Every New Year begins with loud noises and fireworks. This frenzy is soon followed by New Year’s Resolutions. This custom has always made me a bit uncomfortable, as some of these resolutions appear to be insincere, doomed to failure or perhaps even shallow and selfish. People who resolve to buy a new Tesla, lose fifty pounds or find Mr. or Ms. Wonderful on a dating app seem to be missing the point that a serious resolution might include helping to heal and improve the planet, our neighborhood or even our own immediate family.
Since New Year’s Resolutions so frequently fall by the wayside, leading to guilt, remorse and self-loathing, I prefer the word “intentions.” It seems to me that an intention is a purposeful thought that might guide us in a meaningful, creative and helpful direction. An intention does not need to be dramatic, nor does it have to be announced to the world. An intention can be a quiet and hopeful wish that we place in our hearts every morning at dawn. If our intention does not materialize as the day evolves, we can always, without judgment, re-direct or clarify our intention the following morning until it begins to bear fruit.
My intentions are small and flexible, quietly motivated by the values I learned from my parents and grandparents and inserted into the tea book, Sharing Tea: The Road Back to Civilization, which my niece Kathleen and I wrote and placed on this website.
In this New Year, I encourage our readers to review the chapter in “The Tea Book” section of our website entitled “The Philosophy of Tea.” This chapter discusses the custom of Afternoon Tea as a gathering where both the host and the guests conduct themselves with dignity and kindness. As we point out in this chapter, “Nothing bad ever happens during afternoon tea.” This intention is possible if everyone present remembers and practices the four guiding principles of Afternoon Tea: Harmony, Humility, Respect and Creativity.
Based on these guidelines, our intention as 2024 begins, could be to direct ourselves away from the stress-creators that permeate our culture today—impatience, anger, obsessions with time, perfectionism, judging ourselves and others, materialism, pride and selfishness. Instead, we could try to live in harmony with the natural world and the people and animals in it, to become more humble and more willing to accept our own imperfections and those of others, to respect our environment and those who live in it, and to allow the creativity that comes from nature to flow through us without the need for accolades and attention.
Certainly, there will be situations that call for our full attention, all of our energy, rigid timelines, and even the willingness to lose sleep to achieve the important task that we have embraced. An excellent example of a worthy commitment of this sort can be found in Kathleen’s January 2024 blog. Kathleen presents a pictorial chronology of an Afternoon Tea for one hundred guests that she and her team of trusty caterers, including her brother Peter and his wife Tiffany, recently produced for the memorial service reception for the husband of Rita, a long-time member of the local community. This heroic effort required meticulous planning, scheduling, grocery shopping, assembling of equipment, baking, food production, flower arranging, table setting and service. But it was an effort that Kathleen and her team were willing to make, as everyone deserves a dignified and beautiful memorial service
I feel the same way about Christmas and Japanese New Year every winter. Shopping, wrapping gifts, preparing copious amounts of food, decorating my home and hosting my friends and loved ones, demands tremendous amounts of time and exertion that I am happy to give. This energetic process makes me feel joyful and fulfilled, and I hope it spreads aloha and love among all of my guests.
However, not every gathering needs to demand so much time and effort. We can make entertaining easy for ourselves and still create an elegant and welcoming environment to share food and hospitality with our friends and family. There are lots of little tricks and shortcuts that we can use, and there are many reliable products that we can purchase to enhance the charm of a social setting without exhausting ourselves. Let’s give ourselves a little winter break this New Year. Here are some of my favorite tips for elegant and effortless entertaining:
- Pillsbury Refrigerated Pie Crusts will make a pie every bit as good as the pie dough you can make yourself. Some of my favorite pies, for which I have received many compliments, can be made with Pillsbury Pie Crusts, including the following recipes which appear in my blogs: Pumpkin Praline Pie (November, 2016,) Banoffee Pie (May, 2019,) Warm Cherry Almond Tart (June, 2019,) Lemon Chess Pie, one of my all-time favorites (November, 2019,) Blackberry Cobbler with Almond Streusel Topping (August, 2020,) and Black Bottom Pie (February, 2021.) At the end of this blog, I am happy to share the recipe for a luscious and festive Extra Elegant Coconut Cream Pie, made with a Pillsbury Pie Crust and other store-bought ingredients.
