Florence Oberle, 95, serves afternoon tea in her garden at her home in Grand Rapids. Clockwise from upper left: Butterscotch Nut Torte, Apple Cake and Eggless Vinegar Chocolate Cake
It's rumored in Grand Rapids that even the birds and the butterflies know when Florence Oberle's rose gardens will be in full bloom so they can drink in their beauty and fragrance, just as people have been doing for many years.
That accounts for the melodic chirping of birds and the butterflies flitting among the pink and red blossoms on a sunny afternoon in June. Ms. Oberle's passion for gardening and her love of baking blended into what is known for miles around as a Florence Oberle tea.
Ms. Oberle's garden is a happy place to relax. But when her hospitality and homemade pastries enhance the beauty of the garden, it is, as they say, my cup of tea.
"I want to do this exactly as I used to," Ms. Oberle repeatedly told the friends she invited to the recent special-occasion memory tea. And that she did. At 95 years old, with 96 coming Sept. 6, Ms. Oberle could have taken some shortcuts, or at least made fewer desserts.
But, as a firm believer in doing it right, everything from the chilled peach tea to rose petals floating in finger bowls were just as they were when she held teas regularly in the garden. Though her last tea for the public was in 1991, she still receives calls in the summer from people hoping to return.
Florence Oberle's scones with strawberry jam, left, and lemon curd. In the background, rose petals float in a finger bowl.
At the memory tea, Ms. Oberle proudly showed guest books from teas in the 1980s and 1990s with the signatures of more than 700 people who made reservations.
The events fulfilled her longtime desire to have a restaurant and at the same time present her prized baked goods to an appreciative audience in the perfect setting of her gardens.
She is the widow of Ed Oberle and retired as a Washington Local Schools teacher.
The most requested recipe from the Florence Oberle teas is for the Butterscotch Nut Torte which remained tight in her secret recipe file until today - click on the link to read the recipes.
It is well worth the time and patience required to make the three-step dessert frosted with whipped cream and further enhanced by butterscotch sauce. The recipe is from a Farm Journal publication. Ms. Oberle remembers that her mother made it for her bridge club.
The champion baker in no way subscribes to the new baking that begins with a boxed product. She bakes today as her mother did in their Grand Rapids kitchen. "I was always at my mother's elbow," she said. She translates the term "old-fashioned" to mean quality. Only the best ingredients are brought into her kitchen.
That includes organic eggs, Ghirardelli chocolate and King Arthur and Arrowhead flours. She refuses to even try the less expensive products, believing that what you put into a recipe is the same quality you will get. "I am an expensive cook. There is nothing cheap about what I bake," she said. Her tip to novice bakers is to always follow the recipe and directions as they are given the first time. "Yes, if it says sift flour, sift it. Then you can make changes the next time," she said.
No one could argue that she isn't correct. She has worn out three Kitchen Aid mixers in her lifetime and made hundreds of people happy with her baked goods. One of her claims to fame is the development of a scone mix that was sold at Churchill's and the former Gourmet Curiosities. She bakes almost every day, gives a lot to lucky friends and neighbors, and never is without cake, pie, or cookies when friends drop in. Oh, yes, served with homemade ice cream. "I just love to make people happy with something good to eat," she said, sipping one more cup of hot chai tea. No coffee for Ms. Oberle, she is a devoted tea drinker and travels to area tearooms with pals known as the Tea Leaves.
Ice cream, made in several flavors, was served with the torte, her favorite chocolate cake, and peanut butter pie. "This is not high tea,' she announced, so there were no sandwiches served, or needed.
Ms. Oberle encourages bakers to try the chocolate cake that is made with vinegar and without eggs, and goes together "in 15 minutes." The peanut butter pie keeps well in the freezer and also is easy to make.
As for the scones that she serves with lemon curd and strawberry jam, that recipe remains locked in the secret box. It didn't seem right to beg her for the recipe. At 95 3/4, it is her choice and her recipe.
Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor.
Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.