Tea Sandwiches. Tea Sandwiches were a standard menu item for almost every important occasion.. They were tiny works of art, delicate finger foods, savory pickups-alongside petit fours, cheese straws, delicately tinted mints, salted or sugared nuts, thimble angel biscuits with a sliver of Virginia Ham elevated a get together to an occasion. At the best events – tea sandwiches were artfully arranged on doily covered, freshly polished, ancient silver trays.
Even Southern men, strong or shrewd, have been known to put on smooth talking airs, dainty manners and seersucker suits with bow ties, just for the privilege of eating tea sandwiches– I’ve witnessed it- big strong outdoor types going weak kneed, gently holding a tea sandwich as if he’d just swirled the belle of the ball around the dance floor.
Let me tempt you to traipse down memory lane where tea sandwiches grace the tables:
- Afternoon Weddings, Bridal Teas
- Mother/Daughter Teas, Garden Parties
- Afternoon at the Bridge Tables
- Baby Showers, Christenings, Sunday Afternoon Socials
- Birthday or Anniversary Parties, Historical Society Soirees
And who knows what all…Gatherings to honor:
- the Most Worshipful Mothers of the Conecuh County Sausage Makers
- the Worthy Matrons of the Chilton County Peach Park
- the Queen Mothers of the Etowah County High School Homecoming Queen Reunion
- the Outgoing Officers of the Shelby County Cowbelles
- an Ice Water Tea for the Hysterical Society for the Keepers of the Covered Bridges
I made those events up– yet, whatever the special occasion- again, you could count on tea, punch, cheese straws, highly decorated petit fours or cakes, mints, nuts, tea sandwiches, the perfect finger foods.
Blessed is the one who knows the procedures for making tea sandwiches. Blessed is the one who has the recipes for the fillings. Blessed is the one who is willing to make tea sandwiches- her social value increases dramatically. Cursed is the one who makes tea sandwiches for a living, since they take a period of 2-3 days to make. Blessed is the one who chooses to make them for loved ones. I am blessed.
My grandmother taught me the procedure and about a dozen filling recipes. The top four most requested are: Chicken Salad, Pimento Cheese, Egg Salad and Cool as a Cucumber Tea Sandwiches.
Because it has been so hot this summer, I decided to share the procedure for making:
Cool as a Cucumber Tea Sandwiches
- 3 slender cucumbers- about 7-8 inches long (plus one for garnish-reserve)
- the zest of one medium lemon
- approximately 1 teaspoon of finely grated onion
- one 8 oz package of cream cheese softened to room temperature
- 1-2 T. of good mayonnaise- Hellman’s or any that has lemon juice in the ingredients label
- 2 Pullman loaves of bread, white or light wheat
- Yield 10-12 dozen and even this might not be enough!
Procedure for cucumber filling: Carefully remove the zest of one medium lemon being careful not to get into the white pith which can be bitter, then with a sharp knife, cut off the bitter ends of the cucumbers- a Tea is the Time for Celebration- it is not the time for bitterness of any kind.
I like to leave the peels on the cucumbers for color and texture, however you can keep part of the cucumbers with the peel on- then peel one or two of the cucumbers before grating them on the coarse side of a box grater. Put the grated cucumbers and lemon zest in a large fine mesh sieve placed over a deep bowl. Then on the fine side of the box grater- grate about a teaspoon of yellow onion directly into the sieve, in with the lemon zest and grated cucumbers.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the softened cream cheese, mayonnaise and about 1 teaspoon of fresh lemon juice. Refrigerate.
Inside the sieve, fit a small plate on top of the grated cucumber, lemon zest and onion-weight this down with something heavy- a large jar of pickled cucumbers will do nicely. Drain and rest in the refrigerator overnight, you will be surprised the next morning- to find about a cup of cucumber juice in the bowl. Discard liquid or if you are a health nut- drink it.
The grated cucumber, lemon zest and grated onion will be ‘dry’, that is exactly what you want to prevent soggy sandwiches. Remove the cream cheese mixture from the refrigerator. Fold the drained cucumber mix into the cream cheese mix. Chill- you may want to leave this overnight- which I prefer to do. Just think of the zest of life, the spice of life combining with an attitude of cool and calm cucumbers. Perfect!
To assemble the tea sandwiches: Discard the end pieces from the Pullman loaves of bread, white or light wheat. When the chilled cucumber mixture is a spreadable consistency, spread evenly over one side of the bread, topping it with another. You should have 40 full size sandwiches. (I make them in batches).
Now for the fun part! Trim the crusts with a serrated knife- discard or snack on… then cut the trimmed sandwich into four tiny squares or triangles- or even 3 rectangular finger sandwiches. Line a large pan with parchment, and slightly damp paper towels. Place the tiny sandwiches close together in a single layer as shown above. At this point, decorate each one as you choose- I like to top with thin sliced cucumber wedges and a few grains of lemon salt. On the single layer of sandwiches, put more damp paper towels, then another layer of tea sandwiches decorating as you go…ending with damp paper towels on top. You will need two pans. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and chill- generally overnight. This ‘chill’ makes the tea sandwiches hold together as one piece, not separated. All types of tea sandwiches follow this part of the procedure- regardless of fillings.
Keep chilled, do not unwrap until you are ready to serve. Put out in small batches if possible to keep the bread soft. Keep any reserved sandwiches covered and chilled- and if you are smart, hidden.
I hope you’ve stayed with me this long… ‘Cool as a Cucumber’ is a Southern term- it either means- ‘we’re all perspiring but she’s sitting there as cool as a cucumber’. However I have heard no better use of it- than what my friend Coral Anne told me years ago-
No matter what kind of mischief her favorite ex-husband had gotten into, Coral Anne said he could sit there just as cool as a cucumber!
Oh me! Makes me think of Cool as a Cucumber Tea Sandwiches every time. To loosely quote Simone Weil- ‘To be rooted in Southern culture– to know where you come from and embrace the worthwhile traditions– is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.’ I hope there are some brave souls who continue to hold the traditions of making tea sandwiches for generations to come…it is one of those least recognized needs.
Love y’all, Camellia
Simone Weil’s real comment is- ‘To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.’