The Ladies' Tea Guild

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Book Summary and Review: Her Royal Spyness, by Rhys Bowen.

image from
Her Royal Spyness, the first book featuring heroine Lady Georgiana Rannoch, set in 1930s England and Scotland, is a mystery with charm equal to the writings of Agatha Christie, in my opinion. Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie (otherwise known as Georgie), great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria and daughter of the 3rd Duke of Rannoch, is 34th in line to the throne of England and has the royal reputation to uphold. The problem is, her father died penniless, and she has no money to use in upholding the royal image.

When her small income from the family estate is withdrawn upon her 21st birthday, and she is unable to find a likeable man among the aristocratic suitors chosen for her, Georgie determines to take her future into her own hands. She moves to London and begins a double life: spying on the Prince of Wales and Wallis Simpson for the Queen, and earning a small income (disguised as a maid) cleaning houses for the upper-classes while they are away. This is a difficult job for a girl who’s never been without servants, herself!

Then, a man who claimed to own the deed to her family’s estate in Scotland, is found dead in the family’s London house, and Georgie’s brother, the current Duke of Rannoch, is arrested for the murder. Georgie has to identify the real murderer, clear her family’s name, and dodge attempts at her own life, while avoiding the Queen’s efforts to marry her off. Meanwhile, she re-connects with some old friends and meets an attractive, but penniless, Irish aristocrat.

I found this story to be a very enjoyable read. Her Royal Spyness contains an interesting and believable plot, with personable characters who are skillfully rendered. The solution to the mystery is neither immediately obvious, nor impossible, and the author has combined her "artistic license" with the right amount of historic details, so that the characters and situations, while fictional, don’t seem overly modern, faults which I have found in too many contemporary "period" novels. I recommend this book as perfect for curling up with a cup of tea!

The author, Rhys Bowen, was born and raised in England and Wales, and is the creator of three series of mystery books, including the Lady Georgiana Rannoch mysteries. Mrs. Bowen has won seven awards, including the Agatha and the Anthony Awards, and has been nominated for every major mystery writing award. She is currently located in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she has lived for many years with her family. She is also a fan of tea! I met her on a tea-related Internet group, and she has expressed an interest in meeting The South Bay Ladies' Tea Guild! So, mark your calendars for September 12, and our Tea with Rhys Bowen! Tickets will be sold until Saturday, September 5; e-mail for more information. To learn more about Mrs. Bowen, visit her website at

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Oh, and I apologize for the diet ad on this page! I am trying to get direct links to tea companies and tea books -- since several of my friends asked for recommendations -- but the blogger website doesn't let you choose the kinds of links you display until 48 hours after you sign up for the application. Hopefully it'll sort itself out by the end of the week and only display tea links ...

The history of the "club sandwich."

ClipartETC image.
I am always interested in the history behind familiar foods. Every once in a while I like to order a Club sandwich at a restaurant, but I've never made one at home. While looking through one of my vintage recipe books (this one is a promotional booklet, published in San Francisco in the early 1900s, for the "Reliable" brand of gas ranges and stoves) I not only found instructions for making the sandwich, but some history behind it.

A popular sandwich.

A sandwich greatly in favor among gentlemen, because it is substantial and appetizing and served at restaurants of established reputation for excellence of their cuisine, as the Waldorf-Astoria of New York, is generally known as the "club sandwich." With a cup of coffee or cocoa it is almost a meal of itself. Cut slices of bread about 1/4 inch in thickness, remove the crusts and reserve one half of slices to be used, plain. Toast remaining half very delicately and butter, almost imperceptibly, so little is used. Broil very thinly cut slices of bacon. Place strips of bacon on plain bread, cover with a heart leaf of lettuce, add mayonnaise dressing, daintily sliced cold chicken, and finish with toasted slice on top. Serve on leaves of lettuce, garnished with parsley, or on doily without any garnish.

