by Elizabeth Foss
There is a pause in my life between the end of the school day and the busy rush of carpools to soccer practice that I have come to savor. In our house, we call it “Tea Time.” Every day, at three-thirty, I put the water on to boil and call the children to set the table. We put classical music in the CD player, perhaps light a candle or two for the table, and enjoy some precious quiet time together.
Three months ago, if someone had told me that this scene would take place in my house, I would have been extremely skeptical. I have three very athletic boys, ages ten, six, and four, and a busy two-year-old girl. I put a great deal of thought into establishing this habit in our daily routine before I suggested it to my children. I decided to begin the first day of school, but the first day of advent, the first day of the new year, or the first day back to school after Christmas, would work equally well.
I stocked up on a wide assortment of fruit and mint flavored herbal teas (I did not want caffeinate my guys at that hour of the day). Perusing cookbooks and favorite recipe cards, I planned for a week’s worth of baked goodies, counting on having them hooked on this new family tradition by the end of the week.
On the first day, with the smell of sugar and spice cookies hanging in the air, we gathered at the table. We began with grace for the first day of school, taken from Let’s Say Grace by Robert M. Hamma. Then we just talked about the day and the year to come. It was nothing formal but I was amazed at how calm everyone was, how I held their attention and they held mine, and how much we were enjoying this time.
The ritual creates closure in a homeschooling day. Before instituting tea time, we would just slide from school time into the rest of a daily life. Even though we are certainly always learning, it’s nice to have time set aside to tie up loose ends. The rest before plunging headlong into the busy afternoon does us all good.
After the first week, I further refined my concept. We always begin with grace and Hamma’s book has suggestions for holy days and feast days, keeping us effortlessly in step with the liturgical year. Then we do a brief fifteen minute Bible study. I am using Our 24 Family Ways, published by Whole Heart Ministries as my guide. It is a Protestant publication, but since it is just a guide, I can easily adapt it to suit my needs. Occasionally, I will read a saints story book, particularly if it is a feast day of someone I want to highlight. After Bible study, we usually just talk, although sometimes the boys will insist on a few pages from whatever chapter book we are currently reading aloud as a family.
I have noticed that after the cookies are gone and the children begin to excuse themselves and leave the dining room, it is the child who has something on his heart or who simply didn’t get much of my time that day who stays to linger over a second cup of tea and some time with Mommy. These are times I cherish.
There is something about the inherent elegance of tea time that makes instruction in manners simpler than it is at dinner time. I think my children sometimes imagine themselves to be British nobility or children of colonial Williamsburg. Setting the table and cleaning up is also simpler than at dinner time in a large family and so inspires a spirit of genuine cheerful cooperation.
An unexpected benefit of tea time has been the ease with which I can now incorporate special celebrations into our day. If it is a feast day for one of my children, we invite their godparents to tea. The honored child chooses the food to be served. We set the table with a tablecloth, flowers, candles, and the good china. I don’t worry about breakage because the atmosphere slows the children down enough that they are gentle. Handling fine things seems to quiet ordinarily active children. If someone were to break a cup however, I would consider the experience of tea with real china worth the cost. Those dishes were rarely used until we established this tradition and I relish the idea of my children enjoying them and storing fond memories of them during their growing years.
Tea time has opened a window on the joy of hospitality for my children. They are learning to set a table, to arrange the food attractively, and most importantly, to welcome people into our home to share our time. They are learning to be gracious hosts and gracious guests. Sometimes, this is a casual happenstance—a neighbor needs me to watch her son for an hour or so after school or a favorite uncle drops by on his way to an evening job and they join us for tea. Other times are carefully planned.
Times of hospitality have offered my skeptical extended family a peek at our home school. They see that the children are learning well and they hear lively, intelligent conversation. It is a witness to the gentleness and grace of this lifestyle.
Since we instituted tea time, we have celebrated three birthdays. Two of the celebrations were for children. We simply invited a few neighborhood children and the cousins to come over after school, decorated a cake, and played some games when tea was finished. The parties were simple, but the children were pleased. Patrick, my four-year-old, even requested a special tea cup as his most desired birthday present. Incidentally, it is also Patrick who is most precise about brewing his tea for exactly three minutes and never drinking it from a mug used for milk or juice, much preferring a proper cup and saucer!
The third birthday celebration was for Grandma. The boys helped with all the preparations from setting the table to picking the flowers to baking the cake. Grandma was truly touched by her elegant party and duly impressed that it had been catered by her usually rowdy crew of grandsons.
Another unexpected benefit of our afternoon repast is that we are all less likely to fall victim to the five o’clock crankiness so easily attributed to low blood sugar. A planned snack at three-thirty is a very good thing. After about two weeks of this afternoon tradition, however, I noticed tea time being reflected on the bathroom scales. Now that I had them hooked with the help of sweet treats, it was time to add other snacks to our tea time repertoire.
