Pros: The pictures and stories are charming
Cons: The recipe results were mixed, special blend teas need to be ordered for some recipes
Reviewed by Sharyn Harding
Alice's Tea Cup is a cookbook put together by two sisters, Haley and Lauren Fox, who also own three restaurants in New York City by the same name. The book does a good job of enticing readers to visit one of their locations, but unfortunately I live on the wrong side of the country for that, so will rely on my recreations of their fare. The pictures and descriptions in the cookbook portray a restaurant that uses whimsy and charm to appeal to their customers. Children are offered fairy wings to wear for tea and they have the option of being sprinkled with pixie dust to add sparkle to the event. There is also a bit of name dropping with several quotes included from their famous patrons, including Julia Roberts and Conan O'Brien.
The restaurants are apparently best known for their scones and there are quite a few unusual variations included. But the cookbook also has a variety of recipes for breakfast items, salads, sandwiches, cookies and even cocktails that use tea. The recipes range from the somewhat complex, such as their Cumin Carrot Sandwich that involves making an olive tapenade, roasting carrots and preparing a goat cheese spread before assembling, to the very basic recipes such as PB&J made on banana bread. Some recipes are quite similar to each other, such as the Black Forest Ham and Gruyere Sandwich, served cold on semolina bread and several pages later, Alice's Croque Monsieur made with black forest ham and gruyere, but served on raisin semolina bread and grilled. These are similar enough that one could have simply been listed as a variation of the other instead of being presented as a new recipe.
Several of the sandwich recipes call for variations on the semolina bread, but no recipe for this is included, instead a section in the back of the book on ingredients refers to a website for Amy's Bread. Unfortunately, they only offer this online as part of a 5-pound bread order for $28.50 plus the cost of next day air shipping. It seems unreasonable to expect many of the cookbook readers to opt for that, so it would have made more sense to include a substitution. Amy's Bread is known for a quality product and their unique semolina golden raisin and fennel bread probably contributes quite a bit to the deliciousness of the sandwich.
I am not a tea drinker myself, so many of the teas were unfamiliar to me. But I do love the idea of cooking with tea and was impressed that they used so many varieties throughout the book. The drawback to that is that some of the varieties are their own special blends that would have to be purchased in their shop or online.
I wanted to try at least one of the recipes using tea, so I opted for the Lavender Earl Grey Scones. The instructions have the cook using both brewed tea and grinding the tea leaves to mix in with the dry ingredients. First, I had trouble actually finding a lavender Earl Grey tea. I could have easily found the two flavors separately, but no hints were given on the ratio for mixing the two. I finally encountered some at Whole Foods, an organic variety that was rather pricey. As I prepared the scones I was a little worried they would taste too perfumey - as the aroma from the tea was intensely floral. I also had trouble grinding the tea leaves as described. They suggested using a coffee grinder, but when I put the called for 1 teaspoon of loose tea in, it was simply blown into the air by the rotating blades and not ground at all. I attempted to chop them by hand, but that was completely ineffective as the buds just escaped my blade continually. Eventually I had to grind a much larger quantity of tea than the recipe called for in order to use the coffee grinder effectively.
I was very disappointed in the results. After fearing that the flavor would be too strong, the scones actually turned out quite bland. I could barely detect any tea flavor at all. I am not sure if the dough needed to sit longer for the ground tea to infuse the scone, but it wasn't worth the expense and now I am stuck with a large tin of tea I have no intensions of drinking. There were several other recipes using tea I wanted to sample, but after this experience, I was hesitant.
I was sometimes confused by the names of the tea. For each tea included in a recipe, it referred you to their resources pages in the back of the book. I would have preferred page numbers because the teas were divided by type (black, green, white, herbals and tisanes and rooibos) before they were alphabetized. For a tea-newbie like me, that just meant searching each section. And it wasn't immediately clear to me which teas were blends specific to their location and which I would be likely to find at my local grocery. For example, the Rooibos Phoenix Oatmeal Butterscotch Chip Cookies calls for a tea described in their resource section as a "sweet dessert blend of rooibos, honey, caramel and vanilla". That sounds delicious, but when I looked it up on the internet, it appears to be one of their blends. Instead I decided to try some of the recipes that didn't call for tea.