Another recipe from the same booklet is for toasting marshmallows under the broiler. That sounds good, but I have a better idea: make s'mores instead! I once tried to make s'mores for a tea party by taking mini (2 inch diameter) graham cracker pie crusts from the grocery store, and filling them with a piece of a Hershey bar with a marshmallow on top, then melting the whole thing in the toaster oven. That sort of worked, although the marshmallow got toasted before the chocolate got melted, and they were hard to eat. I'll have to try toasting the marshmallows in a pan by themselves, and partially melting the chocolate on the stovetop, and then assembling the s'more with the graham crackers, the next time I do this. It sounds messy, but maybe it will be worth it!

Yes, summer is ending, and I haven't been camping or to the beach ...

Monday, August 24, 2009

Recap of birthday chocolate cherry cake and lamb skewers.

Cream cheese-filled raisin bread pudding.
Well, my mom's birthday cooking spree went pretty well, I think, although she ended up grilling the lamb herself instead of teaching me how to work her Y2K propane grill (she bought it during the Y2K sales). The marinated grilled lamb was tasty, and I substituted burgundy wine for the sherry, and added mint, garlic, rosemary, and oregano to the original vintage recipe; I do think it needed more onion, more black pepper, and next time I'll be marinating the meat for at least 48 hours. My mom also made the executive decision to cook the meat at a higher temperature for 15 minutes, rather than follow the recipe, which called for the meat to be barbecued for 30 minutes, at an unspecified low temperature. I thought the meat wasn't as tender as it should be, and next time I make this, I'll also try to par-cook the meat in the marinade first, in the oven, then put it on the skewers and finish it on the grill.

My mom did find her chocolate-cherry cake recipe, and it's one of those easy, yummy "doctored-up" cake mix things: take one dark chocolate cake boxed cake mix, put it in a bowl with 3 eggs and 1 can of cherry pie filling, mix thoroughly, and bake in a 9 by 13 pan. Cover with your favorite chocolate frosting, or melt 6 oz. of chocolate chips with about 1/3 cup of sugar, a little vanilla, a pinch of salt, and enough milk to make it a thick, spreadable consistency when all melted and mixed together. Spread/pour on top of the cake while hot. Really good.

I also ended up making up a recipe for her birthday breakfast since she couldn't find the one she wanted. The recipe she was thinking of was a type of bread pudding made with raisin bread and filled with cream cheese. This is what I did:

Get an 8 inch square baking dish, and butter the inside. Get a loaf of raisin cinnamon swirl bread and line the bottom of the dish with slices of bread (I left the crusts on, but would remove them if I made this again since they were hard to slice through when serving). Get a package of plain, unflavored cream cheese and use the back of a spoon to spread cream cheese on top of the bread in the dish, from edge to edge. Cover the cream cheese layer with another layer of cinnamon raisin bread. In a separate bowl, beat 4 eggs until they're a uniform yellow color and add 3/4 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla, and 3/4 cup milk. You could add some cinnamon or other spices, too, but I didn't. Blend egg mixture well, then pour over the bread and cream cheese in the dish. I would have sprinkled coarse sugar crystals on top at this point, but I didn't have any. Bake in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for 35 to 45 minutes, until the bread is soft, but not soggy, there is no liquid egg on top, and the cream cheese is melted. Again, really yummy. Serve warm for breakfast, or for dessert with whipped cream or ice cream. Or caramel sauce ...

Friday, August 21, 2009

Vintage recipe for chocolate birthday cake.

Hopefully my mom's cake will look nicer than mine did!
If I can't find the recipe for the chocolate cherry cake that my mom wanted, I'll probably be using this one, also from her mother's 1943 cookbook. It even has its own recipe for chocolate buttercream frosting!

Chocolate Cake with Butter Frosting
2 1/2 cups flour (after sifting)
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup butter
1 1/2 cups buttermilk (add soda)
2 cups sugar
3 eggs, separated
4 squares chocolate

Sift flour and baking powder. Cream butter and sugar, add chocolate (melted), vanilla, and beaten egg yolks. Add flour and buttermilk alternately. Fold in beaten egg whites. Makes three layers.

Butter frosting
1/4 pound sweet butter
1 pound powdered sugar
1 egg
6 level tablespoons cocoa

Mix cocoa and sugar. Add butter and cream together. Add whole egg and a little milk or coffee.

I have some cherries in the freezer, and I can always pit and sugar them, and put them in the bottom of the cake pans ...

Baking for my mommy!

