In a world where many things are uncertain and much of the news is disturbing, it’s always comforting to find that some things remain unchanged. Recently, I guest cheffed aboard the Silversea cruise line, presenting on tea, baking with tea, and working with chefs onboard on a voyage through the Panama Canal. During my off-times, I had the pleasure of experiencing several afternoon teas on the ship. Isn’t it wonderful that cruise ships offer this late afternoon opportunity for passengers to indulge, as if three big meals a day weren’t enough? After all, we were on vacation. Stopping at ports along the way that were influenced by the British colonial empire made the afternoon teas resonate even more.
Thanks to smooth-as-glass azure water (the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, and finally the Pacific), the tea stayed in the cup. White-gloved waiters offered silver trays of tea sandwiches to each table, serving the crustless tidbits – featuring cucumber/watercress, smoked salmon, and egg salad – with tongs. All was reassuringly predictable, delicious, and proper for an afternoon tea. Sometimes, the expected and the unchallenging can be restorative. The tea selection by Ronnefeldt, a German-based purveyor with an outpost in Canada, was serviceable. For food service operators, this is a company to be noted, as they offer not only a respectable variety of teas, both loose in silver canisters and in special larger bags, but also training and a dramatic silver samovar, which graced a side table and served as a symbol of other times, including a hint of Russian splendor.
Sweets were arrayed buffet style, one day the standard variety – tarts, cakes, and petits fours; another day, a chocolate extravaganza. All, however, belonged, as part of the ritual, providing that reassuring rhythm of sandwiches, scones, and dessert, graced by those china cups of tea, never left empty for long, as the waiter returned to pour from the teapots on the table or, if needed, obtain more hot water from the samovar’s spigot. Here is a civilized ritual largely unchanged since its inception, observed in a serene dining room far from land, allowing one’s mind to roam, perhaps contemplate. It is a ritual that provides lubrication for conversation, but may also lead to a refreshing quietude, amid the muffled clatter of dishes and the slow parade of partakers to the sweets buffet. My Chai Scones were on the tea menu one afternoon along with an Assam Tea Lemon Curd as a creamy accompaniment. Here’s the recipe for the Curd – one more comforting element that elicited a smile along with a pleasant memory of a trip that let us escape, if only for what seemed like a fleeting moment, the quotidian reality of the world around us.
Assam Tea Lemon Curd
Yields: approximately 1 pint
½ cup/120 ml freshly squeezed lemon juice
4 tablespoons/56 g Assam (or other black) tea leaves
Zest of 1 lemon (take care not to include bitter white pith)
2 whole large eggs plus 2 egg yolks from large eggs
¾ cup/150 g granulated white sugar
¼ pound/115 g unsalted (sweet) butter
In a small, nonreactive saucepan, bring the lemon juice and tea to a boil. Remove from the heat and steep only for 1 minute. Sieve the mixture into a small bowl, pressing hard on the tea leaves to extract as much of the liquid as possible. Reserve the liquid, but discard the leaves.
In a 3-quart/3-liter saucepan, bring 3″/7.5 centimeters of water to a boil. Set a stainless steel bowl large enough to fit into the saucepan over the water and then add the sieved tea and lemon liquid plus the lemon zest, eggs, egg yolks, and sugar, whisking to combine.
Reduce the heat to medium so that the water is just simmering. Whisk the mixture constantly until it is the thickness of mayonnaise, making sure to scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl frequently during the cooking process. Now add the butter, cut into pieces, whisking to incorporate each piece before adding the next. Put the mixture through a fine-meshed sieve to remove any lumps and set aside to cool to room temperature. Serve with scones, pancakes, or toast and a nice steaming cup of Assam tea.