Anyone for Cake? How to Serve the Best Afternoon Tea at Home

Aug 9, 2021

Floral tea cups and saucers

Is there ever an occasion that doesn’t call for afternoon tea? From birthdays and celebrations to Mother’s Day or Easter, we can’t think of one happy event that wouldn’t benefit from a spot of tea and cake. Whilst you can’t beat the treat of visiting a tea room at a top hotel or award-winning restaurant for the really momentous occasions, afternoon tea is also a wonderfully easy yet effective gathering to host in your own dining room too. So the next time you are having friends over for a coffee and a catch up, or you’re hosting your next family gathering, why not recreate the finest afternoon tea at home with our top tips?

floral plates with cakes
Pip Studio
floral tea cups
Pip Studio

What is Afternoon Tea?

The quintessentially British tradition dates back to the early 19th Century, when the 7th Duchess of Bedford complained of ‘having a sinking feeling’ during the afternoon. The Duchess’s solution was to enjoy a pot of tea and a light snack privately in her boudoir to keep hunger pangs at bay until dinner time. Before long she started inviting her friends along too and it soon became the height of high society fashion and was deemed respectable enough to be moved to the drawing room.

It has now evolved from a simple light snack and tea to a sweet and savory feast of sandwiches, cakes and, of course, scones. This is seen as the traditional afternoon tea, but new variations are popping up all the time and sparkling versions with champagne or prosecco are now quickly becoming the top choice over the humble cup of tea. The quintessentially British occasion is celebrated every year with seven days of luxurious snacking starting on the second Monday of August. In 2021 it runs from the 9th to the 15th of August, so put the kettle on!

Incidentally, afternoon tea and high tea are not the same thing – the latter is a more substantial meal later in the day, and it’s why many people still call the evening meal “tea”.

neutral table setting with meringues
LSA International

Set the Tone

First things first with your at-home afternoon tea experience is to decide on the tone of your get-together. Do you want it to be a fancy affair fit for the Thames Foyer or Buckingham Palace? Or an intimate, laidback offering with sweet treats and Fortnum & Mason products on tap? Determine the number of people you’ll be having and how formal you want it to be before moving onto the theme, as this will dictate how you style and serve the tea. Traditionally themed teas, delicate china, finger sandwiches and dainty but delicious cakes, all work well in both informal and formal settings as they can be dressed up or down. Classic afternoon tea tableware can be patterned (often floral) or plain but the key with these themes is delicate features like classically shaped teapots and ornate cake stands.

afternoon tea flat lay
Pip Studio

Opting for a formal afternoon tea is a great excuse to up the glam stakes. More and more brands are releasing teaware made from the most luxurious of materials, like marble and agate, with gleaming metallic embellishments to really give your at-home afternoon tea the feel of a plush five-star hotel. For those looking to put their own stamp on afternoon tea at home, why not make it more quirky? From weird and wacky flavor combinations, to unique tea sets certain to grab your guests’ attention, a quirky afternoon tea is the perfect choice if you want to give a nod to the traditional pastime but not lose your own unique sense of style. No cucumber sandwiches in sight.

Get the Tea On

colorful tea setting

Once you’ve decided on your overall look, it’s time to turn to how you’re going to serve it all in style. Of course no afternoon tea is complete without a hot beverage of choice. Whether you’re serving traditional English breakfast tea, green tea, cream tea, coffee or a mixture of all of the above, you’ll need something to serve it to your guests in. We love tea served in mugs, and your everyday hot drink is absolutely fine to serve in these comforting cups. However, afternoon tea calls for a vessel with a little more flair, and by flair, we mean a saucer. Tea and coffee cups with saucers give an extra sense of occasion, so why not invest in a beautifully patterned matching set for your afternoon teas at home? Most teacup or coffee cup ranges also extend to teapots and cafetieres so you can keep the beautiful pattern flowing through brewing, pouring and drinking. Wedgwood are the leaders for decadent afternoon tea sets so should be your first port of call if you’re looking for a new range.

Serveware at the Ready

colorful tea set
Pip Studio

There’s so many elements of an afternoon tea that planning your serveware beforehand is a must. When you go out for afternoon tea you’re normally greeted with a cake stand each or between two with all the sandwiches, pastries and cakes on. Whilst giving each of your guests a cake stand is impractical, you can still make one or two stands a centerpiece for your table to serve the scones or cakes on them. Then arrange the sandwiches and other treats on platters or serving plates around the cake stands so your guests arrive to a table full of food. The final finishing touch is to make sure each guest has a small plate (side or dessert plates work well) for them to serve themselves throughout the tea.

Get Baking

red baking dish
Emile Henry

Now you’ve got the aesthetics covered, it’s time to look to the food itself. Whilst any lover of afternoon tea will have a sweet tooth, make sure you have a great selection of savories too. This can be in the traditional form of sandwiches or unleash your inner pastry chef and include mini pies, pastries or tarts. If you are opting for sandwiches you could always mix up the bread choices by introducing bagels, flatbreads or focaccia. Just make sure you have a selection of fillings to cater to vegetarians, vegans and those with allergies. An at-home afternoon tea is also a great opportunity to show off your baking skills, as no tea is complete without copious amounts of homemade cake. From show-stoppers to tray bakes, whatever you decide to whip up, it will look fit for the latest series of Bake Off when you’ve added it to your stylish spread. Who needs afternoon tea in London’s swankiest joints when you can have one to your own specifications in your own home?