'Downton Abbey's' lavish meals ignite interest in British fare
The romance. The intrigue. The big, beautiful country house.
We can analyze the recipe for success of “Downton Abbey,” the British television import whose Season 3 comes to a close this Sunday on PBS, until our cups of tea go cold. But one element that can't be overlooked, especially for those of a culinary bent, is the food.
Rather than letting it serve as mere eye candy, creator and writer Julian Fellowes has worked crepes, puddings, roast chicken and other edible props into some of the series' most memorable plots.
The lavish spreads enjoyed by the aristocratic Crawley family in early-20th-century England are enough to inspire envy in those who might be watching with a microwave dinner in their laps. The show has revived an interest in British food, particularly that of the 1910s and 1920s, that could easily fall prey to stereotypes: Aspic! Haggis! Puddings! Instead, viewers have embraced the comestibles they've seen on the small screen, with spinoffs including Pinterest boards, blogs and a recently released unofficial cookbook.
“Because they love the show, it makes them more interested in the history of the food that was on the show,” says Pamela Foster, a Toronto marketing professional who has put her history degree to good use on her Downton Abbey Cooks blog. “It's sort of a teaching point to connect people to history.”
There's no getting around the fact that there were lots of jellied molds, some of which were very attractive, and, we dare say, tasty. The cuisine received an extra surge of elegance thanks to the influence of King Edward VII, who had an affinity for French food.
“He loved a good time and a good laugh and a good meal,” says Foster, who just released a self-published e-cookbook, “Abbey Cooks Entertain,” with plenty of dishes inspired by France.
Some noble families employed French cooks on the weekend — “What is a weekend?” as the Dowager Countess of Grantham might say — when they did a lot of entertaining, according to the Countess of Carnarvon, who, with her husband, the Earl of Carnarvon, lives at the 50-plus-bedroom Highclere Castle, where “Downton Abbey” is filmed.
“There might be a Mrs. Patmore perhaps, but, over the top of her, there might be a more highly paid chef to impress the guests,” says the Countess, who is also addressed as Lady Carnarvon.
Replicating that setting for the show requires a tremendous amount of research and logistics. Because the downstairs portion of Highclere couldn't stand in for the servants' quarters on “Downton Abbey,” the production team built a kitchen set at London's Ealing Studios, about 60 miles from the castle.
Production designer Donal Woods says research conducted through visits to nearly 40 English country houses helped inform what the kitchen should look like. The cast-iron range, which, in its heyday, would have run on coal, is modeled after one in a home in Leeds.
“You can actually cook on top of the range,” Woods says. “It can sizzle and steam.” Removable tiles behind the range allow for a camera to run on a track and film what Mrs. Patmore and kitchen maid Daisy are doing.
While the range may be the centerpiece, a host of other equipment is needed to fully bring to life a working kitchen. Thanks, in large part, to the inventory available on eBay, Woods helped acquire original tools such as copper molds, bowls, mixing machines, mincing machines and stone-glazed sinks.
“Probably about 60 to 70 percent of the stuff in there is from that period,” he says.
The “Downton Abbey” crew does a lot of creative sourcing. Food economist Lisa Heathcote consults her library of historical cookbooks and her knowledge of period food to decide which comestibles will appear. “Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management” is an important guide.
Of course, the food has to be cooked and plated — twice, in some instances. A dish may be shown in the kitchen in one scene, then, in the dining room in the next scene. Making the transition seamless requires that Heathcote defy the space-time continuum, because filming on each set occurs miles and weeks apart. She takes many photographs and tries not to make the dishes so overly complicated that they would be impossible to reproduce.
For scenes in the dining room, Heathcote prepares food off-site and then warms and plates it in a field kitchen. She tries to steer clear of too many foods that need to be served hot, though, because it's difficult to keep them that way. Filming a dining scene can take 10 to 12 hours, and multiple takes mean plates are constantly being cleared and refreshed.
“It's a bit like running a restaurant,” Heathcote says, no easy feat since she's essentially a food department of one.
Heathcote's tricks include dying cream cheese pinkish-red to resemble salmon mousse and serving a chimera-like entree she calls “chicken fish,” or poultry prepared to look like fish with sauce on top.
