Making the Perfect Tea Sandwich

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Come in, dear friend.  I’ve arranged a special corner where we’ll have our tea, and the seat of honor is reserved for you!

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I’m using a tea set with special meaning.  I purchased the pattern years ago while visiting my parents.  Made of porcelain, the pot, cups, and tray resemble old time enamelware.  Charming!

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I found the set on a day trip to wonderful Spring Mill State Park in Indiana (see details of the park here: http://www.stateparks.com/spring_mill_state_park_in_indiana.html), where you can view a restored pioneer village and grist mill.   Watch corn being ground beneath the enormous, turning stone as the mill wheel spins, and then buy a bag of freshly made cornmeal.  See weavers painstakingly working a large loom and explore the tiny general store.  Examine the stump of a behemoth tree and scratch your head at its size!  There’s so much to experience.  Once a thriving community, the town was eventually abandoned.  To maintain an authentic atmosphere, parking is not permitted near the hamlet, so come prepared to do a little walking.  I have to admit, there’s something haunting about the place.

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My folks and I had been to the site before, but on this occasion my husband and children joined us, and it proved an especially sweet time.  Adjacent to the park is a worthwhile and moving memorial/visitor center dedicated to local hero, astronaut Gus Grissom (see http://www.in.gov/dnr/parklake/5580.htm).  You can see everything in one day or spend the night in the lodge and enjoy a leisurely visit.  Be sure to take it in if you are ever traveling through The Middle, a.k.a. Indiana.  You can get to Spring Mill easily from the central or southern parts of the state.

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Do you have any hidden gems that make wonderful day trips in your area?  Please share the details!  How about a special family time that evokes sweet memories?

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Why don’t we sit and have a sip of smooth, mellow pear tea.  It seems the ideal match for our savories.  Today, I’ve made Stacked Thai Bites and cucumber sandwiches (recipes & tips below).  I think they’re perfect!  Taking the time to create a special effect, like diagonal stripes, pays big dividends.

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I’ve always harbored a soft spot for Shabby Chic and vintage décor.  Since my husband isn’t quite on board with an ultra-feminine style (nor does he see the attraction in peeling paint), I have settled for a few touches here and there – nothing too overpowering.  For our tea, I’ve utilized an antique as a table.  My mother bought the trunk at a country auction back when I was in high school and refinished it with Laura Ashley paints.  She wallpapered the inside, too — a great touch!  Over the years, some of the paint has chipped, but I like the effect.  A family member recently claimed that Mom purchased it at a relative’s sale, and that it did, in fact, belong to one of my ancestors.  If true, that would be fun, wouldn’t it?

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My great aunts hand painted these lovely plates.  I think Rachel Ashwell would approve.
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For sweets, let’s indulge in mini angel food cakes with strawberries and Snickerdoodle banana napoleons with mint cream.  The cakes are store bought and the napoleons easy to make with packaged cookies.  Both look and taste divine.

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Tips:

  • For the perfect tea sandwich, freeze the bread before cutting into shapes.  This will allow you to have clean lines without damaging the bread.  Bread will thaw within minutes of removing from freezer, so work fast.  Use cookie cutters to make layers that fit your theme.
  • After cutting frozen bread, store in Ziploc or plastic wrap in refrigerator until needed.
  • Be sure to soften whatever spread you use in sandwiches.  This will keep your bread from tearing and provide a smooth layer.
  • When making tea sandwiches, remember appearance is as important as taste.  Keep sandwiches small and appealing to the eye.
  • Consider an unusual spot for serving tea.  Tea for two is perfect for this since you are only accommodating a small group.  Your guest will appreciate your creativity!

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Recipes:

Stacked Thai Bites for 2

2 large pieces sour dough bread, frozen
1 large slice good quality deli roast beef
3 medium to large radishes, cut into paper-thin slices
2 Tablespoons cream cheese, softened
Cilantro
Wooden skewers or toothpicks

Cut frozen bread into ten identical small squares, making sure crust is removed.  Set aside to thaw.  Set aside 5 radish slices & 5 cilantro leaves.  Spread roast beef with thin layer of cream cheese.  Sprinkle with chopped cilantro and add enough radish slices to cover in single layer.  Roll and use sharp knife to cut into 1″ slices.  Place slice between two bread squares.  Top with a reserved radish slice and hold together with skewer.  Tuck a reserved cilantro leaf beneath radish & serve.  Makes 5 mini tea sandwiches.