It's my mom's birthday today, but she's stuck in First Aid and CPR training classes all day. I usually make breakfast for her on her birthday, but since she didn't have time to eat breakfast today, I'll be doing the birthday breakfast tomorrow, and probably also cooking dinner for the family when they come over. I'm also making the cake today. My mom requested a chocolate cherry cake, and a raisin and cream cheese bread pudding -- both of which recipes are at her house -- but for dinner, I'm using a recipe from her mother's 1943 cookbook.

My mom's family is Sicilian, but she grew up in the Central Valley around tons of other Mediterranean people, and one of the dishes that became a tradition in our family is actually Armenian. There used to be an Armenian deli in a nearby town, and they made the most delicious, tender lamb shish-kabob, which we always had -- alongside the pasta and garlic bread -- with the turkey, ham or whatever holiday food we were eating for as long as I can remember. When the owner decided to retire and close the deli, we asked to buy the recipe from them but they wouldn't sell it, and we've been trying to re-create the flavor and tenderness of this lamb dish ever since! We've got the flavor pretty close, but the tenderness is still elusive.

Well, in my grandma's cookbook is a recipe for Skewered Lamb with a marinade that sounds similar to the one we've been trying to re-create. If I tweak the marinade recipe a bit and marinate the meat overnight, hopefully it will work. It would be better if I could marinate the meat for a few days, but I hope that the trick will be cooking the meat at a low enough temperature, for 30 minutes. Here's the recipe:

Skewered Lamb
Shish kabobs (skewered lamb) are made by putting 4 to 5 cubes of marinated lean lamb on long metal skewers and grilling 30 minutes or longer. The night before the barbecue, the meat from a leg of lamb (about a 5-pound leg) should be trimmed of fat and gristle and cut into 2-inch cubes. Put in a large bowl and mix with a sauce made by blending 1/2 pound onions, peeled and sliced, 1 tablespoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, 1/2 cup sherry wine, 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 teaspoon regoni.

I don't have any regoni, which I've never heard of but I assume is a cooking herb or spice. I notice that there's no rosemary, garlic, or mint in this recipe, and I know that it was part of the marinade for the shish-kebab that I ate as a child, so I'll be adding it -- plus more black pepper -- to this recipe. I don't know if my mom has sherry, so I'll be adding some other red wine, but I have high hopes for this vintage recipe!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

See the last of the Perseid meteors with a midnight tea party!

Wikipedia image. 2007 Perseid meteor shower.
While the Perseid meteor shower has already seen its peak activity, the show is supposed to continue through the rest of this week. Summer night-time temperatures are deliciously cool so why not pack some warm blankets, lawn chairs, a midnight snack and thermos of hot tea tonight, and go away from the city to see the shooting stars? A more robust brew, like a strong Assam or Irish Breakfast, with a good amount of caffeine to keep you awake long enough to see the meteors, would be a good idea. Not sure what snacks to bring? This is a perfect time to go to your tea party cupboard and put together an impromptu midnight tea party!

According to the Yahoo news feed, “the best location is far from city and suburban lights. Ideally, find a structure, mountain or tree to block the moon. Then scan as much of the sky as possible. The meteors can appear anywhere, heading in any direction. If you trace their paths backward, they'll all point to the constellation Perseus. ... Seasoned skywatchers advise using a blanket or lounge chair for comfort, so you can lie back and look up for long periods. Allow at least 15 minutes for your eyes to fully adjust to the darkness. Then expect meteors to be sporadic: You might see two in a row, or several minutes could go by between shooting stars.”

I was able to stand in my back yard last Wednesday and saw over 20 meteors in one hour, which was more than I had ever seen! I would have stayed longer, but I got a crick in my neck from looking up. I recommend a lawn chair, or blanket to lie on, to other star-gazers! If you can't get to the country, you can set up a lawn chair and bring your tea onto your own front or back yard, and see what you can see. Tents and sleeping bags optional. Relive some of your childhood and spend some night time gazing at the stars!

