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A tea sandwich is a special type of light sandwich commonly served during afternoon tea, and designed to serve as a snack, rather than a serious meal. Numerous tea houses in Britain offer tea sandwiches, and establishments serving British style teas around the world also usually have several varieties on the menu. When prepared well, a tea sandwich is light and flavorful, with an even texture that lacks sogginess or lumps of ingredients.
A true tea sandwich has several basic characteristics, beginning with the type of bread used. Dense, thin sliced breads are used to make tea sandwiches, and the bread is traditionally white, although rye and pumpernickel are used sometimes as well. A tea sandwich is also crustless: cooks cut the crust of the bread off after the sandwich is assembled, so that the ingredients run all the way to the edge of the sandwich. Size is also a factor: a tea sandwich must be small. Traditional tea sandwiches are made by cutting a single sandwich into four triangular quarters, although fancier shapes made with cookie cutters are also available. Finally, a tea sandwich is always prepared with a thin layer of butter, cream cheese, or a similar spread on the bread, to prevent the sandwich from getting soggy.
Many cooks prepare bread and fillings for tea sandwiches ahead of time, but do not assemble the sandwich until the last minute. This further reduces the potential for soggy bread, a very undesirable trait. The sandwiches are usually served on a tea tray, and a variety of sandwiches will be presented at once, so that multiple flavors can be sampled.
There are a number of common fillings for the tea sandwich, including the quintessential cucumber sandwich. Cucumber sandwiches are made by spreading a thin layer of butter on white bread, and then creating a layer of peeled, sliced cucumbers. The cucumbers are usually patted with towels to remove some of the moisture, and the sandwich is sprinkled with lemon juice and pepper before the upper part is put on, for extra zesty flavor. In some cases, watercress is added to the butter for an extra dimension of flavor.
Other fillings for a tea sandwich might be things like deviled eggs, curry chicken, peppery cheese, ham and cheese, smoked salmon, liver paste, and seafood mixtures. In all cases, the ingredients for the filling are finely chopped and mixed with flavorful accents like chives, curry powder, mustard, pepper, capers, and garlic. The filling is spread thinly and evenly across the bread and is sometimes pressed to ensure that it is even before being cut.