- Ghirardelli Double Chocolate Premium Brownie Mix will create Brownies that are better than home-made. These delicious brownies are a wonderful time saver and will be the stars of the sweets course of your next Afternoon Tea. They can also come to the rescue for moms who are called upon to bring snacks for their children’s activities.
- You can make fabulous cakes such as Triple Espresso Cake and Orange Pound Cake simply by doctoring up a Duncan Hines Yellow Cake Mix. The recipe for my favorite cake of all time, Triple Espresso Cake, can be found on our website in the Calendar of Tea Parties, December menu. The Orange Pound Cake, one of my husband Wayne’s favorites, is in the August menu.
- You can make divine home-made Vanilla Custard from the recipe in my May 2020 blog, or you can enhance a box of Jell-O Vanilla Pudding Mix for a pudding, Trifle or pie filling that is almost as good, and you won’t have to use six eggs.
- A bottle of Martinelli’s Sparkling Cider will make any occasion more festive and is a perfect substitute for much more costly Champagne.
- If you don’t want to deal with an extra load of laundry after your tea party, you can find elegant seasonal paper napkins by Caspari and other producers of tasteful and artistic paper products. No cartoon characters, please. The world of nature and the season of the year should provide the aesthetic foundation for Afternoon Tea and other social gatherings. And if you don’t have the time or money for a fancy flower arrangement, place a house plant or some leaves from the garden on the serving table, enhanced by a silk ribbon of the appropriate seasonal color.
- Trader Joe’s can be a host or hostess’ best friend, especially if one is entertaining on a budget or with limited time. This innovative grocery store chain offers quality food and hospitality products at reasonable prices, and the inventory changes with the seasons, with a special focus on holiday treats, many ready to serve. Sadly, we do not have Trader Joe’s here in Hawaii, but I am often the lucky recipient of care packages from my family in California. During this holiday season I received a gorgeous two-pound round Brie and packages of good crackers, from Kathleen and her father Rudy, my brother-in-law. Wayne’s sister Joyce sent us a package from Trader Joe’s, filled with ready to eat snacks, including cranberry butter cookies and rosemary flavored Marcona almonds. The combination of these much-appreciated gifts created an elegant appetizer to which I added dried figs, sliced fresh pears from Harry and David in Oregon, and a sprig of fresh rosemary resembling a little pine wreath for a holiday effect. This presentation, which my guests loved, would be perfect as an Afternoon Tea savory, or a New Year’s celebration, and it required no cooking or preparation.
EXTRA ELEGANT COCONUT CREAM PIE
Coconut pie is a classic favorite which can be served at any time of the year, as the recipe does not depend on seasonal produce. This recipe is the easy version, relying entirely on packaged ingredients, yet it produces a stunning and elegant pie. I made this festive Hawaiian style pie recently for a family dinner on a Friday evening when I was scheduled to babysit all day. Cream pies are best the day they are made, as the crust can get soggy in the refrigerator overnight, but clearly, I would not be able to make a coconut pie on Friday while little Giulia was receiving my undivided attention every time she said, “Auntie, Auntie, Auntie!” I decided to prepare all the individual elements of the pie-- toasted coconut, pie crust, vanilla pudding and decorative chocolate curls, the day before and quickly assemble the pie around mid-day on Friday to allow the ingredients to meld and the crust to remain flaky and crisp. The family loved it, and so did I, as I am fond of coconut, and coconut combined with dark chocolate is a delicious partnership, like the good old Mounds Bars from my childhood. The extra secret ingredient in this creation is toasted and chopped macadamia nuts, which come straight out of a bag from the grocery store.
