Let’s Cook: Pampering is good

Have you noticed that some coffee and tea cups have a destiny? They are a treasure for the first people who sip from them and an heirloom for lucky generations thereafter. That is the very secure future for china cups and saucers that has been in many of our families. Lately, however, I have noticed that more and more fine china is looked upon as a nuisance. Have you noticed how beautiful china cups and saucers are being sold at garage sales sometimes with less regard than the empty cottage cheese containers they were placed next to? Lucky for us china admirers, we accept with pleasure the purchase because a suite of china cups is always ready in our homes for service that gratifies like no other vessel. Need a quick boost? Go ahead, indulge yourself with a cup of fresh coffee or tea served from cheery china and you will be ready to take on the laundry – maybe, even the world.

China cups are in fact one of the very first connections that my wife and I made when we started dating 35 years ago. Both being coffee lovers was a great excuse to get together. Jan was a resident assistant at McCulloch Hall at Minot State, and she invited me over one evening during visiting hours for men. (Yes, at one time there were visiting hours!) She made coffee and served in delicate white bone china cups that featured a pattern of radiant forget-me-nots in various shades of blues and violets. The curved handle with embossed leaf at the top was trimmed in gold along with the edge of the saucer. I knew at this moment that if she could brew coffee this well and serve it with such style, this was a woman I wanted to spend time with.

Quickly I memorized her pattern — Memory Lane — and when I was introduced to her mother and aunt, they, too, were fans of Royal Albert bone china. I locked down their patterns –Lavender Rose and Petit Point – in my retention. Then entered my sister-in-law, Dawn, with her Carthage by Noritake and her Sculptured Grape by Metlox from her Grandma. Over the years, we have played games involving much family trivia such as “what was the first tractor that Norman drove on the farm?” and all family members are invited to contribute. Guess what? I am hit and miss on tractor makes and models but never miss on the family china patterns.

Coffee is most often served in our home; however, we do enjoy a great cup of tea, from time to time. In England the ring of china harmonizes with afternoon tea. They do it right from high teas to simple afternoon tea. They make it a ritual and their opening act is always china cups and saucers. Unlike many Americans where the vessel plays minor part, they give the china cup and saucer the dramatic lead. The china could be white with gold–a simple elegance – or botanical recalling the morning glory, roses, cosmos and other flowers that capture our attention. This leading duo brings out the best in its co-stars; a cast that includes a teapot, boiling water, tea, sugar, and lemon slices or milk.

After reveling in tea being served with such ease and style, I finally asked the inspiring, crisp, linen cut apron wearing server at the quaint tea shop in Bath to explain Tea Appreciation 101. She smiled and said “I would love to.” Let me recall for you the notes I took that warm fall afternoon from a fine tea server. She first mentioned that anyone can make what the English call a “proper cup of tea” if they follow these simple directions. The most important which she demonstrated was to remember to take the teapot to the kettle and not the kettle to the teapot. Here are the instructions she gave.

1. Put the water in the teakettle, and set it on the stove to heat.

2. When the water is hot, pour about a half a cup of it from the kettle into the teapot. This will warm the teapot.

3. When the water in the kettle starts to boil, pour out all the hot water in the teapot and put the tea into the teapot.

4. Bring the teapot to the stove. Remove the kettle from the heat, and while the water is still bubbling, carefully pour it into the teapot.

5. Put the lid on the teapot and let the mixture “steep” (stand and brew) for 3 to 5 minutes.

6. Pour a little cold milk into the two cups. Pour in the tea. Serve with sugar. If you prefer lemon in tea, then leave out the milk and simply add a slice of lemon with each cup.

She mentioned this “here in England, we prefer to use loose tea; we are not fond of your Yankee invention – the teabag” (She did admit they were convenient!) When using loose tea, you may want to use a tea strainer to keep the tea leaves from falling into cups when pouring.

I was served a thin cookies which she called Sugar Crisps, and she recalled the recipe from memory. These are a simple cookie and easy to make at a minutes notice. The trick is to make sure they are brown and crisp.

Sugar Crisps

1/4 cup butter soft (1/2 stick)

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup flour

A few drops of vanilla

1 or 2 teaspoons of milk if needed.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Blend the butter and sugar in a mixing bowl with a spoon until they are well blended. Sift the flour onto the butter mixture a little at a time and blend well after each addition. Add the vanilla and stir until the mixture does not stick to the sides of the bowl. If the mixture seems too dry and floury, add milk. With your hands, form the dough into a smooth ball. Pinch off about 1 teaspoon of dough. Roll it between your palms into a small ball. Place the ball on an ungreased cookie sheet. Flatten with your palm or the bottom of a glass. Place the balls at least 1 inch apart. Bake them for 10 minutes in the center of the oven. Check to see if the crisps are golden brown. If not, bake them a few minutes more. Remove the crisps from the oven and let them cool for 5 minutes. Lift cookies off with a spatula and place them on a wire rack to finish cooling.

I’m thinking about my next adventure with coffee and sugar crisps … what about a bright yellow polka dot china cup? Now that is pampering I look forward to.