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1 English Cucumber, washed
2 Tablespoons Cream Cheese
2 slices firm bread, frozen
Wax paper

Cut 4 identical rectangles from bread, making sure crust is removed. Spread each rectangle with cream cheese.  Set aside.  Cut cucumber on the diagonal into paper-thin slices.  Layer slices across each bread rectangle in desired pattern (I chose diagonal).  Cucumber slices should overhang the edges of the bread.  Flip sandwich face down onto wax paper and carefully trim excess cucumber with sharp knife.  Turn sandwich over and remove wax paper.  Serve.  Makes 4 sandwiches.

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12 Hannah Max Cinnamon Sugar Cookie Chips or
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1 large banana
Whipping Cream
Fresh Mint

Cut banana in half, lengthwise. Cut each length into 4 pieces (8 chunks total) – adjusting size according to the diameter of your cookies – and take a shallow slice off rounded side to provide a flat surface.  Assemble napoleons with three cookies.  Begin with a cookie & alternate between cookie and banana chunk, ending with a cookie.  Top with whipped cream and small mint leaves.  Serve immediately.  Makes 4 napoleons.

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Thank you for joining me.  I hope you enjoyed our time together.  Drop by any time!

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COPYRIGHT 2017. VICTORIA BENCHLEY ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Tea With Antiquities

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I have found that museums are enjoyable places to take tea.  Virtually every one has a restaurant, tea house, or coffee shop.  Usually, the food proves delicious.  I can’t think of a better combination than a day admiring art and a delicious cup of tea with a bite to eat.  If the gallery has a decorative arts wing, so much the better.

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Did you know that there are entire museums dedicated to porcelain, silver, and china?  One of the best I’ve seen is the Silver and Crockery Museum in the Hofburg Palace (Winter Palace) in Vienna.  When I visited, the Hofburg tour — then available only in German — proved sparse (I’ve learned it has since improved).  However, the Crockery museum, located below the palace, was amazing and well worth the price of entry.  It turned out to be one of our favorite sites.  Even my husband enjoyed the experience!

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The British Museum has a magnificent array of teapots as well as some important cups and saucers, including early Jasperware.  The place is enormous, so be sure to start your day early.  We enjoyed lunch there and the unusual teabags (see photo below).  No, that’s not a tissue protruding from my teapot!  My companion chose a cappuccino as a pick-me-up.  After all, perusing a large gallery can be exhausting.

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You never know what you’ll come across when exploring a museum.  At the National Portrait Gallery in London, we happened upon a special exhibit on the Brontë Sisters.  We got lucky — just a right place, right time kind of thing.  After hearing about them for my entire life, I got to see the actual tiny books and scraps of paper on which the girls wrote.  It was a treat I hadn’t anticipated and one for which I am grateful.  Read about some of what I saw here:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/12057053/National-Portrait-Gallery-to-reveal-mysteries-of-shadowy-Bronte-brother.html

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I’m lucky to live near many world class museums.  I’ve never been disappointed with the exhibits or the tea!  So, escape the summer’s heat, find a nearby museum, and lose yourself for the day!

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COPYRIGHT 2017. VICTORIA BENCHLEY ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

A Tea for the Graduate

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     Welcome!  Do take a seat and relax with a cup.  I’ve set out a special tea today to honor a graduate.  Do you have any loved ones graduating from high school or college this month or next?  Is your best friend’s son or daughter about to embark on higher education?  Is your grandson about to enter the workforce?  A tea is a lovely way to honor the grad, and I’ve several unique ways to help send them off on this next exciting stage of life.

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My eldest is graduating from high school in June.  Did you know that many psychologists consider college to be one of the top five stressful periods in a person’s life?  I mainly just recall it being fun, but I do remember my father telling me life would only get easier after college (it didn’t – mainly due to my career choice, it got harder!).  So, if Dad felt the need to say that, I must have experienced some trying times.  Even today, as I look around at all of the young, energetic people about to move into adulthood, everything seems promising.  I can easily overlook the weight of the changes these scholars are about to experience.

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So, I thought it would be a good idea to plan a gathering just for the graduate.  Mine will be a special time to imbue the honoree with some casual, practical gifts, while of course enjoying fellowship and tea!  I’m bringing out the good stuff  — Wedgwood’s Cuckoo pattern fine china.  After all, we’re celebrating quite an accomplishment.  Doesn’t it make a charming tea table?  The cups are pretty inside and out.

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We’ll keep the food simple.  I’m offering moist coconut macaroons, lemon crepe biscuits, and cream cheese crumbles.  I’ve decided the tea itself will be special, and have brewed two pots of Harrod’s Blend 49, a fusion of the best teas from India.

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I’m giving each guest a pretty card and envelope before our student arrives.  Many of these were freebies sent to me by various organizations.  I’m sure you have several lying around your house unused, too.  Now, write down a special message for the graduate.  It can be a word of wisdom, note of encouragement, or amusing anecdote.  Sign your name, stuff them in their envelope, and I’ll collect the cards.  After our guest of honor has departed for school (or the workforce), I will mail the notes gradually, over time.  Every week or two, he or she will receive a welcome message from a friend or loved one.  Snail mail and the artistic card make the well-wishes special and will certainly help dispel any homesickness!

