Cooking the Books: The Diva Serves High Tea by Krista Davis

The 10th installment of the Domestic Diva mystery series finds our heroine, Sophie Winston, coming to the rescue of her frenemy, Natasha, when an intruder breaks into the home Natasha shares with her boyfriend, Mars (who also happens to be Sophie’s ex-husband). Someone is lurking in the shadows of Old Town Alexandria, and neither Sophie nor her friends feel safe as the culprit remains at large—particularly since no motive was apparent for the attack.

Fortunately, a diverting new restaurant has opened in the neighborhood—a lovely place specializing in tea and snacks, called The Parlour. Unfortunately, it’s closed down for investigation when new arrival to the neighborhood, handsome antiques dealer Robert Johnson, drops dead from botulism poisoning shortly after attending a literary fundraiser held there.

Egged on by Robert’s sister-in-law and, later, by a charming, desperate child, Sophie begins to investigate Robert’s death and finds herself uncovering far more than she bargained for. There is a lot going on behind the genteel facade of the historical buildings as more bodies appear, both in the present and resurfacing from the past.

When in doubt, Sophie can count on her friends and on her exquisite taste, advice, and entertaining skills to get her out of a jam. I particularly loved her amicable relationships with both Mars and the very trying Natasha. The juxtaposition between the advice Sophie would give and the advice Natasha doles out in the headers of each chapter was also charming and funny (not to mention educational!).

I have no idea how I had never come across this series until now. Apart from being in my favorite genre of fiction, it is chock full of delightfully entertaining tips and recipes, both of which I have a hearty interest in. And, it is (very convincingly) set in Old Town Alexandria, which I visit at least once a week from my nearby home.

Anyway, tea is the favorite meal of my Anglophilic heart, so I was quite excited to test some of the eight recipes included in the back. First, I thought I’d finally try my hand at that staple of the traditional English tea, the cucumber sandwich:

Cucumber Sandwiches

Ingredients

½ cucumber

salt

good-quality soft white bread

unsalted butter (or mayonnaise)

Instructions

Peel the cucumber and slice as thin as possible. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and allow to drain in a colander for about 20 minutes. Butter the bread. Pat the cucumber slices dry. Layer them on the bread, overlapping them. Top with another slice of buttered bread. Cut off the crusts. Cut the sandwiches into thin bite-sized rectangles, or dainty triangles.

I love cucumber sandwiches, despite the fact that they’re really an odd dish, if you think about it. This recipe is simple, but not terribly forgiving—for some reason, I didn’t feel like I was executing it as well as I could have, and I felt that it showed in the taste and look of the end product.

Perhaps I layered too many cucumbers, or perhaps I am just bad at cutting; my parsimonious soul hates cutting off crusts, though I have no problem eating crustless sandwiches when prepared by others. Perhaps I am just making the mistake of comparing my own work with that of the professionals who’ve prepared the many, many high teas I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying.

That said, I was actually surprised by how good the sandwiches tasted with mayonnaise (the rectangular sandwiches in the photograph—the triangular ones were buttered), though it likely helped that I am, for whatever reason, incapable of spreading butter evenly across un-warmed bread.

Next, I decided I’d try one of the recipes that involved baking:

Pumpkin Scones

Author’s note: Thanks to the pumpkin, these scones will not be as dry as most scones.

Scones

2 cups flour plus extra for kneading

¼ cup pecans

⅓ cup dark brown sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon cloves

½ teaspoon ginger

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter

1 egg

½ cup heavy cream

½ cup pumpkin

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Place the cutting blade into a food processor and add the flour, pecans, brown sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg. Process until the pecans are fine. Cut the butter into tablespoons, and then into 24 small cubes. Add to the flour and pulse until combined and the butter is barely visible anymore.

In a large bowl, whisk together the egg, cream, and pumpkin. Turn out the flour mixture on top of it and mix gently with a large serving spoon until large clumps begin to take shape.

Sprinkle flour on a cutting board and flour your hands. Turn the dough onto the cutting board and knead 10-12 times, adding just a sprinkle of flour if necessary. Pat the dough into a 9-inch cake pan. Turn it out onto the parchment paper and cut the round into 8 equal pieces with a very sharp knife. It’s best to press the knife into the dough instead of dragging it through the dough. Slide a knife or thin spatula under each slice and pull away from the center slightly to separate them. (At this point they can be frozen up to one month and baked when needed.) Bake 12-15 minutes.

Pumpkin Scone Spiced Sugar Drizzle {Optional}

1 cup powdered sugar

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

⅛ teaspoon nutmeg

pinch of cloves

¼ teaspoon vanilla

3-4 teaspoons milk or cream

Whisk the dry ingredients to combine. Slowly add the vanilla and part of the milk, and mix, adding milk until it reaches drizzle consistency. Use mini whisk, fork, or squeeze bottle to drizzle over the scones.

I’ve never made scones or drizzle (which in this case is really an icing) before, but these went over gangbusters with my family and friends. The scones were so moist that I worried I hadn’t baked them long enough, and the drizzle added a delightful sweetness to the otherwise mild treat. This was definitely the kind of baked good that shouldn’t be confined to just high tea, and I’m looking forward to making more once fall and pumpkin season arrive.

Overall, delightful recipes from a book as chock full of them as the mystery is full of twists and action. I’m now putting Krista Davis’s entire back catalog on my to-read (and perhaps to-cook!) list.

 

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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.

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