Every day at 5 o’clock sharp, every day for thirty years a comforting ritual took place in my kitchen. We kept this ritual until I moved on my own, seven meters apart in the nearby house, but on my own. Summer or winter, being it just with my mum and me wrapped in old flannel robes or with all my friends from high school studying for the day after test, at 5 o’clock sharp we would have a tea.
At the beginning it was the classic tea you would have drunk in Italy: probably an English breakfast with a few lemon slices and a heaping tablespoon of sugar. It was sweet and soothing, almost like a syrup. Growing up I decluttered my cup of tea: first without sugar, then without lemon, to end up with a steaming black intense tea. I am not an adventurous drinker. I might taste all the food I have the chance to meet and research for more, but I am utterly traditional with drinks. Tea has always been my favourite.
Tea quenches my thirst me, cuddles me, comforts me, makes me relax, is a reward. At first they were simple tea bags, the scent of afternoons spent studying at home or of Sundays gatherings with relatives, with a cup of tea and a slice of cake. The ritual of tea brooked no exceptions, not even on Christmas day.
I used to dip cookies in my tea, I used to pair them two by two, to offer more resistance to the liquid. When Christmas was approaching there were special days when you were allowed to dip a big warm slice of pandoro or panettone. When Spring would bring Easter in our house you could dip leftover colomba, picking all the almonds with your hands, or slices of stale sportellina.
Growing up my taste changed. Luckily, I would say, as I finally abandoned ’80s legging and Brook Shields’s eyebrows. My tea taste also evolved, following my curiosity. Travels made me discover the sweet minty green tea in Morocco or the citrusy Early grey in England. Friends opened my mind with smoked tea, Indian spiced chai tea, green tea with flowers and fruit. Now if you force me to choose just one tea, it would pick Jasmine bancha tea, with spiced Christmas teas as close seconds.
My afternoon tea, though, is still my favourite daily ritual, a magic habit which has the powerful action to cleanse my mind, washing bad thoughts away.
When a few months ago Kusmi Tea contacted me I jumped on my chair. I almost spilled my tea. I clearly remember the moment when, last year, climbing the stairs of one of the most refined department stores in Florence, I found myself into a little world of sensual aromas, bright coloured tins and elegant decors, and above all a taste so pure which made me think that it could not just be tea, that there should be something magic inside.
They had carved a small corner for Kusmi on the occasion of Christmas, where they offered tastings of tea in tiny glasses. It had the same charm of precious sap. I was tempted to go down the stairs other side and climb again on the escalators to introduce myself again to the corner and taste some more tea. Maybe I even did it. I bought many different qualities as Christmas gifts for the friends who would have appreciated them most, and I spent many winter afternoons with a cup of tea in hand, deeply inhaling its fragrance.
Tea and cake, what’s not to love? It is the perfect time of the afternoon. Tea and cake together can change any Monday afternoon, when your week is all uphill, in a precious moment. So in these days when the time is never enough, when I wish I could stop for half an hour for a cup of tea and a slice of cake and pause my thinking, I made a cake.
Making a cake is the most efficient and pleasant form of therapy. Adding tea to the cake makes it even more effective.
Pasta Margherita is a century old recipe from my beloved Artusi, it is a gluten free cake made with just four simple ingredients: eggs, potato starch, sugar and lemon juice. It is soft and light, as the best sponge cakes, with a distinctive lemon taste which will immediately win you.
With the last harvest of rhubarb I made a tea infused compote, adding some tangy apples as well. I got the inspiration from this brilliant recipe. I used Anastasia. Inspired by the story of the Grand Duchess Anastasia, daughter of the Romanov dynasty’s Czar Nicholas II, this exclusive Earl Grey blend exemplifies Kusmi’s famous Russian taste with its combination of black tea, bergamot, lemon and orange blossom. Kept secret since its creation, Anastasia is one of the iconic recipes created by Pavel Kousmichoff.
It’s a perfect marriage with apples and rhubarb, and has such an evocative name I could not resist.
- 4 eggs whites and yolks separated
- 120 g of sugar
- 120 g of potato starch
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 250 g of rhubarb**
- 2 apples
- 110 g of sugar
- 160 ml of tea*
- Zest of 1 organic lemon
- 200 g of icing sugar
- 2 tablespoons cold strong tea*
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons of almonds
Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until white and light. Add potato starch and lemon juice and whisk with an electric mixer for about ten minutes. Fold in the whipped egg whites.
Preheat oven to 180°C and line a 18 cm round baking tin with parchment paper.
Scrape the batter into the tin and bake for about 35 minutes, until golden brown on the surface and dry inside. Test with a toothpick to be sure it is ready.
Let it cool and in the meantime make the apple and rhubarb compote to fill the pasta margherita. Cut the rhubarb and peeled apples into cubes, put them in a baking pan with sugar, tea and lemon zest. Bake for 20 minutes, stir and bake for 20 more minutes. The fruit will eventually be soft and you'll have a sweet and dense syrup. Let it cool down.
When both the cake and the apple and rhubarb compote are cool, slice the cake horizontally and fill with the fruit compote. Pour also all the syrup.
Now there's just the final icing left. Mix the icing sugar with tea and lemon juice. Scrape it slowly over the cake so that it will cover the entire surface of the cake and drip lusciously on the sides.
Slice a handful of almonds, toast them for a few minutes in a pan and sprinkle onto the cake. Wait a few hours before slicing the cake and serve it with a cup of tea.
**This unusual rainy Summer gifted me with three harvests of rhubarb, an absolute exception for the otherwise sunny and hot Tuscan summers. If you cannot find rhubarb with the same amount of apples, or add a handful of raspberries, too!