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A personalized mug or cup and saucer will allow our grad a moment to relax in the dorm or apartment.  I’ve chosen a set reflecting the recipient’s birth month.  Go another step and add special tea bags to the cup.  Or better yet, fill a goodie bag with a mix of instant tea, tang or instant lemonade, and spices and place it in the cup or mug.  What can be more relaxing than a brief respite with a cup of tea?  When I departed for college, my friends sent me off with a mug emblazoned with, “Excuse #1 – I’m saving myself for Tom Selleck!”  There, I guess that dates me!

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How about a tiny volume filled with encouraging thoughts.  This slim tome, God’s Promises for Your Every Need, is one of my favorites to give to those embarking on the unknown.  Space will be at a premium while our graduate is away at school, so check out your local Bible bookstore for small books like this one.  You can even highlight the passages you think may be most useful to the student for an extra personal touch!

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Would you like another cup?  Please share some of your adventures and positive experiences after graduation.  I’m sure our guest of honor will appreciate hearing from you.  How about some sage advice?  They’ll like that, too!

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Tips:

  • Plan a tea for the graduate in your life.  Pick a time that is convenient for the guest of honor.  It doesn’t really matter when, as long as you set time aside before they begin the new school year.
  • Be as simple or elaborate as you like.  It’s the thoughtful gestures from the guests that will leave a lasting impression on your favorite scholar.
  • Collect the greeting cards you receive for free in the mail.  Set aside those which are blank or have an appropriate message for the occasion.  Distribute one to each guest and have them write an encouraging note for the student, preferably before the guest of honor arrives.  Squirrel them away and send them to your loved one over a period of time, after they arrive at their new school or situation.
  • Send the grad off with a supply of tea and a personalized mug or cup and saucer.
  • Provide a small volume of encouragement to your graduate where they can look for advice and comfort when life becomes stressful.
  • Give the graduate a pocket calendar.  Highlight the days when you will be praying specifically for them & be sure to record the dates on your own calendar.  This can be a group effort amongst all your guests.  I guarantee your scholar will be most appreciative of the support when he or she glances at the calendar and can see that Aunt Mary is lifting his or her needs in prayer that day!

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Thank you for joining us for this special tea.  I hope you will incorporate some of these ideas with the graduate in your own life.  Please stop by any time!

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COPYRIGHT 2017. VICTORIA BENCHLEY ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Spring Has Sprung

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Greetings!  Come in and enjoy a taste of spring.  All around there are signs that winter has given way to a new season.  My wisteria has bloomed and my lilacs aren’t far behind.  Do take a glance out the window to see nature’s glorious display before you settle in for a cup of Earl or Lady Grey.  The Earl Grey is infused with lavender, if that makes your choice any easier.  Fittingly, I’ve chosen Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for our music.  You may have noticed it’s a favorite of mine.

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The floral pattern on this Royal porcelain from Pip Studios certainly fits a spring-themed tea. I love the lively details on this set.  If you’re ever in need of a little lift, check out their cheery website at https://www.pipstudio.com.   You’ll find it a happy place!

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I’ve decided to serve macarons in pretty colors to match the season, as well as these lemon tea cakes.  I hope you’ll try several flavors of the bite-sized confections!  treatsCropSizedI bought these tiny macarons at the store.  Are you adventurous enough to try making them yourself?  I suggest checking out Lisa Maliga’s blog at https://lisamaliga.wordpress.com/french-macaron-baking-adventures for instructions.  Be sure to peruse her older posts for countless delicious varieties (I’m talking blueberry, raspberry, double cherry . . . almost any flavor you can imagine!).  She’s an expert and her creations are truly mouthwatering!  Her instructions and photos walk you right through the process.  Let me know how yours turn out.

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I inherited my love of flowers and gardening from my grandmother, and I can find plenty of varieties to enjoy during the entire year.  I had a lovely rose garden before I began writing.  But there are only so many hours in the day, and tending those beauties took a back seat to my literary pursuits.  However, I’ve still managed to plant some vegetables and herbs and expect to enjoy the tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers in a couple of months.  Luckily for me, my wisteria and lilacs seem to be low maintenance plants and thrive without any special attention.  Have you a garden?  What do you enjoy growing?

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Spring is always a time of change and transformation. Grass turns green, flowers bloom, the mercury rises, insects appear, and birds return.  My oldest son is in the process of choosing a college.  We’ve visited many schools, weighed the pros and cons, compared costs, and still have no decision.  Big changes are on the horizon for our little family.  But that’s what spring is all about.  I’m putting all of that out of my mind for the moment and just enjoying my cup of tea with its lavender tones.  Tell me, what kinds of change are you experiencing?

