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The After Party: Leftover punch & cake for an impromptu afternoon tea. With Smith Teamaker Bai Hao oolong No. 20. September 2015.

The After Party: Leftover punch & cake for an impromptu afternoon tea. With Smith Teamaker Bai Hao oolong No. 20. September 2015.

One thing I love about visiting friends is skimming whatever’s on their coffee tables and bookshelves during visits. I recently found myself flipping through a copy of The Apple Lover’s Cookbook at my friend Tom’s place (I’d also just scored a handy pocketguide to apples from the Vermont Institute of Natural Science where we’d just seen an exhibit on raptors, and I was entranced by the sad, soulful glance of a great grey owl. This fall seemed like the ideal time to better acquaint myself with apples.) One of the book’s recipes on Kentucky stack cake caught my attention: a traditional potluck wedding cake popularized in mid-century Appalachia, it’s made up of pancake-like rounds contributed by different people (so the baking burden doesn’t fall to one person) and held together by layers of applesauce (or apple butter.)

I love the ethos of potlucks and try to host open-house parties and teas whenever possible, inviting any friends and neighbors who happen to be free (I’m particularly smitten with this increasingly old-fashioned idea of Sunday as a day of rest and of easy gatherings when anyone can just drop in without committing–it somehow seems more natural to me than the highly scheduled approach that’s more or less become de rigueur in modern life.) This past weekend just before equinox seemed like a nice time to usher in fall with some friends. My son also just started pre-school across the street so it gave me the chance to round up a few of his new classmates and welcome them into our place.)equinox party

And what better way to celebrate fall than with a small crowd and bowl of Civil War-era U.S.S. Richmond Tea Punch? I’ve been intrigued by tea punches for a while after coming across cocktail historian David Wondrich’s marvelous Punch: The Delights and Dangers of the Flowing Bowl. I’m not much of a drinker these days, but enlisted the help of my whiskey-loving husband for tips, and to mine his arsenal of spirits. I love how the U.S.S. Richmond Punch is an old sailor’s brew (named after the longest-serving ship in Naval history) and traditionally calls for strong tea.

I took a few liberties with Wondrich’s recipe based on what I had in house, using armagnac for the cognac and a smoky but smooth Lapsang Souchong from Joseph Wesley Black Tea. I already knew the tea well and had a hunch it might sparkle here but asked my husband to try it when I was mixing up the punch stock; he’s hardly a tea fan, but gave it two thumbs up. We’ve had a largely untouched absinthe fountain on our shelf for a while (following some absinthe-fueled trips to Paris and Barcelona a few years ago). It seemed like as good a time as any to break out the fountain for tea punch. Why not? It’s a party, after all. Please do read more about the recipe here and try it out for any fall gatherings or throughout the holidays: http://liquor.com/articles/what-would-a-pilgrim-drink/#gs.Ge884WY It was a real hit with partygoers and a lively conversation piece. I had a tad bit left over, which I used for an impromptu afternoon tea party a few days later. The little ones weren’t forgotten either: for them, I made a virgin punch using an herbal infusion of dried apple, orange and mango bits from Palais des Thes’ new garden line, adding some agave and raspberry sorbet. http://us.palaisdesthes.com/en_us/hanging-garden.html

Tea & whiskey cake adapted from Martha Goldman & NPR Food. Marvelous. September 2015.

Tea & whiskey cake adapted from Marcy Goldman & NPR Food. Marvelous. September 2015.

September’s been a pretty festive month around our house, and I’ve been baking up a small tornado. This tea and whiskey cake from NPR Food–a twist on more traditional honey cake–sparked my interest one morning during Rosh Hashanah. I was able to pull it together in no time before heading to my in-laws to ring in a sweet new year. Personally, I have a somewhat uncommon taste for drier, old-fashioned fruitcake-like baked goods, but recognize it’s not everyone’s cup of tea (my husband will not go for dry cakes.) I didn’t have orange juice on hand so just added more whiskey. I told my four-year-old-son that this cake had whiskey in it and he kept referring to it as “the bad cake.” Rave reviews all around. My in-laws loved it. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/09/13/439573786/the-jewish-fruitcake-honey-cake-is-a-sweet-and-stodgy-tradition

Not every tea cake needs whiskey, so I had some fun with a Ceylon tea apple cake recipe from Cynthia’s Gold’s wonderful Culinary Tea (I used a SerendipiTea Ceylon Black.) I served this one with punch at our equinox shindig–also much adored! One secret ingredient in both cakes is a magical and very real Sri Lankan cinnamon from my go-to stockpile of Aftelier Perfumes cooking essences. Always well worth a drop or two. http://www.aftelier.com/Cinnamon-Chef-s-Essence-Organic-p/chefs-cinnamon.htm

A sample of cinnamon Ceylon from the relatively new Colorado-based Senkada Tea, which has longstanding family ties to one of Sri Lanka’s oldest tea estates, served as a lovely complement. I love that you can actually taste the real cinnamon in it (native to Sri Lanka going way back to the olden days of spice routes.) http://senkadatea.com/product/cinnamon-black-tea/

Another fine companion to tea cake (or utterly delicious on its own) is MEM Tea Imports’ Dian Jin (Golden Needles), with notes of ripe dates, molasses and chocolate. I came across this tea at the most charming and dreamlike French-Norwegian Maurice Luncheonette in Portland last month (my cousin regularly sends me texts of their daily menu items and had been dying to take me for a while.) I had the velvety Golden Needles with a black pepper fig cheesecake and can only describe the whole experience as a Proustian tea and madeleine-worthy reverie. Maurice is a marvelous spot for fika–the Swedish tradition of stopping for tea or coffee and cake. Not a shred of Swedish in me that I know of, but I’m so fond of the fika break and do it every day in my own way. http://memteaimports.com/tea/black/goldenneedlesdianjin.html

From my dreamlike Proustian reverie at Portland's Maurice. Photo courtesy of my cousin. August 2015.

From my dreamlike Proustian reverie at Portland’s Maurice. Photo courtesy of my Maurice-loving cousin. August 2015.

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