Parties and Visits · Vintage Entertainment

Your Afternoon Tea Shelf

top half of a tea cart, set with two cups and saucers, a creamer, a covered sugar dish, a large metal coffee server, and a bowl of fruit. From 1923.

What can you throw together when a friend stops by for a chat? If your pantry’s afternoon tea shelf is stocked, worry no more. Pull out a few tasty nibbles and treats you can combine quickly, assemble them on a tray, and pour the tea.

This idea comes from 1923, and like many ideas it needs resurrection from its current space, buried within the pages of a woman’s periodical. The general emergency shelf concept wasn’t new. It took its place among the solid advice offered to new homemakers: Always have a small shelf of ready to use foods for unexpected guests or that long day away.

Your Own Afternoon Tea Shelf

The afternoon tea shelf, however, gives a new twist to the idea. Especially if you like the idea of holding tea parties to entertain close friends, you might see the advantage in the suggestion. You clear off a shelf in your pantry or a small shelf in a corner cupboard that you don’t often use. Designate it the Tea Shelf. But what do you put on it?

Of course, you would include a box of crackers. Pour them into a bowl, set them out side by side covered with 1/4 slice of your favorite cheese, or spread with a bit of cream cheese and sprinkle with a flavoring spice like garlic, Italian seasoning, or your favorite mixture. (Better yet, combine the flavor with the cream cheese before spreading.) You may even want to include two boxes of crackers. Simple rice crackers always taste light and airy, while a heavier entertainment cracker like Ritz or an allergy-safe alternative creates a great base for simple spreads.

Another good idea is a box of favorite cookies that have a long shelf life. Oreos, chocolate chip, or Vienna wafers give you some ideas, but the cookie aisle is filled with options. Choose a favorite.

Easy Shelf Stocking Ideas

Here are some other ideas:

  • Make some cookies and store them on your shelf. It will ensure that you visit the shelf often as you eat them before they become stale.
  • Marshmallows, either mini or regular.
  • Chocolate in small bar or individually-wrapped form. You will want to unwrap the chocolate before you present it, however. Guests seem to have an aversion to opening sealed items.
  • Nuts, either one kind or mixed. Small containers don’t take up much space. This is not the time to buy a huge container of Costco peanuts.
  • A jar of marmalade or preserves.
  • Small jar of honey. Again, a small container works here. Store the 2 pound glass jar that you use for everyday cooking on another shelf.
  • Sugar, turbinado sugar, or brown sugar that you can use to sweeten the tea.
  • A small jar of mayonnaise if you don’t always have some in the fridge, for savory sandwiches.
  • Peanut butter
  • Dried fruit, with or without extra sugar: cherries, pineapple, crystallized ginger.

Once you have all these things, plus the refrigerated items you always keep on hand (like cream cheese), you can combine them into all sorts of novel treats.

Easy Combinations from Your Stash

Use the cookies as the base for a sweet sandwich. Take a couple tablespoons of cream cheese and stir in 1/2 teaspoon sugar and some melted chocolate or 1/4 tsp cocoa powder. Spread this on molasses cookies, vanilla wafers, or sugar cookies. Press two of them together to make a sandwich.

Stir a few chopped nuts into a spoon or two of honey and use that to glue two cookies together in a sweet sandwich.

To add spice to those plain table crackers, stir together some peanut butter, a teaspoon or two of half-and-half or full cream (if you have it on hand, milk or milk substitute if you don’t), and some confectioner’s sugar. Use it as a cracker sandwich filling. You can also mix peanut butter with honey for an excellent filling, or peanut butter and some leftover frosting from that cake you made a day or two ago (This is why I never throw away that 1/2 cup of leftover frosting. It may need to make its way to a cookie or cracker.)

Take a marshmallow, place it onto a cracker or round cookie, and stick it in the oven at 350° F for a few minutes until it puffs and begins to brown. Bring it out of the oven, and if you like, decorate the top with a nut or piece of dried fruit like a cherry or pineapple.

Bread slices, cut into 3/4-inch wide pieces, after de-crusting, can be toasted. Then while warm spread with butter and sprinkle with brown sugar and cinnamon. This is a grownup take on the ever-favorite childhood breakfast of cinnamon toast.

Adding Cake or Muffins

If you have time to whip up a cake (this is where boxed mixes can shine), bake it in one or two loaf pans. When it’s cool, cut it into thin bread-slice type pieces. Then mix together 1 cup powdered sugar with a Tablespoon or two of milk. Add whatever flavoring you like and stir in some chopped nuts for texture and added nutrition. Then use the frosting as a filling between two pieces of cake. Cut each sandwich into thin finger strips if you like.

Mini muffins can be made from the simplest recipe if you cut off the top, scrape out a bit, and fill the hole with a bit of marmalade or preserves before popping the top back on.

Savory Options for Your Table

Create a savory topping by mixing 2 hard boiled eggs, some diced or ground deli ham, a tablespoon or two of grated cheese, and either dijon mustard, mayonnaise, or a mixture of both to hold it all together. Spread on crackers, or take two to three slices of bread, remove the crust, cut into quarters, toast, and top with the mixture. Voila! Eight to twelve open faced sandwiches.

Top cheese crackers with mayonnaise mixed with nuts. Or spread them with mayonnaise mixed with minced celery. This, of course, will require a larger cheese wafer than your ordinary small 1-inch square cracker. If you have the small kind on hand, toss them into a bowl for free snacking.

Entertain with Impunity

Keep enough small, prepackaged things on hand that you can throw together a tea party at a moment’s notice, and with little to no anxiety. Life is too short to stress over cups of tea and finger sandwiches. Using only three of the ideas from this list will give you an inviting, tasty tea table. And because most of the ingredients came from your afternoon tea shelf, you have the time and energy to enjoy your friends.

If you want more complicated (and impressive) recipes for your afternoon tea party, check out this post on a collection of Recipes for Your Porch Party.