when i was in graduate school, nearly ten years ago, I bought a cheap china teapot that I still use. It has a faux gold lining, with edges that shine, and a pink-and-jade rosebud print across the surface. A halo of teal surrounds the lid, which comes off with a tinkling sound. If a cherub were a teapot, this would be him. It’s invaluable to me and dutifully firm, having stood by my side in multiple New York City apartments and afternoon teatimes with friends.
I’ve always been an avid coffee drinker, but it wasn’t until I bought this teapot that making and drinking tea became an important ritual in my life. Coffee is a way for me to start my day, to wake up by injecting my veins with as much caffeine as possible so I can peel myself off my bed. (I’m not a morning person.) Tea takes up another space. It’s what I brew for others, either in the mid-afternoon, with a slice of cake and gossip, or right before bed, when my partner and I have completed our skincare routines and are ready to start an episode of “Find party.” It’s the same every time: I ask him from the kitchen, “Barley, burdock or chamomile?” And his answer tells me what I need to know about his state of being. Barley tea is comforting and nutty, the default. Burdock root is rich and ash-like, like the tea version of a smoky whiskey; he wants to enjoy the cup. Chamomile is the equivalent of a glass of warm milk, meaning he wants to pass out once the episode is over.
Hot tea, served from a beautiful teapot, always makes you feel special.
In many ways, tea has always been in my life, although I didn’t think much about drinking it. That’s because when I was a kid in Georgia, we drank tea as cold as water. It came in ice-cold pitchers, always Lipton, always heavily sweetened with white sugar. Sometimes we bought sweet tea in the store in those plastic liter pitchers. I loved it on ice. My mother also kept a cup of barley tea in the fridge. When you drink tea that way, it loses some of its appeal, its welcoming coziness.
But hot tea, served from a beautiful teapot, always makes you feel special. “It has something to do with brevity,” my old high school friend, Meredith, said to me recently in a voice message. I know what she meant – making a pot of tea together and then having a pot of tea together can be a perfectly contained moment, a break from the outside world. ‘Whether I’m happy or sad,’ she said, ‘when I go to a friend’s house and they offer me a cup of tea, which they usually do, I immediately feel welcome and at home. That is different from offering a cold drink, because you don’t have to worry about that.” If a glass of cold water is a text message, a hot pot of tea is a thoughtful voice.
Today, tea time is a communal ceremony in my home, and not in the grander ways of East Asian cultures and British afternoon tea, but in a series of acts that remain the same every time. Here’s the scene: A friend storms through my door like in a 90s sitcom, I grab her coat, she sits on a stool, I sit on the water and listen to her rant about her boss or her boyfriend or her mother. And here’s the magic: Where a coffee break is a 15-minute excuse to step away from my desk, afternoon tea is an hour to sit down and linger — and, if we’re lucky, eat cake. I’m not one to think much ahead, but when I know a friend is coming over, I try to bake something sweet and sliceable for the occasion. Something that goes well with a cup of tea.
This easy chamomile tea cake recipe uses every opportunity to infuse the last crumb with its floral flavor. I’ve found that you can bring out the inherent properties of chamomile, especially the finely ground stuff often found in tea bags, by adding it to every step of the process. From the melted butter to the milk, with just a little heat and an ounce of effort, chamomile tea infuses its golden essence beautifully, and each step smells better than the last; lemon zest and vanilla enhance the aromatic properties of chamomile. And the ridiculously pink strawberry frosting, which drips down the sides of the cake, exuberantly echoes the rosebuds on my teapot—the real centerpiece of my afternoons.
Recipe: Chamomile Tea Cake With Strawberry Glaze