Of all the ways to entertain guests, a tea party must be one of the most simple. It is a relaxed affair, with most of the preparation done beforehand. Although there is plenty of scope to elaborate if you wish, it can be simple as whipping up a cake, making a few sandwiches and opening a packet of biscuits. To make it easier still, use shop-bought cakes or pastries.
Tea is a particularly good entertaining option if you are watching your budget. Fine quality loose leaf tea and fresh ground coffee beans cost far less than decent wine, and vast quantities of cake and sandwiches can be whipped up for the price of a single salmon steak.
The experience of a tea party can be greatly enhanced by the setting of a fine table. It is the perfect opportunity to pull out your best teacups and tablecloths. If you don't already own these, eBay and thrift shops are full of treasures waiting to be discovered.
A tea party can easily be rounded out to a substantial meal by serving a mixture of sweet and savoury food. Fresh fruit is also a nice addition. Here are a few ideas:
Sandwich fillings can be made ahead of time (even the day before), ready to be spread on fresh bread close to serving time. Once prepared, cover the sandwiches with a clean tea towel or napkin.
Egg and herb: mash hard-boiled eggs with mayonnaise and chopped chives, tarragon, chervil or watercress
Curried egg: mash hard-boiled eggs with maonnaise and a sprinkle of curry powder
Salmon: mix tinned pink or red salmon with mayonnaise or creamed cheese and chopped capers
Chicken and almond: mix finely chopped cooked chicken, slivered almonds and celery with mayonnaise
Ham: add mayonnaise, mustard or chutney, as desired
Smoked salmon and creamed cheese, with chopped capers
Use any of the above fillings, scooped on to gluten-free crackers, topped with a tiny sprig of herbs.
If you have the time and energy, you can make your own pastry, otherwise you can purchase small tart cases which are perfect for a tea party. Fill with caramelised onion, thyme and goat's cheese, roast pumpkin and feta, or bake filled with egg and finely chopped bacon.
Check for small 'party' savouries in the freezer section of your supermarket. Spinach and ricotta-filled pastries disappear quickly every time I serve them.
Cheese and biscuits can also make an easy and delicious addition to the tea table.
You really can't go past my Nan's Simplicity Cake recipe, for easy entertaining. It can be made as one large cake, or as cupcakes, as preferred.
There is no shame in serving some delicious store-bought biscuits, especially if they are likely to be childhood favourites of your guests. If you feel like whipping up a batch yourself, try chocolate chip, chocolate crinkle cookies or Anzac biscuits
Use homemade or pre-made mini tart cases, filled with lemon curd or tinned caramel, and topped with whipped or dollop cream.
Scones are quite quick if you mix the flour and butter in the food processor, rather than rubbing it into crumbs with your fingers. Alternatively make super-simple lemonade scones. Serve warm with jam, lemon curd and whipped cream.
Pikelets are mini-pancakes, delicious served with jam, lemon curd, maple syrup, cream, banana and strawberries. They are best served fresh (and preferably still warm).
Friands and brownies are easy to make with gluten-free recipes, and are utterly delicious.
Any other suggestions for the perfect tea party?