In summer the nights. Not only when the moon shines, but on dark nights too, as the fireflies flit to and fro, and even when it rains, how beautiful it is!
I don’t think any of us would disagree, more than a thousand year later, that the nights are indeed summer’s loveliest time. Shakespeare, who never read The Pillow Book, independently confirms this assessment in his magical comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
In the glittering darkness of a warm summer night, anything seems possible.
The moon and stars can be enjoyed only after dark, and the summer nights offer so many other delights. The air cools down to a comfortable level, even if the day was sweltering, and the nights are filled with pleasing invisible sounds and sweet, mysterious scents.
Nocturnal creatures also emerge after sundown, creating an entirely new world in the darkness. Nights are filled with owls calling from their hiding places, and the soothing sounds of crickets and cicadas float through the dark air. Even a few quiet and polite possums and skunks might tiptoe into your garden to feast on slugs and snails in the moonlight.
It is no surprise that moon viewing parties and firefly hunts have inspired summer night adventures for centuries. And as Sei Shonagon points out, “even when it rains, how beautiful it is!” The interiors of our homes take on a mysterious charm on rainy summer nights as well as in moonlight. How lovely it is to light a few candles and place our favorite pieces of silver or crystal around the room to glitter in the soft illumination as the lightning flashes outdoors. Porches can be magical meeting places where the plants and animals of the darkness draw near to the domestic world.
The British poet Lord Byron captures the elegance of a summer night in his timeless poem, “She Walks in Beauty,” describing the loveliness of Mrs. Robert John Wilmot, dressed in a black spangled dress at a summer evening gathering.
We can also create “…all that’s best of dark and bright” in our own homes by inviting a few friends or family members to join us for a late tea after the sun has gone down. Welcoming others into our home or porch on a summer night can create memories that will linger forever. I remember an evening years ago when I was visiting my grandparents, who were well into their nineties at the time. It was August, and the Ozark heat and humidity had been over 110 degrees during the day. I received an invitation from Rosemary Holden, the wife of my childhood friend, Ray, to come over after sundown when the elders had finished supper and were settled in with the evening news. Ray’s grandmother was my grandparents’ next-door neighbor. As children, Ray and my sister and brother and I would play croquet and other games in the large grassy side yard between our grandparents’ homes. Ray never left the town where he grew up, and his home was just a quick walk around the corner from Short Street, where our grandparents lived. Rosemary was wise to invite me over after the sun had gone down and the heat had settled.
It was just the three of us on their lovely screened front porch, and our refreshments were the summer classic—Root Beer Floats. Rosemary turned this simple, two-ingredient treat into an elegant dessert served in tall, clear milk shake glasses that had been stored in the freezer and were covered with glimmering frost. We were safe from mosquitoes as we sipped our luscious mixtures of cool vanilla ice cream and old-fashioned root beer, melting away the heat of the day. The crickets and cicadas chirped in the grass, and fireflies flitted among the murky blossoms of the mimosa trees. We rested on comfortable porch chairs and talked about our children, our parents and other family matters with the relaxed ease of people who have known each other all their lives. I will never forget that summer night and the thoughtful gesture of friendship from Rosemary and Ray.
A Midsummer Night’s Tea Party could replace supper and include substantial savories as well as scones and sweets. Such an event could be held either indoors or out, with attention given to appropriate lighting and insect abatement. The host should be very clear when inviting the guests that this event is an evening dinner, so no one will arrive already satiated from eating at home. Another option is a nighttime activity, such as moon viewing, stargazing, observing a meteor shower or delighting in the sounds and scents of the garden in moonlight. Such an event could take place after the guests have dined at home, and the host might want to offer coffee or tea, a single savory snack and an attractive dessert. Or, one could follow Rosemary Holden’s lead and serve one unforgettable treat to be enjoyed in the cool of the evening in conversation with good friends.