All that results in a very elegant-looking dinner party on the set. In reality, though, it would have been even more over the top, Lady Carnarvon says.
“There were a lot more courses,” anywhere from five to seven, she says. “The table was set differently then, and the decorations were more elaborate,” she says. The problem is that large centerpieces aren't very photogenic. Lady Carnarvon understands the compromises that need to be made for the purposes of television.
“It's a fun costume drama. It's not a social documentary,” she says. “Because it's so popular, I think some people take it as historical fact.”
Lady Carnarvon says she and Highclere's head chef and two sous-chefs don't live under the same kind of pressure felt by the characters of “Downton Abbey” and their real-life counterparts, especially now that she's been living at Highclere for 13 years.
“I think, as you become more at home,” she says, “you actually become more relaxed, so if something did go wrong, I'd simply ask the staff to go get a load of pizzas.”
Becky Krystal is a writer for The Washington Post.
Easy Apple Charlottes
This simple, yet elegant, English dessert is noted for not having been served on “Downton Abbey” in Season 1: Mrs. Patmore, the cook, didn't want to make it because she couldn't read the recipe because of her failing eyesight.
The crust is made of sliced bread — possibly more healthful than pie pastry, and much tidier to put together. That makes it ideal for novice bakers.
Pamela Foster recommends serving the charlottes with a high-quality vanilla ice cream or creme anglaise. For a more healthful topping, she suggests nonfat Greek-style yogurt mixed with a bit of honey. Adapted from Foster's “Abbey Cooks Entertain” (Pamela Powered, 2012).
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the ramekins
2 medium-size cooking apples, peeled, cored and diced
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 tablespoons firmly packed light-brown sugar
1⁄4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 large eggs
2⁄3 cup nonfat milk
1 tablespoon superfine sugar, plus more for sprinkling
10 slices stale challah or raisin bread, 1⁄2 inch thick (about 12 ounces), crusts removed
Confectioners' sugar, optional
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Generously grease four 5.4-ounce ramekins with butter.
Melt the 2 tablespoons of butter in a medium-size saucepan over low heat. Add the apples, vanilla extract, lemon juice, brown sugar and cinnamon, and mix well.
Cook on medium-low heat until the apples are tender and any liquid has evaporated; this should take 15 to 25 minutes, depending on the variety of apples you are using. Stir occasionally to avoid burning. The mixture should thicken and turn a medium-caramel color.
Combine the eggs, milk and 1 tablespoon of superfine sugar in a shallow dish. Mix until fully combined.
Use a 2 1⁄2-inch round cookie cutter to cut out four circles from the bread; these will serve as the base of each portion. Alternatively, use a clean ramekin and a sharp knife to trace and cut your circles.
Cut the remaining bread into rectangles about 1 inch wide. Cube, dry and store any excess bread scraps in an airtight container for another use.
Quickly dip each bread circle in the egg mixture and place one in the bottom of each ramekin. Then dip the rectangles, standing them upright around the inside edge of each cup, extending above the rim so you can fold them over later to make a lid. Each ramekin will use 6 or 7 strips.
Fill each ramekin with the apple mixture. Add a piece or two of bread to the top and fold over the rectangular pieces of bread so the package is sealed completely. It should look like a little crown.
Sprinkle each top with a little superfine sugar. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown and puffed. Allow to cool slightly, then run a knife around the edges and turn them out onto individual plates.
Use a fine-mesh sieve to dust each portion with confectioners' sugar, if desired. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Makes 4 servings.
Nutrition information: Ingredients are too varied for a meaningful analysis.
A 1920s cookery book recommends these potatoes as a side dish for a pre-theater dinner. They would accompany a green vegetable, such as peas or green beans, on a serving platter.
In Edwardian times, there were no Yukon Gold potatoes — they weren't widely available until 1980 — but, because they perform so well with this treatment, we don't feel guilty about being historically inaccurate. Also, back then, the kitchen staff would have forced the potato-onion mixture through a fine sieve to obtain a smooth-as-silk puree. You can do that if you like, but we thought the potatoes were good without that step.