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Since Earl and Lady Grey are two of my favorite teas, I decided to look into the story behind these blends.  It’s all a bit murky, but Earl Grey is believed to be named for the second Earl, Charles Grey, who was prime minister of England and writer of the Reform Bill of 1832, which brought significant changes to the country’s electoral rules.  It’s thought that he received the tea as a diplomatic gift.  Another theory claims the Earl obtained the tea as a thank-you gift after saving a boy from drowning.  Twinings invented Lady Grey in the 1990s in an attempt to gain a bigger market share in Nordic countries where Earl Grey did not appeal.  The newcomer, while similar to her ancestor, benefits from the addition of orange and lemon peel.  Both teas are flavored with Bergamot oil, derived from a small orange grown mainly in the Mediterranean.

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Many praise the tea’s health benefits. AlternativeDaily.com claims that Earl Grey contains enzymes called HMGF that destroy proteins linked to heart disease and also has high amounts of antioxidants.  Bergamot is considered to give a boost to one’s mood and calm anxiety, probably due to its aromatherapy components (my lavender cup must give a double benefit).  According to JoybyNature.com, high amounts of potassium in the tea help you to stay hydrated.  In addition, the citrus component is believed to boost metabolism and improve digestion, and some state that the tea even contains anti-viral properties.

I can only attest to the lovely aroma and taste of these blends. I think you’ll find a cup, properly brewed, to be a comforting and relaxing experience.  Invite some friends over to take tea.  Follow my tips and you’ll have a lovely tea party to share in minutes, with minimal effort, and a fit way to celebrate this season of change and new beginnings!

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Tips for a Spring Tea

  • Choose bite-sized treats in spring colors for an appetizing selection your guests won’t be able to resist. macaronSized I found the macarons in the freezer section of my big box store.  To make your own, check out Lisa Maliga’s blog at https://lisamaliga.wordpress.com/french-macaron-baking-adventures/
  • Add color to your table with flowers.  If they are picked from your own garden, so much the better!
  • Individual vases with pretty blooms make lovely decorations or gifts your guests will treasure.
  • Be sure not to over-steep your tea.  Allow the proper time for this to ensure a smooth, delicate flavor in your cup.  Follow the instructions on the box in a trial run, then adjust to taste when it is time for the party.
  • Pick a tea pot with cups and saucers that reflect the joy of the season.

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Thank you so much for coming.  I always enjoy taking tea together.  I hope you’ll share about your own favorite blends in the comment section.
Do stop by again soon!

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When you’re feeling sad & blue
And have no clue what to do
Sit down and have a cup of tea
And a hug or two or maybe three
Feel those troubles melt away
And start you on a better day.

 -by Paulette, 1998 ~TLC Creations.

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COPYRIGHT 2017. VICTORIA BENCHLEY ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Tea and Elephants

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Hello! So glad you could pop by.  I’ve set our tea things in the foyer, and I’ve already poured everyone a cup.  So, come on in and find a comfy chair.  Is the weather dismal where you’re at or unseasonably warm?  It’s been crazy this year, hasn’t it?

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I don’t really believe the quote above, but it does sometimes seem plausible, especially if uttered from the back of an elephant — think the Carthaginian general, Hannibal.  Whether excited over a success or depressed regarding a bad experience, tea seems to help.  The phrase, “Let’s have a cup of tea,” can add to an impromptu celebratory gathering amongst friends, or bring a small dose of comfort when soothing a companion.   Teatime is also the perfect opportunity to share a few secrets.

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My husband and I had been married at least ten years when, over a cup of tea, I casually mentioned that I had ridden elephants.  At the time, it seemed an appropriate comment given the direction of our conversation.  He almost spewed a mouthful of hot liquid all over the table.  I didn’t realize most people hadn’t had the opportunity to ride one of the enormous creatures.  When I revealed that I’d been on camels too, well, he nearly fell over!

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Money was tight growing up. My parents, children of the Great Depression, believed in living frugally.  That being said, my mother was prescient enough to splurge when a golden opportunity arose, and I’m grateful for her wisdom.

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I could only have been about two or three years old when I first encountered an elephant up close and personal.  In the parking lot of a local grocery store, a man showed one off, along with a camel.  It goes without saying that government regulations then weren’t what they are now.   I don’t know what Mom paid, but I paired up with a young boy and rode the elephant, fed peanuts to the animal, and petted his trunk.  I will never forget the experience, especially what it felt like to move with the beast and have the pachyderm’s hose-like snout gently caress my hand and carefully remove the nuts.  He wasn’t threatening in the least, in spite of his size.

