor of the meal. The surprise dishes are always fun to plan and bake.

2010: I added sweet potato pie and shortbread to the table.
Last year I completely ignored a rule I made up on the spot and served two dishes I'd never made before: what turned out to be the first iteration of my ginger lemon creams and my first take on my Nana's egg custard pie.

2011: scones, ginger lemon cream cookies v1.0, apple pie (not pictured: egg custard pie)
This year I had to serve the new ginger lemon creams (since there were several guests who'd had them last year) just to show how they'd evolved. I also baked an apple-pear pie (one of my staples) but this year I used 1) the second of two pie baking dishes Michele got for me last year and 2) an antique porcelain pie bird (c. 1920, if my hasty research is correct) that my step-mother-in-law gave me. Michele told me that this actually belonged to her grandmother (her father's mother).

Royal Worchester, England bird inside the Emile Henri, France dish
Two parts, which is a bit uncommon, I think.
I'd never seen one before and had to ask her what it was for. Once she explained that it was a way to vent steam out of the pie (usually the job of slits cut in the top crust) I knew I had to use it with the very next pie I baked. This one is different from most of the ones I've seen on-line because it's in two pieces and the bird is graceful, even regal in appearance. And it helped make one of the best, if not the best, apple pies I've ever pulled out of an oven!

Not one of the four-and-twenty blackbirds but it did help the pie sing with sweet deliciousness!
2012: slice of apple-pear pie and ginger lemon cream cookie
The other show stopper on the menu was a batch of half-sized ice cream sandwiches. I made something like nineteen of them because I wanted leftovers. I love them so much that I'll eat them even in the "off-season"! They were exceptionally well I knew they would be.

Half the size. All the tastiness!
I do get presents on my birthday and I'm happy to receive them but my biggest present is hosting the Tea. I love finding new recipes for the show stopper(s). I love the smells the inhabit the apartment when I'm cooking and baking. I love it when I pull a batch of scones out of the oven and they've got just the right amount of brown on the crust. I love the smiles and "Ooos" and "Ahhs" as each dish is presented and the thrilled jaw-drops at the show stoppers. Plying my friends with warmth, delicious food and wonderful camaraderie is the birthday present that fulfills me like nothing else in the world.

I want to do this forever.

Currently listening to: Michael Henderson and Roberta Flack – At The Concert



  1. Fab post on a fun, gracious tradition! Would love to help you celebrate and have the honor of a seat at the Birthday Tea Table some year!

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. It's amazing how things work their way into becoming "traditions", isn't it? We'll have to work on getting you here for Tea, I think.