A favorite in our house are tiny sandwiches made on star-shaped bread. I purchased the loaf pan from The Pampered Chef. Actually any bread, if freshly baked, is a welcome treat. There is nothing like the smell of fresh bread to whet one’s appetite!
I’ve also mixed a little honey with some peanut butter and cut apples or celery for dipping. My two-year-old makes a huge mess of this, but it keeps her very busy and very quiet. She also likes baby carrots with dill dip. Celery stuffed with cream cheese or peanut butter and dotted with raisins works well; as do tortillas spread with the same, rolled up and cut into pinwheels. Deviled eggs are appreciated by most of my children and are a great source of protein on an afternoon when everyone seems to need something substantial. In a pinch, simple cinnamon toast, cut with cookie cutters will do.
I remember reading the advice to create “Sabbath Moments” in all our days—time to rest and rejuvenate our souls. Tea time does this for me and I am grateful for the opportunity to engrave the habit on my children’s hearts as well.
Grandma’s Birthday Cake
3 cups unbleached all purpose flour
3 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 and one half cups corn oil
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 and one half cups shelled walnuts, chopped
1 and one half cups shredded coconut
1 and one third cups pureed cooked carrots
three fourths cup drained crushed pineapple
cream cheese frosting
1. Preheat oven to 350* F. Grease two 9-inch springform pans.
2. Sift dry ingredients into a bowl. Add oil, eggs, and vanilla. Beat well. Fold in walnuts, coconut, carrots, and pineapple.
3. Pour batter into the prepared pans. Set on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 50 minutes, until edges have pulled away from the sides and a cake tester inserted n center comes out clean.
4. Cool on a cake rack for three hours. Fill cake and frost sides with cream cheese frosting.
10 to 12 portions
Cream Cheese Frosting
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
6 tablespoons sweet butter, at room temperature
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
juice of half a lemon
1. Cream together cream cheese and butter in mixing bowl.
2. Slowly sift confectioners’ sugar and continue beating until fully incorporated. Mixture should be free of lumps.
3. Stir in vanilla and lemon juice.
From The Silver Palate Cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins
Sugar and Spice Cookies
1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
one half cup molasses
4 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking soda
one half teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
one half teaspoon cloves
three fourths teaspoon ginger
1. Preheat oven to 350*F.
2. Mix butter, sugar, eggs, and molasses. Beat well.
3. Stir in dry ingredients completely.
4. Form into balls using a tablespoon of batter.
5. Flatten balls onto cookie sheet, using the bottom of a glass or a cookie stamp, dipped in granulated sugar.
6. Bake for 8-10 minutes.
one half cup butter
2 large eggs
two thirds cup molasses
2 cups unbleached or whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon ground ginger
one half teaspoon ground cinnamon
one half teaspoon ground nutmeg
one fourth teaspoon ground cloves
1 and one half teaspoon baking soda
one third cup milk
1 and one fourth cups grated apple
1. Preheat oven to 350* F. Grease and flour a 9” square pan.
2. Cream butter, eggs and molasses well.
3. Combine the dry ingredients and add alternately with the milk to the butter mixture.
4. Stir in grated apple.
5. Pour into pan and bake 40-45 minutes.
6. Cool 10 minutes in pan, then remove and cool on wire rack.
7. Top with sweetened, freshly whipped cream.
Adapted from Whole Foods for the Whole Family published by La Leche League International
(This one is so simple, you can have it together before the oven preheats!)
3 cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
one half teaspoon salt
one half teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup corn oil
2 cups canned pumpkin
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1. Preheat oven to 350*F. Grease and flour a tube pan.
2. Mix all ingredients except chocolate chips. Beat until blended.
3. Stir in chocolate chips.
4. Bake for 1 hour or until cake tester comes out clean.
5. Cool before removing from pan.
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 tablespoon milk
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 cup diced apple
one half cup chopped raisins
one half cup chopped walnuts
1. Blend cream cheese with milk and lemon juice.
2. Add apple, raisins, and walnuts.
3. Spread on bread cut from a miniature loaf or use the spread to stuff celery.
2 cups sour cream
2 cups light mayonnaise or plain yogurt
3 tablespoons dill weed
2 tablespoons parsley
3 tablespoons finely minced onion
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 clove garlic, crushed
1. Mix all ingredients together.
3. Serve with raw veggies.
1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup grated mild colby cheese
one half cup grated parmesan cheese
8 ounces cream cheese 1 tablespoon milk
1 small clove garlic, crushed
dash of salt
dash of Worcestershire sauce
one half cup chopped nuts
1. Have all ingredients at room temperature for easy mixing.
2. Combine all ingredients except nuts. A food processor works well for this step.
3. Form into a ball and roll in nuts. (You may need to chill before forming into a ball.)
4. Refrigerate until serving.
5. Serve with crackers, raw vegetables, or fresh fruit.
Adapted from Whole Foods for the Whole Family