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Tea and a Book and a GIVEAWAY for Thanksgiving: A Long Way from Verona

Quick take: Quirky and endearing.

From the book jacket: Jessica Vye introduces herself with an enigmatic pronouncement: “I ought to tell at the beginning that I am not quite normal, having had a violent experience at the age of nine.” A revered author has told Jessica that she is, beyond all doubt, a born writer. This proves an accurate prediction of the future, one that indelibly colors her life at school and her perception of the world.

Jessica has always known that her destiny would be shaped by her refusal to conform, her compulsion to tell the absolute truth, and her dedication to observing the strange wartime world that surrounds her. What she doesn’t know, however, is that the experiences and ideas that set her apart will also lead her to a new and wholly unexpected life.

My thoughts: Such a delight! This was my second reading and I’m sure there will be many more. Jane Gardam somehow captures the awkwardness and alienation of adolescence while also managing to make her heroine thoroughly charming. It is a very English sort of book, just so you know. (Among other things I had to google “viyella,” which is a certain type of dress, and now I see why Jessica was in agonies.) I’ve very much enjoyed other books by Gardam, but I will read Long Way to Verona again and again.

Scroll to the bottom for a giveaway!

And now for tea: I was in the mood for something autumnal so I made pumpkin spice cookies from this recipe at A Family Feast. They were simple enough to make, but do keep in mind that the dough is sticky even after chilling overnight. The cookies turn out quite soft–not the same chewy texture as a ginger cookie–but rest assured the flavor is excellent. For tea, I’d recommend one that doesn’t compete with the pumpkin spice–an Assam, Ceylon, or perhaps a blend of the two. I chose St. James from Mariage Frères. The “Autumn Tree” cup and plate featured in the photo are from Pier 1–soon to go on sale, I’m sure!

Other books that make me thankful because they are endlessly re-readable:
Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons
French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles
Gaudy Night (best if you read Strong Poison & Have His Carcase first), by Dorothy Sayers
High Rising, by Angela Thirkell
I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
Possession, by A. S. Byatt (tho I skim Ash’s poetry)
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Winter Solstice, by Rosamund Pilcher
+ practically anything by Jane Austen or L.M. Montgomery

GIVEAWAY — I have an extra brand-new copy of Long Way from Verona up for grabs! All you need do is share the title of a book you’re thankful for in the comments and briefly explain why the book means so much to you. The winner will be chosen randomly with the help of Random.org.Open to US/CA only, please!

September Tea and a Book: Dear Mrs. Bird

Quick take: I was in the mood for something light and quirky, and Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce fit the bill perfectly.

Goodreads synopsis: London, 1940. Emmeline Lake is Doing Her Bit for the war effort, volunteering as a telephone operator with the Auxiliary Fire Services. When Emmy sees an advertisement for a job at the London Evening Chronicle, her dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent suddenly seem achievable. But the job turns out to be working as a typist for the fierce and renowned advice columnist, Henrietta Bird. Emmy is disappointed, but gamely bucks up and buckles down.

Mrs. Bird is very clear: letters containing any Unpleasantness must go straight in the bin. But when Emmy reads poignant notes from women who may have Gone Too Far with the wrong men, or who can’t bear to let their children be evacuated, she is unable to resist responding. As the German planes make their nightly raids, and London picks up the smoldering pieces each morning, Emmy secretly begins to write back to the readers who have poured out their troubles.

My thoughts: I love stories about English women “doing their bit” on the home front during World War II, so this premise was particularly appealing. Emmy is plucky and sympathetic, and her narrative moves along at a good clip. Though I call it “light and quirky,” you will encounter some peril and heartache due to the wartime setting. I found one of the conflicts a bit clunky, but overall it was a very absorbing read.

If you liked Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, or just enjoy “WWII home front” stories, you’ll probably enjoy this. I’d also recommend Lissa Evans’ Crooked Heart and Their Finest Hour and a Half, the latter of which was adapted into a very good film starring Gemma Arterton and Sam Clafin. And don’t forget the Middle Grade novels by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, The War that Saved My Life and The War I finally Won. (I discussed the first book here.) Also, several of Angela Thirkell’s novels are set during the war. What am I missing? I’d love to know your recommendations for “WWII home front” stories.

Now for tea: Bread and Butter Pudding seemed the perfect choice for a book set during the war because the ingredient list is short and simple (with the bonus of recycling your stale bread), and the result is wonderfully comforting.

I followed this easy recipe from The Splendid Table. I used a rather ordinary loaf of grocery store French bread, but you could use any bread you like. A friend suggested using leftover Christmas pannetone–doesn’t that sound delicious!? I must remember that during the holidays.


Here’s how mine looked just out of the oven. The next day I spooned some warm milk over it (for lack of cream) and garnished with a few berries, as you can see at the top of this of this post. Other options: add a dollop of your favorite jam or drizzle with heavy cream or custard. Vanilla ice cream would work, too!

Adagio’s Irish Breakfast, with its bold blend of Ceylon and Assam, paired well with the pudding.

