The Culture Shift … Tea to Coffee

What is happening in Great Britain today?  Traditional tea rooms are on the decline while lattés, caramelattés, cappuchinos, mochachinos and espresso drinking cafés are on the upswing.  The new millenials would rather log on and slurp, than clink cups and sip.  Although people are living longer, older generation Brits just can’t seem to hold onto their dying traditions anymore.  The solid foundations are slipping away.  The special occasion “afternoon tea” may be as popular as ever, but the mid-morning, mid-day, early evening tea break is just about gone.

Starbucks Cafe
Now there appears to be a war between Caffé Nero, Starbucks and Costa.  Take away their signs and all the marketing materials, and quite honestly, they are impossible to tell apart.  No character.  No charm.  No unique identity.  They refer to themselves as “customer centric”?  What exactly does “customer centric” mean anyway?

They each use surveys to track the customer service experience.  Surveys from how the customers like the furniture, the music, the art, and most recently what was printed on the take-away cup.  What about a survey about how good the coffee or tea tastes?  I guess that’s no longer important.

costaWhen I go to one of these take-away cafes, I know I’m going to have to compromise on the quality of the tea that I’m about to order.  I love green tea, but I know it will be a teabag of questionable quality, steeped with water that is far too hot and, if I don’t tell them to please not put the teabag into the cup, it will definitely be oversteeped and bitter.  I will carry the cup, perhaps on a tray, back to a table, which may or may not be clean, slopping most of the tea over the top, only to find that there’s no chair available, and napkins are nowhere in sight.  (Sigh)

caffe neroAnd the media tells me everyone is so concerned about their calorie and sugar intake, yet many Brits now consume these beverages regularly.  Action on Sugar, which is a group of specialists concerned with sugar intake and its effects on health, analyzed 131 hot drinks and found Starbucks, Caffé Nero and Costa to be among the worst offenders.

At Starbucks a “White Chocolate Mocha Venti with Whipped Cream” has 18 teaspoons of sugar.  Now, if I’m ordering dessert at a restaurant, that might be okay, but … really … this is just a beverage?  All right, that might seem a bit extreme.  How about if we wanted one of their seasonal beverages, such as Starbuck’s seasonal Hot Mulled Fruit drinks?  Would you believe 25 TEASPOONS of sugar!   Or if you think a nice hot chai would warm you up, at Costa a Chai Latte has only 20 teaspoons of sugar.  ONLY 20 TEASPOONS!

Want to know how many teaspoons of sugar are in a steaming, hot cup of tea?  0  Oh, maybe I didn’t stress that enough …. 0!  If you want sugar, you can put it in yourself.  I dare you to add 20 teaspoons of sugar to your cuppa and see if you still want to drink it.

We might have to get into the cost of these highly-calorific beverages on another post, but, for now, just think of the calorie savings alone.  The lowly cup of tea has 0 fat and 0 calories.  You can still hold it in your hands.  It still warms you.  It tastes delicious.  It is very social.  What’s better than sharing a good pot of tea with friends?  And it costs pennies.

So c’mon Brits.  Don’t be like so many other countries and let your traditions slip away.  Does every shopping area need to look like every other shopping area and every café look like every other café?  Perhaps tearooms may not be the chic, savvy trend-setting places they once were, but what they always have provided is a hearty cuppa, for a reasonable cost, warming the hearts and hands of generations of Brits!

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References:  Independent, Nunwood, Action on Sugar, TEA & COFFEE magazine

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Millionaire’s Shortbread

The first time I had this rich, buttery piece of deliciousness was about ten years ago, in a basement tearoom of an old Manor House in Cornwall.  The tearoom was very modest, providing visitors with just a quick cuppa and a biscuit (cookie) or scone.  But standing out among the other biscuits was this stunning shortbread …. a buttery cookie base with gooey caramel filling, topped with a thick layer of milk chocolate.  Irresistible!!

But now, at least 10 years later, Millionaire’s Shortbread is EVERYWHERE!  From the food counters at M&S, to the bakery cases in the finest patisserie, to handy packages of 2, 4 or 6 pieces at every roadside rest area shop.  But, honestly, even the prepackaged shortbreads were pretty darn good.