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Not long afterwards, it was my mum who informed me of the emotional nature of these magnificent creatures. When she was a child in Montreal, it seems a jealous one stomped a woman to death during a parade when its trainer stopped and paid a lady in the crowd too much attention — gruesome, I know, but true.

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Years later, after other fortunate meetings with more elephants, I attended Circus Vargas with a date. This wasn’t my first trip to the big top, either.  The man I went with insisted we ride on the elephant available for short forays around the grounds.  I wasn’t so excited about the prospect.  The animal was enormous — we had to climb atop a platform and walk a rickety plank to get on its back — and frankly, grumpy looking.  I think the fellow (my date) just wanted the chance to get up close and personal with me.  Everything turned out fine in the end.  We had a pleasant trip around the lot, and we broke up a short time later!

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When I recently read that Ringling Brothers was closing its tent, I felt terrible. I know there are those who dislike circuses, and I can respect their position.  Over the years, I’ve been to all kinds of these performances, ranging from the most famous operations to small boutique outfits.  I also will never forget when we took our own children to see Ringling Brothers.  My oldest, then about five, turned to me at intermission after confetti cannons had gone off raining thousands of bright paper strips down on the audience and said, “It’s just like a dream!”  He seemed in a wonderful, happy daze as he experienced the unique magic of a circus for the first time.

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Since then, I’ve since discovered many interesting facts and theories regarding elephants, who continue to hold a soft spot in my heart. Some of these are incorporated into my new book, The Pernicious Pachyderm, available now as a pre-order on Amazon (to be released March 25th).  The story also features a small circus.  I cannot believe this is the seventh novel in the Duncan Dewar series.  If you think you might enjoy reading about this unusual case, please click on the cover image below.

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How are you enjoying your tea?  Today, I chose to brew a simple, naturally decaffeinated blend, Red Rose.  Three bags make the perfect pot, steeping for just three to five minutes.  Do have two or three Swedish orange ginger snaps with your cuppa.

What do you think of these darling cups and saucers?  When I first spotted them, I immediately thought of my childhood.  They’re from British designer Cath Kidston (check out her webpage at http://www.cathkidston.com/).  While no teapot was available, I did manage to pick up the matching dessert plates.  I adore the pretty floral pattern, and the rickrack border made me think of days gone by.  So, I incorporated a quilt made from 1930s fabrics as my tablecloth.  I love the cheerful yellow!

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Thank you for coming.  I hope you’ve enjoyed our chat.  Have you had any unusual animal encounters?  Please share them in the comment section.  I’d love to hear your stories!

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It’s so grand,
The biggest thing to live on land!
Can use its trunk,
To smell and eat,
To rip off branches,
Taste so sweet!
A herbivore,
Eats trees and fruits,
Will not hunt meat,
But might like roots!
Flapping ears,
Like birdies wings,
Used for fans,
And hearing things!
Has a very,
Special nose,
Kind of like,
A garden’s hose…
Trunk holds water,
Like some sinks,
Sprays in mouth,
For cool, wet drinks!
And if you look,
Lined up in rows,
You see toenails,
But not its toes!
Elephants have,
Thick gray skin,
Both Asian and the African!
Two types exist,
Can walk at birth!
Biggest mammal,
Roaming Earth!
~Via Mr. R’s World of Math & Science http://sciencepoems.net/sciencepoems/elephantsbordersized2

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COPYRIGHT 2017. VICTORIA BENCHLEY ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

A Victorian Valentine Tea

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Welcome!  Do come into the kitchen where I’ve prepared a place for tea.  Are you ready for Valentine’s Day?  How has 2017 been treating you?

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I’ve always thought celebrating on February 14th provided a lovely break in the winter during the long stretch between New Year’s and Easter.  After a pause from the string of parties, commitments, and gatherings  from October through January 1st, I’m ready for Valentine’s Day!

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Saint Valentine’s true identity seems lost to time, although it is widely agreed that he was martyred for his Christian faith during the 3rd century.  Tradition says he performed a miracle when his jailer’s blind daughter received her sight.  Before his execution, he supposedly left her a farewell note that said, “From your Valentine.”  Known for performing secret marriages, he remains a symbol of love to this day.

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I’ve chosen to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day this year with a Victorian-themed tea table.  Utilizing multiple shades of pink, I’ve created a girly tableau, complete with metallic blush chargers, lace tablecloth, and a vintage silver plated tea service.  I added the pink tulle, studded with tiny rhinestones, for a touch of glam.

