The 18th installment of the Tea Shop Mystery series has our heroine, the beautiful and clever Theodosia Browning, attending a Rat Tea—a reprise of the charitable events that helped eradicate rat infestations in early 20th-century Charleston, South Carolina. Along with Drayton—the sommelier of the tea shop she owns—she is the guest of Doreen Briggs, social powerhouse and devoted wife of Beau, until poor Beau drops dead of poisoning.
Intrepid Theo does her best to save him but to no avail. Her grace under pressure is not lost on the otherwise rapidly collapsing Doreen, who engages Theo to find out whether someone really did poison Beau’s cup of pekoe and help bring the murderer to justice, if so. Drayton, somewhat uncharacteristically, is encouraging. Doreen has promised the historical society for which Drayton volunteers a very large grant if Theo is able to solve the case. This somewhat offsets Theo’s reluctance, as does the involvement of a handsome police detective who is coming into his own at the Charleston PD.
As Theo finds herself swiftly transforming into Doreen’s problem-solver-at-large, the body count starts to tick upwards. When not only Theo’s own life but also Drayton’s are endangered, all of Theo’s skills and wit come to the fore to trap a canny murderer.
I very much enjoyed how the identity of the murderer was revealed, as well as Theo’s righteous rage when finally confronting the perpetrator. And, while I did cheer on her budding romance, I thought it a bit weird that the romantic climax came so soon after the arrest—on-scene even. A bit odd in a book that features that most proper of meals: tea time!
And, oh, how delightfully is tea time featured here, with descriptions that compelled me to make reservations for my own local tea services. Of course, if tea is not served in a restaurant near you, Laura Childs also includes helpful tips for hosting your own, along with nine delicious recipes to try out. I decided to attempt these two for this column:
Lemon Tea Bread
6 Tbsp. butter
1 cup sugar
1½ cups flour
¼ tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
½ cup milk
1 lemon (grated rind)
Whipped cream or Devonshire cream
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In large mixing bowl, cream together butter, sugar, and eggs. Add in flour, salt, baking powder, and milk. Stir in lemon rind. Pour batter into a 9-inch-by-5-inch greased and floured bread pan. Bake for 55 to 60 minutes until toothpick comes out clean. Serve with whipped cream or Devonshire cream, and sliced strawberries. Yields 1 small loaf.
After last week’s baking catastrophe, I was so pleased with how well this turned out! Calling it a bread—even a tea bread—feels like I’m doing it a disservice, as it came out almost like a pound cake but lighter. This simple recipe is one I’ll definitely be keeping for future baking. I’ve also become, through this column, an aficionado of making my own whipped cream, which I recommend highly for the purposes of helping to control one’s sugar intake.
While the lemon tea bread was baking, I also made these:
Avocado and Chicken Tea Sandwiches
1 avocado, ripe
1 Tbsp. chili paste (or hot sauce)
1 Tbsp. lime juice
6 slices of rye bread
Roast chicken slices
Mash avocado in bowl and add chili paste and lime juice. Spread avocado paste on 6 slices of rye bread. Top three of the slices with roast chicken slices. Add top slices to the sandwiches and trim off crusts. Cut into squares or triangles. Yields 12 small sandwiches.
I do love avocado on sandwiches, and this was a delightful addition to my repertoire. I used Sambal Oelek (by the same people who produce Sriracha sauce) for my sandwiches, but did not put any in those for my lovely assistant Karin, who does not like spicy foods. She can attest to how delicious the sandwiches were even without the chili paste, though. We also used a tasty Jewish rye that balanced out the other flavors nicely without overpowering them, as breads with a higher percentage of rye to wheat can sometimes do.
In all, a wonderful set of tea-time treats, even if I still can’t for the life of me make crustless sandwiches look appealing in photos. Next week, we begin the first of several in Maine, as we cover an award-winning series in the run-up to the Agathas, for which one of the more recent entries has been nominated. Do join me!
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.