No one has assigned chores at our Shore house. We've all adopted tasks that suit us: Andi Coyle is in charge of logistics. Jane Koehler takes lunch orders. Betty Garvin clears the table. I make tea.
Not the drink but the meal.
It started three years ago, after many annual holiday high teas at fancy Philadelphia hotels. My friends and I - all current or former figure skaters - loved the tiered trays of finger sandwiches and cakes, the fancy dishes, clothes, and manners.
"We should do this again another time of the year," I said, suggesting a summer outing at the Jersey Shore, where nine of us rent a house every August in Ocean City.
But Coyle, of Philadelphia, balked. She didn't want to stray from the trifecta of house-beach-boardwalk. She wasn't interested in wearing anything more formal than a bathing suit or shorts.
"OK, I'll make tea," I said. I love to bake, and I've brought chocolate-chip banana bread to the newsroom often enough that bananas would appear on my desk as hints from hungry colleagues. Surely, I could feed my friends as well.
"We can have it on the deck," I said, Coyle's favorite place to read the news, eat meals, and chat.
So every night for a week before vacation, I baked scones bursting with cranberries; black-pepper brownies with a lot of chocolate and a little zing; and, of course, chocolate-chip banana bread.
I keep bananas, still in their peels, in my freezer. An hour or so before baking, I defrost them on the countertop and then squeeze them out like toothpaste. Sometimes my freezer is so full of bananas there's room for little else.
This time, as the bananas came out, cakes and scones took their place in the freezer. I would've preferred to bake just before serving, but I didn't want to haul all my gear to the Shore, and I especially didn't want to cut back on beach time. Instead, I'd defrost and heat before the meal.
I did, however, bring my own knives. In every vacation rental I've visited, the cutlery has been flimsy and dull. I didn't want to ruin my presentation, or slice a finger, even though my group includes a retired public-health nurse (Nancy O'Brien of West Chester) and a nurse-practitioner (Karen Anker of Newark, Del.).
I was a little anxious about that first Tea by the Sea. I was good at making foods that could be prepared in advance, but far less adept at last-minute details. So I opted for simple finger sandwiches such as tuna, egg salad, and peanut butter and jelly. This was the Shore, after all.
Jean Wilcox, a Temple marketing professor, also swooped in to help. She had brought tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers from her Mount Airy garden. She loved prepping and styling. The sandwiches became her domain.
Wilcox and I were also united in the desire to eat healthier. Yes, even baked goods can be an improvement when you carefully plan every ingredient, and the alternative is what Coyle coined the "cha-cha-cha diet": chocolate, cheese, chips, and alcohol. I did not have the stomach for that. Nor the arteries.
The meal went over swimmingly. So much so that it became an annual tradition.
The menu has mostly remained, although I added coconut macaroons this year by popular request. Janice Haney of Wilmington brought gluten-free goods for herself. Next time, I may make lemon curd for the scones using the leftover yolks from the macaroons.
We've also begun dressing for the occasion, from dollar-store jewelry to bridesmaid skating dresses from a synchronized-skating routine. We wore those outfits for a combination tea-and-bridal shower when Anker was engaged. The ploy to keep her out of the house while we set up the surprise was a shopping trip in search of crème fraîche for the scones.
This year, we made hats out of paper plates, decorating them with leftovers from - what else? - old skating costumes.
"Are you going to the Kentucky Derby?" asked a young boy from the unit upstairs.
Even better: High tea at Downashore Abbey.
Koehler, from Newark, Del. - dressed in her downstairs best, a lacy white apron and maid's headband - served drinks on the deck of our new beachfront rental.
"I call dibs on dish duty," announced Peggy Del Fabbro of Hockessin, Del.
No one argued.
Makes 16 brownies or 32 brownie bites
4 ounces (4 squares) unsweetened chocolate
6 ounces (11/2 sticks) sweet butter
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dry instant espresso or any other powdered (not granular) instant coffee
1 teaspoon black pepper, finely ground
1 teaspoon vanilla
11/4 cups dark or light brown sugar, firmly packed
3 eggs (large or extra large)
1 cup sifted flour
4 ounceAs (a generous cup) walnuts or pecans, broken into large pieces (optional)
1. Adjust the oven rack one-third up from the bottom, and preheat oven to 375 degrees. Prepare a 9-inch-square cake pan as follows: Turn the pan upside down. Cut a 12-inch square of aluminum foil, center it over the inverted pan, and fold the sides and corners down. Remove the foil, turn the pan upright, and place the foil in the pan. In order not to tear the foil, use a folded towel or a pot holder to press the foil firmly into place in the pan. Brush with very soft or melted butter. Set the prepared pan aside.
