Today's Midwest tea parties come in many forms. Traditional tearooms are seeing younger visitors and more men, and new, hip tea shops resembling popular coffeehouses are opening up in cities throughout the Midwest. Planning an at-home tea party is a great, laid-back way to get friends together for some socializing.
We'll help you choose the right brews and assemble a buffet of foods with flavors that won't overpower the tea.
A butter cookie is the base for petite tarts at the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago. Guests choose from 18 flavors of tea served at their afternoon event. Earl Grey, English Breakfast and Chamomile Citrus are the most popular.
Put some heart in your baking and fragrance in your kitchen with our easy, cake-mix cupcakes seasoned with chai spice. They mix up in 20 minutes. Can't find chai blend? Use 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice with 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom.
"Tea sandwiches don't have to be laborious or difficult," says Elaine Terman of Elaine's Tea Shoppe in Sylvania, Ohio. "Here are some ideas for busy women who still want to entertain with gentle elegance." Her variations include ham salad, egg salad, chicken salad, marmalade and cucumber tea sandwiches.
Elaine also shared a Lavender Lemonade recipe. Edible dried lavender buds can be found at specialty kitchen shops. Or order from Elaine at her Wild Orchid Teas website. She created WinterBerry Cream Tea Blend, a flavored black tea, especially for our readers. It's available on her website.
Wild Orchid Teas 
This Scottish quick bread is a classic tea treat. The Columbus Cranberry Scones, from an Indiana tea room, come speckled with dried cranberries. We like them with dried cherries, currants and raisins, too. Scones also are popular at afternoon tea at the Saint Paul Hotel, where they are made with fresh cranberries. Currant Scones are another variation on this treat; try serving them with a side of Devonshire cream instead of butter.
"An afternoon tea time should never be rushed," says Lalith Guy Paranavitana, who has run a tea room in Columbus, Indiana. He likes to serve these bite-size sandwiches with tea.
Tea time at the InterContinental Kansas City at the Plaza occurs daily with a parade of scones and tea sandwiches presented with the tea. For a "royal tea," the staff add champagne or sherry to the beverage menu.
Fill vases with fresh flowers, or place flowers in teacups designed to serve as centerpieces.
Remember that the tea should be the star of your afternoon gathering. The recipes we suggested will help you assemble a buffet that complements, rather than overpowers, your tea selections.
Mix and match fine teacups with sturdy plates.
Offer your guests copies of the recipes, printed on lively stock.
Set out a little poem or thoughtful quote. Try this one from Eleanor Roosevelt: "A woman is like a tea bag -- you never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water."
The nomenclature of tea has its roots in the color of the leaves. All teas (except for herbal teas) come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. But each type of tea (shown from left) gets its distinctive characteristics from the way the fresh tea leaves are processed.
Black tea is made from leaves that are harvested, then left to wither, dry and fully ferment before they are heated. There are black teas flavored with bits of dried fruits such as peach, strawberry, raspberry, black currant and citrus. The most famous black tea is Earl Grey, which is flavored with the oil of bergamot, a small citrus fruit from southern Italy.
Green tea is favored among Asians and is made from leaves that are steamed and dried but not fermented. The slightly grassy taste of green tea more closely resembles the fresh leaf than black tea.
Herbal tea is an infusion of herbs, spices and citrus that is not really tea at all. Rather, herbal tea is what the French call tisane (from Old French, meaning "barley water").
Oolong falls somewhere between black and green teas. It is only partially fermented before it is heated. It is clear and fragrant like green tea, but it also has some of the strength and power to refresh typically found in black teas.
White tea is made from leaves and buds that are not fully opened. It, like green tea, is steamed and dried but not fermented and has an exceptionally delicate, light, sweet flavor.
Making tea doesn't require any fancy gear, but there are a few necessities (and a few niceties) to consider. Popular accoutrements for tea lovers include different forms of glass teapots, a timer for getting exact infusion times, a ball-shape infuser for loose-leaf tea, a teaspoon for measuring tea, an instant-read thermometer to check water temperatures and -- if you are using tea bags -- a small saucer for holding the used tea bag.
Elaine Terman, proprietor of Elaine's Tea Shoppe in Sylvania, Ohio, offers a foolproof method for making a perfect pot every time:
Begin with fresh, cold water. Filtered is best because the process removes chemical tastes such as chlorine.
In a tea kettle, bring the water just to a boil to properly oxygenate it. Overboiling drives off oxygen.
Pour some of the hot water into the teapot to warm it, then discard the water. Add tea leaves directly to the pot, or use a ball-shape infuser. How much tea is a matter of taste, but a good rule is about 1 teaspoon per 1 cup of tea, plus one for the pot. Pour the hot water over the leaves immediately (for black tea), or let it cool to the proper temperature for other types of tea (see below).
See next slide for how long to steep your tea.
Let the leaves steep. Oolongs need just 1 to 2 minutes at between 185 degrees (for a greener oolong) to between 195 degrees and 200 degrees (for a darker one) to brew a fine first cup, though some may need 3 to 4 minutes. Green tea needs only to be steeped 2 to 3 minutes at 175 degrees to 180 degrees. However, 5 to 6 minutes of steeping will extract more of the antioxidants from the tea, and you'll still get good flavor.
Most black teas should be steeped right at boiling (212 degrees) for 3 to 5 minutes, depending on how strong you like your tea. (Darjeelings, or teas grown in special gardens in India, may infuse better at 190 degrees to 195 degrees.) The longer you steep, the more bitter your tea will be.
If you like your brew with some brawn, simply add more tea leaves. Never steep more than 5 minutes -- unless you are making white tea, which can be infused 5 to 7 minutes, or herbal tea, which requires an infusion of 10 to 20 minutes to extract all the flavors and health benefits from the herbs.
Honey, milk, sugar (cubes are elegant) or lemon can complement black teas depending on your taste. Never add cream; it's too heavy and will overpower the delicate flavors of the tea. Asian-style teas such as green tea or oolong should be enjoyed without additions.
Studies have suggested that compounds found in green tea (and black tea in smaller amounts) called catechins reduce body fat. Black and green teas also contain antioxidants that help prevent cancer and relax and dilate the arteries, which increases blood flow. This all happens with only about one-third of coffee's caffeine.