Make ahead: The potato mixture can be covered and refrigerated a day in advance; or, the balls can be formed and rolled in the crumbs and then refrigerated, loosely covered, a day in advance. Bring to room temperature before baking. Adapted from “Kitchen Essays,” by Agnes Jekyll (first published in 1922 by Thomas Nelson & Sons, reprinted in 2008 by Persephone Books).
1 medium-size onion, cut into 8 wedges
Nonstick cooking spray
2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters, or into sixths if the potatoes are large
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large egg yolks, plus 1 whole egg
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
2⁄3 cup plain fine, dried bread crumbs (may substitute finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese for half of the bread crumbs)
1⁄4 cup finely chopped flatleaf parsley
Line a work surface with a few layers of paper towels.
Fill a large pot with several inches of water, add the onion wedges and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the onion is very soft, for about 40 minutes, keeping the water at a low boil. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the onion to a colander and allow it to drain for several minutes, then transfer to the paper towels. Use more paper towels to press on the onion, extracting as much of the moisture as possible. Transfer the onion to a blender and puree until smooth.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat a baking sheet with nonstick cooking oil spray.
Add the potatoes to the water in the pot; add water if needed to cover the potatoes by 1 inch. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and cook uncovered for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the potatoes can be easily pierced with the tip of a knife. Drain in a colander.
Return the empty pot to the stove over medium heat. Return the potatoes to the pot and cook, tossing, for 1 to 2 minutes or until their moisture has evaporated.
Use a potato ricer to shred the potatoes into a large mixing bowl, or place the potato pieces in the mixing bowl and mash with a potato masher.
Add the pureed onion to the potatoes and combine, then quickly beat in the butter and egg yolks. Add the salt and pepper. Beat in 1 to 2 tablespoons of cream, keeping the mixture thick enough to hold its shape; if it is too thin, return the mixture to the pot over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, to dry it out a little.
Use a fork to beat the remaining whole egg in a small bowl. Spread the bread crumbs on a small plate. Use your hands to form the potato mixture into 21 golf-ball-size balls (about 1 1⁄2 ounces each). Brush the balls with the beaten egg and sprinkle them with a little parsley, then dip them in the crumbs, rolling to coat evenly. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet.
Bake for 20 minutes, until heated through. The potato balls will brown slightly. Serve hot.
Makes about 21 small puffs (5 to 7 servings)
Nutrition information per serving (based on 7): 200 calories, 7 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 80 milligrams cholesterol, 4 grams protein, 32 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams dietary fiber, 240 milligrams sodium
Saute Chicken Lyonnaise
As the “Downton Abbey” series first opens, the Titanic has just gone down at sea, taking with it the heir of the elegant Yorkshire estate. Perhaps he had recently eaten this dish, served to the ship's first-class passengers as part of a multicourse dinner.
French food — or, at least, food with French names — was popular in England in the early 1900s. We don't know the exact recipe of the dish served on the Titanic, but food cooked “a la Lyonnaise” probably would have included onions, tomato and vinegar. Adapted from “Abbey Cooks Entertain” by Pamela Foster (Pamela Powered Inc., 2012).
1⁄3 cup flour
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons fresh thyme, finely chopped (may substitute 1 tablespoon dried thyme), divided
6 (about 2 1⁄2 pounds total) boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (tenderloins removed), patted dry
1 large egg
3 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil, divided
2 medium-size onions, thinly sliced
1 large clove garlic, minced
1⁄3 cup white wine
2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
2 teaspoons tomato paste
1 cup homemade or no-salt-added chicken broth
Heat the oven to 170 degrees or to the lowest possible temperature.
Place the flour, salt, pepper and 1 tablespoon of the thyme in a sturdy plastic food-storage bag, seal and shake to combine. Beat the egg in a medium-size bowl. One at a time, dip the chicken pieces into the beaten egg, letting the excess drip back into the bowl, then transfer the chicken to the bag. Seal and shake to coat the chicken in the flour mixture. Transfer the chicken to a plate.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, place the chicken pieces in the pan, smooth side down, working in batches, if necessary. Cook for 5 minutes, until golden brown, then turn the pieces over and cook for 5 minutes, until golden brown on the second side. (The chicken will not be cooked through.)