2. Place the chocolate in the top of a small double boiler over hot water on moderate heat. Cover until partially melted, then uncover, and stir until completely melted. Remove the top half of the double boiler and set it aside, uncovered, to cool slightly.
3. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter. Add the salt, instant coffee, black pepper, vanilla, and then the sugar, and beat until blended. Add the eggs one at a time, scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula and beating only until incorporated after each addition. On low speed, add the chocolate and then the flour, scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula and again beating only until incorporated. Remove the bowl from the mixer and stir in the nuts.
4. Turn into the prepared pan, and smooth the top. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes; a flat toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake should come out barely moist - not wet, but not completely dry. Begin to test before the time is up, and do not overbake. Cool the cake in the pan for 15 to 20 minutes. Then cover with a rack and invert the pan and the rack. Remove the pan and peel off the aluminum foil. Cover with another rack and invert again, leaving the cake right side up to cool. It is best to chill the cake before cutting it. Place it in the freezer or refrigerator until it is firm.
- From "Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts"
Per serving (based on 16, without nuts): 196 calories; 3 grams protein; 19 grams carbohydrates; 11 grams sugar; 13 grams fat; 54 milligrams cholesterol; 97 milligrams sodium; 1 gram dietary fiber.EndText
Makes about 24 macaroons
1 cup sugar
3 cups shredded unsweetened coconut
3 egg whites, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and mix well with a rubber spatula or your hands.
2. Use a nonstick baking sheet, or line a baking sheet with parchment paper. To make the pyramids, wet your hands and scoop out a rounded tablespoon of the mixture into the palm of one hand. Using your other hand, press in gently on both sides of the mixture, bringing the macaroon to a point. Continue pressing with your thumb and forefinger on both sides until you have an even shape. For cubes, start as you would for the pyramids, then gently press equally on all sides, turning the macaroon to square off each side. You can use a butter knife to gently smooth the sides of the pyramids and cubes if you like. For balls, roll the mixture between your palms gently until round.
3. Place each macaroon about an inch apart on the baking sheet. Bake until light brown, about 15 minutes. Remove the baking sheet and cool on a rack for at least 30 minutes before eating. These keep well in a covered container for up to three days.
- From Mark Bittman
Per macaroon: 69 calories; 1 gram protein; 10 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams sugar; 3 grams fat; no cholesterol; 18 milligrams sodium; 1 gram dietary fiber.EndText
Makes 12 scones
3 cups bleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup raisins or currants (optional; I used dried cranberries)
3/4 cup milk
Egg wash: 1 egg well beaten with a pinch of salt
1. Set a rack at the middle level of the oven, and preheat to 450 degrees.
2. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl.
3. Cut the butter into 12 pieces, and rub it evenly into the dry ingredients until the mixture has the appearance of fine cornmeal. Add the raisins (or currants or cranberries) if you are using them.
4. Whisk the eggs and milk together, and stir into the flour-and-butter mixture with a fork to form a smooth dough.
5. Divide the dough into 3 pieces, and form each into a 5-inch disk. Using a sharp, floured knife, quarter each disk into 4 wedges. Place the wedges wide apart on a pan lined with parchment paper. Apply the egg wash evenly, allow the wash to dry several minutes, then wash again.
6. Bake the scones for 10 to 15 minutes, or until they are firm but not dry. Be careful that they do not color too deeply.
7. Keep scones loosely covered at room temperature the day they are baked. For longer storage, wrap or bag in plastic, and freeze. Defrost the scones, loosely covered at room temperature, in a single layer for about an hour. Reheat at 350 degrees for about 5 minutes.
- from How to Bake by Nick Malgieri (William Morrow, 1995)
Per scone: 224 calories; 5 grams protein; 37 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams sugar; 7 grams fat; 55 milligrams cholesterol; 176 milligrams sodium; 1 gram dietary fiber.EndText