October will be all about SPOOKY FILMS, so “Tea and a Book” will return in November!

March Tea and a Book: A School for Brides

Patrice Kindl’s A School for Brides: A Story of Maidens, Mystery, and Matrimony is a delightful romp for fans of quirky characters and unusual conflicts, not to mention all things Regency. It’s a companion to an earlier favorite of mine from Kindl, Keeping the Castle, a much lauded novel about a young lady who must marry well in order to support her family. You really should read both, but I don’t think it matters which you choose first.

The official blurb for A School for Brides:

The Winthrop Hopkins Female Academy of Lesser Hoo, Yorkshire, has one goal: to train its students in the feminine arts with an eye toward getting them married off. This year, there are five girls of marriageable age. There’s only one problem: the school is in the middle of nowhere, and there are no men. Set in the same English town as Keeping the Castle, and featuring a few of the same characters, here’s the kind of witty tribute to the classic Regency novel that could only come from the pen of Patrice Kindl!

Kindl is such an entertaining storyteller. I will warn you, however, that there are many characters, some with similar names. A handy character guide is provided at the beginning of the book, but if you tend toward e-readers–as I do with my increasingly wonky vision–it may prove difficult to consult that list. (It’s very likely, however, that you understand better how to navigate back and forth through your e-reader than I do!)

At any rate, I highly recommend both Keeping the Castle and A School for Brides, and I’ve heard there may be a third book set in Lesser Hoo. Oh, let it be true!

Now for a lovely cream tea . . .

Conveniently for this post, I’ve been testing recipes for a small afternoon tea I’m hosting next month. (Me? Organized enough to test the recipes? It’s a miracle!)


I tried a new-to-me scone recipe–this one from Allrecipes–and it was pretty straightforward for making traditional round scones that split easily. I used a cookie cutter from this Williams-Sonoma set, only mine had crinkled edges. Apparently the key is to cut swiftly and forcefully with a straight up-and-down motion. No side-to-side cutting or twisting of the cutter lest the scone droop to one side during baking.


As you can see, my scones rose nicely without too much drooping. And they split easily–no need for a knife! For more tips and tricks you might consult “How to Make the Perfect Scone” from both The Prepared Pantry and The Guardian.


For a proper English tea you need strawberry jam and clotted cream. As you can see, the jam came from Fortnum & Mason, which seems perfectly appropriate for a Regency story since they were established in 1707. (Ooh, look — here’s a blog post that includes details about about F&M in the Regency period!) Those not currently living in England can order online from F&M as long as you’re willing to pay international shipping. Another option for Americans is to peruse their products offered in Williams-Sonoma shops and online. But what about clotted cream? In England you can buy it at any grocery store; in the states, however, it can be tricky to find. I actually ordered mine from Amazon.com but it also can be found at The English Tea Store. Just keep in mind that it needs to stay cool, so mail-ordering in the hottest months might not be the best idea.


And here’s my little tea spread, complete with the Afternoon Blend from Fortnum & Mason (“a blend from the higher and lower regions of Ceylon delivering a light, refreshing flavour with real body”). As I’ve mentioned before, there’s some controversy over whether one should first spread ones scone with cream or jam. (I even blogged about this once.) But really, it’s entirely up to you!

Happy reading and Afternoon Tea-ing!

December Tea and a Book: No Holly for Miss Quinn (Christmas at Fairacre)

Quick take: So COZY.
(Special thanks to Laura B. for recommending it and to Glenda A. for gifting it!)

Goodreads synopsis: Miss Quinn, who cherishes her privacy, intends to spend Christmas on her own as she likes it. But before the holiday, her brother telephones to tell her that his wife has been rushed to the hospital, and would Miss Quinn come and stay with the children? Miss Quinn’s unexpectedly hectic Christmas has a significant effect upon her life.

(Above you see Christmas at Fairacre, an omnibus that includes No Holly for Miss Quinn. Check this Goodreads page for reviews and links to various vendors of the individual novel. Or check here for the omnibus.)

My thoughts: My mom has always loved the novels of Miss Read (a.k.a. Dora Jessie Saint, who died in 2012 at the age of 98). I read one or two of them when I was young, but at that time I didn’t have quite such a powerful craving for quiet and cozy books. Well, I do now! And amidst all the madness of late, this book certainly hit the spot.

I thoroughly empathized with Miriam Quinn’s preference for quiet and solitude. At the same time, it was great fun to see her thrown in with her brother’s somewhat feral brood of children. Oh, the appalling disorder! How satisfying to watch her organize them, and then how delightful to see her loosen up and enjoy various sweet moments of connection with each child. My favorite part involved the two nieces, one of whom knows “the truth” about Father Christmas and is aching to spoil her younger sister. Our Miriam deals with that in a lovely way.

No Holly for Miss Quinn is a quick read brimming with warmth and humor, and even a tiny bit of romance. Chime in if you’ve read it — I’d love to hear about your favorite moments!