They described their pumpkin scones as being quite popular with their customers, so I decided to try them. It wasn't until after I had purchased the required pumpkin that I noticed an error in the recipe. The recipe makes 10-12 scones, uses 3 cups of flour, yet calls for ¼ cup of ground cinnamon and ¼ cup of ground ginger. Obviously a mistake, as that amount would make them quite inedible. I contacted the restaurant through their website to get the correct measurements. It has been several weeks and I have not received a reply, so I proceeded with the recipe, using only 1 teaspoon of each of the spices. These scones were quite good. The pumpkin gave them a very moist texture and the caramel glaze, which I feared would make them too sweet, was just right.
Their version of hot chocolate, Alice's Cocoa Loco, uses cinnamon, nutmeg and cayenne pepper to set it apart from traditional cocoa. I really enjoyed the balance of flavor, but did not care for the texture. The recipe called for equal parts milk and cream, which would make it rich enough for me, but then added quite a bit of cornstarch to thicken it. I do understand that some people would find such a thick hot chocolate the most decadent thing ever, but after less than half a cup, I needed to thin mine out to finish it. The texture was too similar to drinking liquid ganache to make it palatable.
The most recent recipe I tried, was for the Rice Krispies Treats Scones. Yes, they are scones that use both miniature marshmallows and Rice Krispies in the dough. When I saw this recipe in the book I was initially a little turned off by the idea and wasn't sure how that could work as a scone, but as I passed it up for the other recipes, I kept thinking about them and finally decided to give it a try. Though they were just as simple to prepare as the other scones, the finished appearance was unpleasant. The marshmallows on the edges of the scones melted and spread, so that when picked up there was a thin "sheet" of cooked sugar/marshmallow that surrounded and was beneath the scone. For the most part, the Rice Krispies dissolved into the dough and did not add much in flavor or texture. The marshmallows inside the scone also disappeared somewhat, so it was only at the edge that I occasionally caught the flavor of marshmallow and this varied between soft and stick-to-your-teeth chewy. The end result seemed more like a gimmick than something I would serve to guests or expect to get at a restaurant.
This book also included many recipes for Mar-Tea-nis, cocktails using tea, as well as chapters on the art of throwing your own tea party and tea-dyeing your own linens. The authors put a nice personal touch on this and I truly enjoyed reading their bits of story and recipe introductions. However, the mixed results I received with the recipes and the need to pre-order many of the teas will make it unlikely that I would continue to use the book much.
Recipe: Pumpkin Scones
Makes 10 to 12
Note from authors - "These scones are best when served warm, but if you aren't serving them right away, we recommend that you don't glaze them until shortly before serving them."
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 ½ teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ cup ground ginger [1 teaspoon would be more appropriate]
¼ cup ground cinnamon [1 teaspoon would be more appropriate]
1 ½ sticks (¾ cup) unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces
1 ¼ cups buttermilk
1 cup canned pumpkin puree (all pumpkin, not pie filling)
2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
½ teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup heavy cream
1. Preheat oven to 425°F.
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt, ginger and cinnamon.
3. With clean hands, work the butter into the dry mixture until it is thoroughly incorporated and has the consistency of fine breadcrumbs.
4. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, and pour the buttermilk, pumpkin puree and vanilla extract into the well. Still using your hands, combine the ingredients until all the dry mixture is wet, but do not knead!
5. Turn the mixture onto a floured surface and gather the dough together. Gently pat the dough to make a disk about 1 ½ inches thick. Using a 3- or 3 ½-inch biscuit cutter, cut out as many scones as you can and lay them on a nonstick baking sheet. Gather the remaining dough together lightly to cut out more scones - just don't knead the dough too much.
6. Bake the scones for about 12 minutes, or until lightly browned. Let the scones cool slightly on the baking sheet (about 20 minutes) before glazing them.
7. While the scones are cooling, prepare the caramel glaze: Place the butter, brown sugar, lemon juice and salt in a saucepan over medium heat and whisk gently until the mixture is smooth. Just as the mixture comes to a light boil, add the heavy cream and reduce the heat to low. Whisk well for 2 minutes, or until the glaze is thickened and smooth; then remove the pan from the heat.
8. To glaze a scone, hold it by the bottom, dip the top in the warm caramel glaze, and place it back on the baking sheet.