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I stumbledlabelsize upon some of my favorite chocolate biscuits the other day, and I wanted to share them with you.  I first experienced these delights on a ferry between France and England.  Made in Belgium, they’re called crepes.  Delicious silky milk chocolate robes individual layers of fine, wafer-thin cookies — folded like a tiny blanket … perfection!  I still cannot figure out how they make them.  Also, I’ve included some bakery-made short bread treats decorated to resemble those tiny message hearts we loved as children.  Cranberry tarts, along with vanilla and dark chocolate custards, complete our sweet treats.

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By chance, I discovered a new tea that I’m obsessed with.  I’ve decided to serve it today, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.  Tazo’s Orange Chiffon Black Tea is a delicious blend of orange, vanilla, earl grey, and butter cream.   Its delicate flavor is superb!  We received the tin of bags as a gift, so I have to discover where to source it for myself!

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For gifts, I’ve dressed up inexpensive small boxes of chocolates with heart-shaped doilies and ribbon flowers.  Because what would Valentine’s Day be without chocolates?  Bright pink polka dot ribbon, trimmed with a die-cut wooden sparkly ornament, serves as a napkin ring and small present for my guests.  Reproduction Victorian cards add the final touch to the theme.

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Thank you for joining me.  I wish each of you a beautiful Valentine’s Day filled with love, chocolate, and tea!

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COPYRIGHT 2017. VICTORIA BENCHLEY ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

A Tree-side Tea

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Come in and have a seat by the tree.  The fire is roaring and that old-fashioned music you hear is Fred Waring’s Christmas Magic, a staple of my childhood.  Go ahead, grab a sugar cookie and warm up with a cup of ginger spice tea!

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I finished my holiday baking Friday night around midnight and put the final touches on the tree late the following evening.  This year, it’s been a mad rush to the finish line.  I still have wrapping and shopping to do for the Christmas Day feast, but that’s all under control.  Have you completed your to-do list?  Purchased and wrapped that final gift?  Whispered your heart’s desire in Old Saint Nick’s ear?  Sat on Santa’s lap?

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On the 25th, I’m cooking for thirteen people – cherished family and friends.  That would have been a medium-sized group in my childhood, but nowadays it counts as a large gathering.  I enjoy hosting the dinner.  I just wish I had a spare refrigerator!  Fitting everything inside seems to be our biggest challenge each year.  I start prepping about five days beforehand and quickly run out of space in the fridge.  To save time, I’m purchasing the desserts and concentrating on the meal.  Of course, I’ll also serve a tray of my homemade cookies and fudge.  What are your plans for the holiday?

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My husband helped with the candy making.  We struggled with a recipe for Penuche.  For those unfamiliar with this treat, it’s a maple/pecan type of fudge.  Every year we toil to get it right.  Producing the perfect candy is a science.  My mother, who’d been making fudge since she was a young child and had the scars to prove it, could do it all by feel – me, not so much.  I’m ashamed to say that out of six attempts, only two passed muster.  We adjusted the temperature, analyzed the difference between the molasses content of light verses dark brown sugar, consulted with Martha Stewart regarding the correct amount of butter, and enjoyed the time spent together.  In the end, my husband (a scientist type) declared, “Ah, the Penuche, she is a fickle beast.”  We will redouble our efforts next year!  If any of you have discovered the secret to this recipe, please have mercy on us and share!

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Recipes:

Ice Box Cookies 

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softened 1 egg yolk, beaten
6 Tablespoons powdered sugar
1 cup sifted flour
1 teaspoon vanilla

Cream butter & sugar thoroughly.  Add vanilla & beat until blended.  Add egg yolk, beating well.  Add flour gradually, beating.  Roll out on floured surface (I roll between 2 sheets of wax paper) – cut out with cutters & bake at 350 degrees for approximately 15 minutes.  Cool.  Decorate as desired.   I  beat together 1 box powdered sugar, 1 Tablespoon softened butter, 1 Tablespoon vanilla, & enough boiling water for correct consistency.  Divide icing into smaller bowls & tint with food coloring to desired shades.  Keep icing under plastic wrap when not in use to avoid crust forming on top.  Cookies can be kept in tins or in refrigerator after icing dries.

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Farmhand Snowballs

12 oz. white chocolate chips
24 Ritz crackers
1/4 cup peanut butter
Chocolate chips, coconut, chopped nuts, colored sprinkles, etc. for decorating

Spread cracker with small amount of peanut butter and top with another, creating a dsc04645resizedsandwich.  Repeat and set aside.  Place desired toppings in small bowls & set aside.  Cover cookie racks or cookie sheets with wax paper & set aside.

Melt white chocolate in double boiler until smooth, stirring constantly.  Carefully dip sandwiches in chocolate to coat completely.  Working quickly, remove the cookie and place on wax paper.  Top with choice of decoration.  Cool completely.  Store in airtight tins.  I double this recipe to make two dozen.