How did Millionaire’s Shortbread get it’s name?
Shortbread originated in Scotland around the 12th century as a simple unleavened biscuit (cookie) using just the ingredients available in most homes at that time ….. butter, flour, sugar.   The refinement of this biscuit didn’t occur until Mary Queen of Scots assigned her French chefs to the task.  Only with the addition of more butter, more sugar, a pinch of salt, and formed into different shapes, did this delectable morsel become in demand.  Over time, other ingredients were added, lemon, almonds, ginger, cinnamon.   This version, with its creamy caramel center and thick milk chocolate topping, didn’t appear until the 19th century.  It is said that to be able to afford this decadently RICH biscuit you actually had to be a “Millionaire”.

Of course, I had to try my hand at making it.  I must admit to a couple of fails (overbaked shortbread, burnt caramel, etc.), but the last one turned out exactly how I remembered it.  So, don’t be afraid to make a mistake (or two), it’s well worth the effort in the end.

MILLIONAIRE’S SHORTBREAD 
Shortbread base:
2 sticks butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
2-1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch

Caramel filling:
1/2 cup water
2-1/2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup heavy cream

Chocolate topping:
8 oz. milk chocolate chips
1 teaspoon vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 350°.  Grease and flour, or line with parchment paper a 9″ x 13″ baking pan.  I recommend using parchment paper.  It makes getting the shortbread out of the baking pan much easier.

In one bowl mix together the flour and cornstarch.  In another bowl using a stand or hand mixer, beat the softened butter til creamy.  Add 1/2 cup of sugar to the creamed butter and beat til lemony colored, light and airy.

Using a wooden spoon, slowly add the dry ingredients to the creamed mixture, blending well. The mixture will be very crumbly (short).  Don’t overwork the dough or your cookies will be tough.  Dump the batter into the prepared baking pan and press down with your hands.  Use whatever you happen to have (with a flat bottom) to press the batter down firmly and evenly.

Bake at 350° for 16 to 18 minutes – just until its set and lightly browned.  Take the shortbread out of the oven and let it cool in the pan while you prepare the caramel.

The caramel can be tricky (believe me, I’ve burnt a couple of batches).  The secret is to not stir it, or take your eyes off it, while its boiling away.  A minute will make all the difference.  If you want to use a candy thermometer, then by all means use it.  I didn’t.


Using a heavy, high-sided saucepan pour the sugar into the center of the pan.  Then carefully pour the water around the outside of the sugar.  Try not to get the sugar onto the sides of the pan or it will crystallize.  If this happens, have a pastry brush handy in a cup of water to wash down the sides of the pan.  Do not stir the sugar and water together.  Just let it be.

Using medium heat, bring the sugar and water to a boil – NO STIRRING.  When it boils, reduce the heat to low and let it boil away until its caramel colored.  You can determine how dark you want it … but don’t let it burn.  This will take about 15 minutes.

When it is ready, remove the pan from the heat and drop in 2 tablespoons of butter.  The mixture will immediately boil up.  Using a wooden spoon, quickly stir in the butter.  Now pour in the 1/2 cup of heavy cream.  Again the mixture will bubble up.  Stir it down quickly.  Continue stirring until the caramel has cooled down and thickened.  This will take about 5 minutes.

When it is ready, pour the caramel over the cooled shortbread and place the pan into the refrigerator to let the caramel set.

This is the easiest part … dump a bag of chocolate chips (milk chocolate or semi-sweet, it’s up to you), into a microwave-proof bowl and melt the chocolate.  When its melted, stir in the oil. Quickly pour the warm chocolate over the cooled caramel filling and, with the back of a spatula, smooth out the surface.  Let the chocolate cool completely.

When ready to serve, take the shortbread out of the pan.  If you’ve used parchment paper, you can just lift it up and out.  Using a very sharp knife, cut the shortbread into bars or squares.  It’s up to you!  Stack them up on a plate and keep an eye on them because they’ll disappear right before your eyes.  But, if they don’t, they’ll keep very well in an airtight container.

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