This August, I invite you to visit A Family Reunion Tea, in the August calendar section of this website under The Tea Book tab. This section actually includes four different menus for family reunion gatherings—North American, Eastern Mediterranean, Kosher and Scandinavian. You might look through these menus for summer desserts or snacks that you could serve in the evening to a small number of friends or family members. This year, the corona virus has still not abated by August, and sharing food and conversation with only a small group has become our way of life.
In reviewing our Family Reunion menus, I can offer a few suggestions for foods that would be lovely to enjoy at night under the moon and stars or in candlelight indoors. From the North American Family Reunion menu, you could create a very simple Tea Party including savory, scones and dessert by offering Corn and Red Pepper Frittata, Cream Scones with Blackberries and Spiced Apple Gelatin. All of these include the luscious fruits and vegetables of summer and are light enough to serve at night. The Spiced Apple Gelatin is one of my favorite treats, as it complements savory dishes and is a beautiful glittering presentation that would sparkle in moonlight or soft interior illumination.
The Eastern Mediterranean menu features Hummus, a timeless savory snack, and Baklava, a classic pastry containing ground nuts, honey and citrus. Both pair perfectly with either coffee or tea, or even homemade lemonade. Hummus and Baklava can both be made in advance and served at room temperature. They would be perfect for a summer evening gathering in the garden. Our Kosher menu includes Kathleen’s Prize-Winning Virgin Cheesecake, another elegant dessert that can be served at room temperature on a lovely cake stand surrounded by fresh summer berries or even lovely edible flowers. And if you want to serve a single, showstopping dessert, Swedish Strawberry Cake from our Scandinavian menu would be a perfect choice.
Whether the moon is shining brightly, or the rain is falling down, I hope you will include fragrant summer flowers, especially roses, in your Summer’s Night Tea environment. And don’t forget to play Mozart’s “A Little Night Music” as the guests arrive. If you are still wondering what to serve, I will leave you with the recipe for my favorite August dessert: Blackberry Cobbler with Almond Streusel Topping.
Blackberry Cobbler with Almond Streusel Topping
Preheat the oven to 350° F
For the Streusel Topping:
- ½ cup (1 stick) cold butter, cut into small cubes
- 1 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
- 2/3 cup flour
- 2/3 cup quick-cooking rolled oats
- 1 cup sliced almonds
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon nutmeg
For the Blackberry Cobbler:
- Cooking spray
- 2 (9-inch) rounds of refrigerated pie crusts (I used Pillsbury’s)
- 10-12 cups fresh blackberries or a combination of blackberries and blueberries
- 1 ¼ cups sugar
- 4 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca
2 large mixing bowls, fork, large rectangular baking pan (at least 13”x9”,) kitchen knife, paper towels, large spoon, cooling rack, offset spatula
Makes: 12 or more servings
- Make the streusel: In a large mixing bowl, combine all of the streusel ingredients, blending in the butter with a fork until the mixture is crumbly and no large chunks of butter remain. Set aside.
- Prepare the crust: Lightly spray the baking pan with cooking spray. Unroll the unbaked pie crusts and place them, slightly overlapping, in the rectangular baking pan. Press them with your fingers into the pan to fit into the corners and up the sides. The round pie crusts will need to be cut to fit. Use a kitchen knife to cut off pieces of dough that protrude over the edges of the pan and use them to patch the corners and sides, pressing the pieces into place with your fingers. Don’t worry about the appearance, as the blackberries will completely cover the crust. Use the tines of the fork to press the top of the crust against the pan evenly all the way around the top. Lightly dampen a few paper towels and lay them gently over the pan to protect the crust. Set aside.
- Prepare the filling: In another large bowl, toss the berries with the sugar and tapioca until evenly combined. Remove the paper towels from the prepared crust and gently spoon the berry mixture evenly into the crust-lined baking pan.
- Sprinkle the Streusel Topping evenly over the blackberries, covering all of the berries if possible. Bake in the pre-heated 350° F oven for approximately 1 hour, until the juices are bubbling through the streusel. Remove to a cooling rack and cool for at least 1 hour before serving. Cut into squares with an offset spatula and serve warm with vanilla ice cream. Refrigerate leftovers.