“Observing the Perseids”
San Jose Astronomical Association
“Preparing for Perseids 2009: meteor shower or meteor storm?”
“Skywatchers to see streaking meteors”

Other tea party themes:
1940s' Economy Tea
Charity Fundraiser Tea
Last-Minute Tea Party

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Summer camp, camping, and stuff made with twigs.

image from
I haven't gone anywhere this summer, and while I don't really mind, it just doesn't seem like summer if I haven't been to the beach or to camp. I spent a week at camp almost every summer, while growing up. Not the ritzy kind of camp in the Adirondacks or on a private island in Maine, but an everyman’s family camp in the Santa Cruz mountains. We may not have had horseback riding and canoeing, but I distinctly remember creek walking, rowboats on the river, hiking in the woods and arts and crafts. I still have a basket I wove, and a leaf and flower collection that I gathered, pressed, and mounted at camp when I was 12! I just found them the other day. Those kinds of craft projects seem like they were made for camp life, and they almost were; they are a cultural remnant of the Romantic and Arts & Crafts Movements in England and the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Romantic Period began around 1830, and was a reaction against the Age of Reason and Age of Enlightenment, which had begun to seem cold, sterile, and empty of meaning and emotion. The natural world, instead of being feared or dissected and categorized as in previous decades, was idealized and even worshiped. The fashion changed with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, but the beauty of nature was back in style in the late 1880s, when the Arts & Crafts Movement expressed the art world's tiredness with artificiality and over-blown, self-conscious ornamentation. It was this later, “back-to-nature” fad that launched the pastime of “camping” for fun, and brought elements of the natural world into the domestic world like never before.

The task of decorating the home, choosing and arranging its ornaments, was one of the main jobs of the middle and upper-class woman in the 19th and early 20th centuries. No domestic object was too humble for artistic improvement! Young and older children participated in this pursuit of art in nature through nature walks, the study of live animals, and the creation of art projects using natural elements, both in school and in the newly popular summer camps. Some of these art projects were promptly thrown away a week after they were brought home, but some evidenced real artistic ability and natural beauty, and many families passed down objects of feather work, shell-work, dried flowers, and even insects, as family heirlooms. My family still has a case of beetles and butterflies that my uncle made in school back in the 1950s! (The bugs are all organized and pinned down and labeled, and it’s all very educational and creepy) These kinds of projects were so popular and well-regarded that instructions for them were printed in the women’s and children’s magazines of the day.

While the fashion for hand-made home decor featuring natural materials has weakened considerably, camps have remained the place where such activities are not only welcomed, but expected. Who goes to summer camp without expecting to bring home something made out of twigs, or at least a pine-cone or leaf collection? Since the value and beauty of nature is now firmly integrated into our culture, there is no reason why we can’t re-discover some of those old nature-walk arts and crafts! Plus, we have craft supply stores where we can get plain picture frames, papier-mache boxes, plain glass vases, and the dried flowers, moss, and seashells to cover them with. It can be deceptively easy to make a Victorian-style ornament or two for your home or someone else's ...

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Join the South Bay Ladies' Tea Guild when we meet author Rhys Bowen!

Award-winning author, Rhys Bowen. Image from
I was watching the local news and chat show View from the Bay a while ago and happened to catch their segment introducing Bay Area author Rhys Bowen, who was promoting her book Her Royal Spyness. Not only did the story sound interesting and lots of fun, but Ms. Bowen created a short video for her television appearance, showing everyone how to give a proper English tea! It was so much fun to watch. I knew that I'd like to meet Ms. Bowen, and thought that others would enjoy knowing her, too. Now that I've read two of her books -- which I find delightful -- I'm really looking forward to meeting her. I looked up her website, and ended up e-mailing her, and inviting her to tea with The South Bay Ladies' Tea Guild. She seemed happy to hear about us, and asked if she could come and meet us for tea, and talk informally about writing. I know a lot of writers, and even more people who love to read, so I've set up a tea party for the South Bay Ladies' Tea Guild members, and other book-lovers and tea-lovers, to come together and meet her. Here's the information as it now stands:

Tea with Author Rhys Bowen: the author of the charming Lady Georgiana Rannoch mystery series is a resident of the Bay Area! Come and enjoy an English cream tea and meet Ms. Bowen, while discussing mystery stories and writing. Tea, homemade scones, jam, lemon curd, cream and other goodies will be provided. If you have a copy of one of Ms. Bowen's books, why not bring it? She may be up to providing autographs!

