When I was in graduate school, nearly a decade ago, I bought a cheap porcelain teapot that I still use today. It has faux-gold lining, with edges that gleam, and a pink-and-jade rosebud print across its surface. A halo of teal encircles the lid, which comes off with a clinking sound. If a cherub were a teapot, then this would be it. It’s priceless to me and dutifully sturdy, having stayed by my side across 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 a significant ritual in my life. Coffee, for me, is a way to start my day, to wake up by injecting my veins with as much caffeine as possible so I can peel myself from my bed. (I’m not a morning person.) Tea occupies a different space. It is that thing I brew for others, either in the calm of the afternoon, over a slice of cake and gossip, or right before bed, when my partner and I have completed our skin-care routines and are ready to watch an episode of “Search Party.” It’s the same every time: I ask him from the kitchen, “Barley, burdock root or chamomile?” And his answer tells me what I need to know about his state of being. Barley tea is comforting and nutty, the standard. Burdock root is rich and ashy, like the tea version of a smoky Scotch; he wants to savor the cup. Chamomile is the equivalent of a glass of warm milk, which means he wants to pass out as soon as the episode is over.
Hot tea, served out of a beautiful teapot, always makes you feel special.
In many ways, tea has always been in my life, though I didn’t think much about drinking it. That’s because when I was a child in Georgia, we drank tea cold like water. It came in icy pitchers, always Lipton, always heavily sweetened with white sugar. Sometimes we bought sweet tea at the store in those plastic gallon jugs. I loved it over ice. My mother kept a container of barley tea in the refrigerator as well. When you drink tea that way, it loses some of its lure, its hospitable snugness.
But hot tea, served out of a beautiful teapot, always makes you feel special. “It’s something about its brevity,” my old friend from grad school, Meredith, said to me in a voice note recently. I know what she meant — brewing and then drinking a pot of tea together can be a perfectly contained moment, a pause from the outside world. “Whether I’m happy or I’m sad,” she said, “if I go to a friend’s house and they offer me a cup of tea, which they usually do, I just immediately feel welcome and at home. It’s different than offering a cold drink because that doesn’t require any care.” If a glass of cold water is a text message, then a hot pot of tea is a thoughtful voice note.
These days, teatime is a communal ceremony at 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 each time. Here’s the scene: A friend crashes through my door as in a ’90s sitcom, I take her jacket, she sits on a stool, I put 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, to eat cake. I’m not one to have much forethought ever, 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 simple recipe for chamomile tea cake uses every opportunity to imbue the final crumb with its flowery flavor. I’ve found that you can bring out the inherent qualities of chamomile, especially the fine-ground stuff often found in tea bags, by adding it into each step of the process. From the melted butter to the milk, with just a little heat and one ounce of effort, chamomile tea infuses its golden essence beautifully, and each step smells better than the last; lemon zest and vanilla fortify chamomile’s aromatic qualities. And its ludicrously pink strawberry icing, which drips down the sides of the cake, exuberantly echoes the rosebuds on my teapot — the true centerpiece of my afternoons.