1 package Pillsbury Refrigerated Pie Crusts
1 generous cup Angel Flake (sweetened) Coconut
1 Box Vanilla Jell-O Cook & Serve Pudding and Pie Filling (not instant)
2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream or half and half
2 tablespoons butter (I used Kerry Gold)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 ounces semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate (1 bar of Ghirardelli chocolate)
½ cup chopped toasted macadamia nuts (from a 4 or 8-ounce bag)
For optional Whipped Cream Topping:
2 cups well chilled heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Special Equipment: 9-inch pie plate, medium sized saucepan, rubber spatula, whisk, foil- covered baking sheet, disposable gloves, parchment, vegetable peeler, food processor or chopper (such as a small Ninja,) wire cooling rack, plastic storage bags or 2 covered storage containers, plastic wrap
For optional whipped cream topping: Large mixing bowl, hand-held electric mixer
Makes: 8 servings
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F
- Prepare the toasted coconut: In the pre-heated 350 -degree oven, spread 1 generous cup of Angel Flake coconut on a foil-covered baking sheet and bake for approximately 10 minutes, stirring carefully every 2 or 3 minutes with a rubber spatula, until the coconut starts to turn a light golden brown. Watch carefully, as coconut can burn if not stirred. Remove the lightly toasted coconut to a wire rack to cool. When the coconut is completely cooled, place in a sealed plastic bag or a covered container.
- Prepare the pie crust: Turn the oven up to 450 degrees F. Remove 1 crust from a package of Pillsbury Pie Crusts and follow the Instructions on the side of the package carefully through steps 1 and 2, and then follow the procedure for making a ONE-CRUST PIE. After the crust is baked, 10-12 minutes, remove the pie pan from the oven and place it on a wire rack to cool. Turn off the oven.
- Prepare the vanilla pudding: In a medium saucepan, combine the pudding mix, 2 cups of whole milk and 1 cup of heavy whipping cream or half and half and stir gently with a whisk until smooth. Turn on the stove and follow the package directions, whisking to prevent the pudding from sticking on the bottom of the pan, until the pudding is fully cooked. Remove the pan from the stove and add 2 tablespoons of butter and 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract. Stir gently until the butter is melted and the vanilla is incorporated. Cover the surface of the hot pudding with plastic wrap and cool to room temperature. Then refrigerate until ready to assemble the pie.
- Prepare the chocolate curls: Place a sheet of parchment on the kitchen counter, and wearing disposable gloves, use a vegetable peeler to scrape curls of chocolate off the chocolate bar. This is a slow process that will take a while, and it will produce a large pile of chocolate curls. Place the chocolate curls in a plastic bag or covered food container and seal. Set aside.
- Prepare optional whipped cream topping: Shortly before assembling the pie, pour 2 cups of heavy whipping cream into a large mixing bowl and beat on medium speed with an electric mixer until soft peaks form, about 2 minutes. Add the powdered sugar and vanilla and continue to beat about 1 minute more, until firm peaks form. Place the bowl of whipped cream into the refrigerator until ready to assemble the pie.
- Assemble the pie: When the pudding is completely chilled, (on the day when you intend to serve the pie,) stir the toasted coconut into the pudding until evenly distributed. Sprinkle ½ cup of chopped toasted macadamia nuts over the bottom of the prepared pie crust. Sprinkle half of the chocolate curls over the macadamia nuts. Pour the coconut pudding over the nuts and chocolate and smooth the top of the pudding with a rubber spatula. Distribute the remaining chocolate curls evenly over the top of the pudding. (You may have extra chocolate curls. If so, sprinkle them on top the next time you have ice cream.) Refrigerate the pie until ready to serve.
- For optional whipped cream topping: Before adding the chocolate curls, spread a generous layer of whipped cream over the top of the pie, swirling it decoratively with a spatula. Sprinkle the chocolate curls over the whipped cream and refrigerate until ready to serve. (If you have extra whipped cream, serve it with your ice cream and chocolate curl sundaes.)