Date: Saturday, September 12, 2009, 2 p.m.
Location: a private home on N. 15th St., San Jose, CA 95112.
Food fee: $30 per person. *R.S.V.P. and send your payment by Saturday, Sept. 5!*
Suggested Costume: “nice” modern afternoon dress.

For more information, or to R.S.V.P., e-mail (I need to have an accurate head count a week in advance so that I can prepare enough food, or cancel with Ms. Bowen if nobody can come! ) I can take checks, made out to Elizabeth Urbach, or I can take credit card payments through PayPal. E-mail for more information. See you soon!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

It's Midsummer! Why not celebrate with a tea party? image.
Inspired by the South Bay Ladies' Tea Guild's Rosewater Tea tomorrow, I was reading about the uses of rose water over the years, and that led me to re-reading some of Shakespeare's works. I was reminded of A Midsummer's Night's Dream, and then I thought, "I may not be able to have a tea party in a fairy garden like some people do, but I can plan a fairytale tea party! Instead of a midsummer night's dream, a fairytale afternoon tea should be A Midsummer Afternoon's Reverie, or something similar. The food should all be exotic, delicate, and unusual. The whole menu could be based on flowers: both sweet and savory! I found some similar recipes a year or so ago when I planned a Pre-Raphaelite Tea, so here is a re-worked list of menu suggestions if you want to do your own Midsummer Afternoon's Tea and Reverie!

Strawberry-Lavender Scones
Candied rose petals and lavender buds
Lavender jelly
Rose Petal Jam

Fried squash blossoms
Fried dandelion flowers
Open-faced tea sandwiches garnished with nasturtiums and herb flowers
Salad garnished with carnation petals

Lavender-Lemon Tea Cakes
Pansy shortbread
Shrewsbury Cakes (rose water shortbread)
Lavender-Mint Shortbread
Meyer Lemon and Orange Flower Yogurt Cake
Cherry Orange-Blossom Cakes
Dandelion Flower Cookies

Combined with some mint, rose petal, violet, or lavendar tisane, this could be quite a spread! How about it?

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Fun things to do in San Jose.

Elizabeth Urbach. Tatting shuttles and lace on display at History Park.

1. Go to a World War 2-era living history event!

Third Annual Day of Remembrance: Saturday, August 8, 2009. Noon to 5 p.m. History Park, 1650 Senter Rd., San Jose, CA 95112. Free admission. “Keep the Spirit of '45 Alive! Where were YOU when World War II ended? Join us for an exciting fun-filled afternoon as we honor the legacy of America’s “greatest generation” by commemorating the end of World War II in August 1945. * Parade at 1 pm * Special guest, Edith Shain, the nurse from the famous "VJ Day at Times Square" photograph * Visit the Home Front exhibit in the Pacific Hotel Gallery * Share where YOU were when the War ended * Dance to music of The Swing Solution * Visit World War II Living Historians * Singing Blue Stars of the USS Hornet. Bring the whole family and help make history! For more information call 408.918.1042.”

2. See a great exhibit of local 19th century textiles before it closes!

She Made It!: The Tradition of Women’s Arts and Crafts in Santa Clara Valley
– exhibit extended through August 16, 2009. Leonard & David McKay Gallery at the Pasetta House, History Park, 1650 Senter Rd., San Jose. Friday through Sunday, 12 noon - 5 pm. “‘She Made It! The Tradition of Women’s Arts and Crafts in Santa Clara Valley’ is an exhibition of over 35 handmade items that explores the transition of women’s craftmaking from that of utilitarian production or social development tool to a form of art and individual expression. Mostly selected from History San Jose’s collection, the exhibit includes quilts and samplers, clothing and accessories, baskets and hair work, many of which are on display for the first time. Three generations of hand-made wedding dresses provide visual cues of how times have changed from 1895 to 1982. ... The San Jose State Textile Program was once a component of the Home Economics department. Students were instructed in clothing and fabric design, and produced many of the artifacts that will be on display. Although this department dissolved in 1987, instruction in weaving and textile arts can still be found on campus through the School of Art & Design.”
Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)