Related favorite things:


I particularly enjoyed the illustrations by J.S. Goodall, which gave me the same cozy feeling as those of Garth Williams (the Little House books) and Pauline Baynes (the Narnia books).


LOOK AT THIS! I have listened to this Enya CD about a million times, and I never once associated this song with Miss Read. How delightful! Do have a listen.

Miss Read/Dora Saint wrote of her own childhood in Fortunate Grandchild and Time Remembered (now combined in a single volume entitled Early Days). Also, for more on her inspiration for the novels’ settings, see On the Trail of Thrush Green.

And now for tea:


I tend to make the same treats every year for Christmas, so this time I tried something different: Chocolate-Cherry Snowballs from the Betty Crocker website. Click the link for the recipe, which is pretty straightforward. I will say, however, that next time I’ll make the cookies smaller because they really should be bite-sized. (Otherwise, MESS.) Also, I would recommend you wait until they are quite cool before you roll them in the powdered sugar. They need time to set so as not to crumble when you roll, and they get stickier as they cool, which makes the sugar cling nicely. (I learned all this the hard way, of course!) I followed advice given in the comments and used maraschino cherries instead of candied, which worked quite well. (Where does one find candied cherries, anyway?)

Here is a closer view of the “snowballs”.

In the pot is Thé des Délices, a black tea containing citrus peel, candied mandarins, and cocoa nibs. So delicious, and only available during the holidays from Palais des Thés.

Don’t forget to check out my December Holiday Reading List, and do let me know if I’ve left out one of your favorites. HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

August tea and a book: Penelope Lively


This summer in Oxford I discovered Penelope Lively. In fact I gobbled up three of her books, utterly captivated by her appreciation for setting, history, and the imagination. I won’t go into great detail about the plots because they really aren’t plotty sorts of stories, but I will tell you that The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (winner of the Carnegie Medal) is a humorous ghost tale set in the Cotswolds, A Stitch in Time (winner of the Whitbread Award) is a gentle mystery set in Lyme Regis, and The House in Norham Gardens is a coming-of-age story set in Oxford.

Is it obvious yet that Penelope Lively and I were made for each other? (If not, note italics above.) Her writing is gorgeously expressive. She even enchants with her description of painting an old swing:

There is the moment you dip the brush in the paint and tap it on the edge to get rid of the drips, and there it is all lush and fat with paint in your hand, ready for the stroke down that sad, hungry, unpainted surface. And there is the moment you lay it on the dull, unpainted surface, and what was rusty and tattered is transformed with one majestic sweep into glistening sparkling black. And there is the dabbing at the links of the chain to make them all neat and painty once more, and the picking out of every curl and flourish of the swing’s seat, and the lying on your back to get at the underneath . . . (A Stitch in Time)

I’m delighted that there are many more Penelope Lively books to read, both for adults and children, and at the top of my list is her Booker Prize winning Moon Tiger. (Click here and scroll down for a complete list of her titles.)

And now for tea!


This month’s tea is inspired by my friend Caroline Trevers, the conference manager who makes everything work so beautifully for all the summer groups at Brasenose College. At the beginning of our stay, Caroline introduced me to Earl Grey Blue Lady from Cardews of Oxford. This tea is a treat with its spicy flavor and delicate bergamot scent, but it’s also just lovely to look at. (My American friends can find similar Earl Grey blends at Adagio.com.)

Caroline also provided the recipe for her Lemon Drizzle Cake, which I first tasted when I co-judged the Brasenose Bake-Off. A decadent chocolate concoction took the top prize that day, but I would have awarded Caroline’s Lemon Drizzle “best tea cake ever.” I can’t seem to get mine to look as beautiful as hers (even after two tries), but it’s still very tasty. See the recipe below (translated into American measurements).

Lemon Drizzle cake

¾ cup Fine Caster Sugar (called Baker’s sugar in the states? Or just use granulated)
¾ cup Margarine or Butter
3 eggs
¾ cup Self Rising Flour
3 lemons
¼ cup Caster Sugar
1 lb loaf tin (8.5 X 4.5-ish?)

Rub oil or butter around the inside of the loaf tin then dust with a teaspoon of flour so that all the sides are lightly covered. Grate the rind from the lemons and squeeze the juice and put it in a pan. Cream the fat and sugar till well mixed and fluffy, add the lemon rind and mix more. Add the eggs one at a time beating well in between. Sift the flour into the mixture and fold until incorporated.

Pour the mix into a 1 lb loaf tin – bake in the oven at 350 degrees for 40 minutes or till cooked.

5 minutes before the cake is due out of the oven add the extra 2oz of sugar to the lemon juice in the pan and heat it till the sugar melts then boil it for a minute. As soon as the cake comes out of the oven prick it over the top with a fork and pour over the boiling sugar syrup allowing it to soak into the cake. You can pour it down the side and over the top – pour slowly to make sure all the surface is covered so it soaks in evenly.

Let the cake cool a little and then turn it out onto a wire rack till it cools completely.


Caroline, co-judges Alice and Alan, and me in the Brasenose Deer Park