NOTES:  Utilize tongs to avoid burning your fingers when dipping.  Figure out which method works best for you.  I also use a large spoon to aid in the coating process.  If you want to get crazy, coat both sides of Ritz with peanut butter and vary adding chopped nuts, coconut, and mini chocolate chips to inside of sandwiches before dipping.  These cookies are delicious and always a huge hit.  People have fun trying to figure out what’s inside and how you made them.

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Thank you for joining me and do stop by in the New Year.
Merry Christmas!

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COPYRIGHT 2016. VICTORIA BENCHLEY ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Just Me and the Christmas To-Do List -OR- Surrounded by Nutcrackers

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I’m grateful you took time from your hectic schedule to pop in and enjoy a cup of tea.  My house is half decorated and in complete chaos!  But do come in.  We’ll clear a spot and chat about the most wonderful time of the year.  Yes, that’s an Andy Williams Christmas album playing in the background.

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Growing up in a family of modest means, the holidays represented a special break from the norm — a time of lavish food, unique gifts, decorations, music, and gathering with family and friends.  Of course, it wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized how much work all of these wonderful things required.  Honestly, I’d skip most of it this year, if my children would allow it, which they won’t.  I wouldn’t want to disappoint them, either.  It all seems to require more effort each year to achieve the same results.  I guess that’s what aging does.  It’s easy to get caught up in the preparations and forget to enjoy the season, or even worse, to become a grinch.

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So, let’s share a strong cup of Christmas blend and a hunk of limoncello panettone (cookie recipes will follow in a later blog).  This moist and delicious bread is filled with citron and Italian lemon curd.  Some panettone is dry, but this brand almost melts in your mouth.  I just discovered that the label says it’s illegal to sell to a minor!  Hmm, we better eat it all before the children get home from school!

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See, I’ve yet to hang my wreath!

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To survive and enjoy the holidays, I think it’s essential to set small chunks of time aside for peaceful relaxation.  Music has always held a huge place of importance during Christmas time in our family.  scotcrackerresizedMy parents had Firestone albums (yes, the vinyl kind) featuring a variety of artists from the nineteen fifties and sixties.  We could hear Nat King Cole one minute, and Mantovani and his orchestra the next.  I have the feeling these records were inexpensive promotions sold each year by a national merchant, designed to draw in customers.  Years later, when my mother suffered from memory loss, she gave them all away to a charity without my father’s agreement.  Fortunately, I started my own quest to collect seasonal music twenty-five years ago.  I’ve amassed around three dozen CDs, most found in the bargain bins of drugstores or thrift marts.  They feature performers ranging from CeeLo Green to Bing Crosby, and we listen to them all every December.  When things get too hectic, I’ll crank up the festive tunes, break for a treat, and take a few moments to recuperate.

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Another way to put things in perspective is to take time each day for some inspirational reading. This became such a part of my early Christmases that we’ve incorporated the tradition with our own children.  My mother would read aloud a different holiday-themed story every night.  Sometimes, a short tale sufficed, and other nights she read chapters of a larger work.  Today, I try to take a moment each day to reflect on the accounts of the birth of Jesus in the Gospels.  There are countless seasonal devotions and Christmas books from which to choose.

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Another translation of the above verse reads, “… peace towards men of goodwill.” Isn’t that wonderful?  We all desire peace and I certainly want to be of goodwill, especially during the holiday season.  To this end, we can be sure to remember the less fortunate.  Our hearts fill with joy at the smallest act of kindness, and combined, these efforts can truly make a difference in the lives of those in need at this time of year.

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Okay.  I’ll get off my soap box, decorated with red ribbon and artificial greenery, of course, and pour you another cup.  Please, ignore all the clutter.  In a week or two (yes, it takes that long), everything will be transformed into a Christmas wonderland!  Do you like the china pattern?  I found this vintage cup and saucer at an antique mall in the Midwest.  I love the unusual large size and cheerful pink motif.  The design even includes a tiny dragonfly.  Its underside is labeled Royal Staffordshire, Burslem, England and includes the names Charlotte and Clarice Cliff.  I believe it’s some sort of reproduction, but crazing in the glaze makes me think it does carry some age.  I collect pink transferware and this is the largest cup I’ve seen among older patterns.

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I realize you’ve much to do, but thank you so much for stopping by and rescuing me from my holiday chores.  Remember to take time to enjoy the season with music, tea, and friendship!  Come by in a week or so to see the results of my labors.  Until then, Merry Christmas!

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COPYRIGHT 2016. VICTORIA BENCHLEY ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

A Thanksgiving Tea

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Do come in and get warm.  I’ve got just the thing for that chill!  Settle in and have a cup of my Harvest Blend Tea.  Can you taste the rich spices?  I’ve combined a favorite Chai (no longer available in stores, so I’m hording what I have) with a beloved Orange Pekoe.  I hope you like Beethoven.

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As we barrel towards the holidays, I want to pause and say Thank You to all my readers.  I appreciate each and every one of you!  In the States, we celebrate Thanksgiving at this time of year, remembering our heritage and counting our blessings.  Most gather for feasts and special times of fellowship with their families.

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As Oscar Wilde said, summer collapses into fall.  October and November seem like a blur to me.  2016 is going by faster than I’d like.  The past year has been one of loss for our family, but we still have so much to be thankful for.  I thank God for my children, our health, friends, family, our home, our country, and you, dear reader, along with countless other blessings we’ve received.

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So choose a chair, a cup, and a treat, or two! Please, do share some of the things your’re most thankful for.    

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I’ve pulled out all the stops with my fall décor for this tea. Utilizing ribbons, leaves, and ornaments found in discount stores, I adorned glass candle sticks, giving everything a festive air.  The unusual tea service, in fall colors, proved perfect for the occasion.  The candy corn and Indian corn candles remind me of my childhood (my dad always had bunches of Indian corn hanging from beams in his den!).  I purchased them in a specialty shop.  Store bought cookies, flavored with fruit and nuts, fit the theme nicely.

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Tips:

  • If you are short on time, spend your moments on the décor and purchase the food you’ll serve guests.img_2062resizedcrop
  • Use festive ribbon to tie florist picks, leaves, or themed ornaments to candlesticks, serving trays, or napkins.
  • Keep an eye out for bargains that you can use to amp up your décor.  I bought my themed candles while on a trip and transported them home!
  • Pick a tea or create your own (like I did) that matches the season.
  • It’s a busy time of year, so be considerate when scheduling your event.  Invite your friends well in advance.

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May each of you have a blessed Thanksgiving!

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COPYRIGHT 2016. VICTORIA BENCHLEY ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

A Bountiful Fall Tea

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In accordance with the above quote, I’ve made an extra strong brew this afternoon.  Do come in and enjoy a cup (or two) of Ginger Tea from TrueBrit.  It’s a blend of Ceylon and other black leaves mixed with ginger.  I find it delicious!  With the increase in temperatures, we’ll take our break on the porch.

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One of my children will soon be reading 1984 for his English class.  I got excited when I saw it on the required book list.  I’m wondering if it will have the same impact now that the year has long passed and a new generation of readers, unfamiliar with the Cold War, WWII, and largely protected from exposure to tyranny, has come along.  I read Orwell’s classic in high school, sometime around 1980, and found it powerful.  Do you have a favorite book that affected your own young perspective?

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I realize I’m rambling a bit, but has anyone else noticed that tea is just better in England, Orwell’s homeland?  I even prefer the Lipton there!  I returned from my travels this summer with oodles of tea.  That’s how I roll.  My souvenirs consist of tea leaves, tea bags, and a few sweets (those are better in England as well).  So, if you spot any in your local import store, don’t hesitate to indulge.  You might find yourself enjoying the best cuppa ever!  By the way, did you know George Orwell was the pen name of Englishman Eric Arthur Blair?  His sister ran a tea house for a time, and he also lived in India (both adding to his tea pedigree), as well as on the Isle of Jura, Inner Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland.  He died young at age 46 of tuberculosis but lived an interesting life.  He spent time in Paris and Spain, where he was wounded fighting in the Spanish Civil War.

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I’ve kept our food simple today, utilizing cocktail cucumbers and pretzel rolls, along with fresh herbs.  Simple butter cookies complete the table.  I’ve mixed diced honey ham with two different flavors of cream cheese for the fillings.  Everything came together in a jiffy.

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Tips:

  • Keep an eye out for teas imported from England. img_2898resized You’ll want to give them a try.
  • A supply of store-bought butter cookies comes in handy when entertaining.
  • When weather permits, move your gathering outside.  Soon it will be too cold for the great outdoors.
  • Flavored cream cheeses are readily available and add a nice punch to sandwiches or crackers.
  • Check your local grocery for specialty breads.  The mini pretzel rolls I found proved perfect for small tea sandwiches and tasted delicious.
  • Use a melon baller to scoop out soft vegetables.  Stuff with your favorite filling.  Cocktail cucumbers are refreshing and tasty when filled with diced ham and herb-infused cream cheese.
  • Don’t be afraid to include fresh herbs.  They add a great taste to your creations.  Just watch the amount, so you don’t overpower any subtle flavors.

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Thank you for joining me, and do pop by again soon!

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COPYRIGHT 2016. VICTORIA BENCHLEY ALL RIGHTS RESERVED