Transfer the chicken to an ovenproof platter and place in the oven to keep warm. (If the oven can't be set as low as 170, place the platter in the oven, turn the oven off and keep the oven door closed.)
Reduce the heat to medium and add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil to the skillet. Stir in the onions, garlic and the remaining 1 tablespoon of thyme. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 7 to 10 minutes or until the onions are translucent. Increase the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring often, for 10 minutes or until the onions are a light golden brown.
Add the wine and vinegar; cook, stirring to scrape up any browned bits, for about 3 minutes or until the liquid has reduced by half. Stir in the tomato paste, then the broth and sugar. Bring to a boil and cook for 2 minutes, or until the sauce is slightly reduced.
Return the chicken to the skillet, along with any accumulated juices. Turn the chicken pieces to coat them with the liquid, then cover, reduce the heat to medium and cook for 5 minutes, or until the temperature of the thickest part of a chicken piece registers 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.
Transfer to a serving platter or individual plates and spoon the sauce over the chicken.
Makes 6 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 310 calories, 10 grams fat (2 grams saturated), 140 milligrams cholesterol, 42 grams protein, 8 grams carbohydrates, 0 grams dietary fiber, 260 milligrams sodium
Raspberry Meringue Pudding
The recipe makes 12 large meringue cookies. We like the appearance of one meringue on top of each serving, but if you want to go all out, by all means, include a second one. If not, enjoy the extras with a cup of tea.
Make ahead: The meringues must be made at least 2 hours and as long as 2 weeks in advance. They can be stored in an airtight container for as long as 2 weeks.
The pudding needs to chill for at least 4 hours; it improves in texture after an overnight rest in the refrigerator. Adapted from “Abbey Cooks Entertain,” by Pamela Foster (Pamela Powered, 2012).
For the meringues:
4 large egg whites, at room temperature
1⁄4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup superfine sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
For the pudding:
Unsalted butter, for greasing the casserole dish
2 cups nonfat milk
2⁄3 cup superfine sugar
4 large egg yolks, plus 1 whole egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1⁄4 cups plain, fresh bread crumbs
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons (about 2 tablespoons)
3⁄4 cup seedless raspberry jam
1 pint raspberries
Superfine sugar, for sprinkling
To prepare the meringues: Place racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and heat to 300 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners.
Beat the egg whites on high speed in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. When the egg whites are foamy, add the cream of tartar and beat until the whites hold soft peaks, for about 3 minutes. Add the sugar a little at a time, beating until the meringue is shiny and holds very stiff peaks, for about 5 minutes. Beat in the vanilla extract.
Test to make sure the meringue is ready by rubbing a little between your thumb and finger. When it is no longer gritty, you are good to go.
Create six equal-size mounds of meringue on each baking sheet. You can swirl the tops with a spoon or pipe the meringue through a bag fitted with a large star tip.
Transfer the baking sheets to the oven, reduce the heat to 275 degrees and bake for 60 minutes, rotating the baking sheets from front to back and top to bottom halfway through.
The meringues are done when they are pale and fairly crisp and sound hollow when gently tapped on the bottom.
Turn off the oven, open the door a crack and leave the meringues in the oven for at least another hour to dry.
To prepare the pudding: Boil a kettle of water. Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Grease a large casserole dish with butter.
Pour the milk into a medium-size saucepan and slowly bring it to a boil over medium heat.
Combine the sugar, 4 egg yolks and 1 whole egg in a medium-size bowl, whisking until the mixture is light and creamy. Temper the egg-sugar mixture by adding a little bit of the hot milk while whisking constantly, to keep the eggs from scrambling. Gradually whisk that egg-sugar mixture into the hot milk. Strain the hot milk mixture through a fine-mesh sieve, discarding any solids. Stir in the vanilla extract, fresh bread crumbs and lemon zest, and combine well.
Pour the pudding mixture into the casserole dish, place in a roasting pan and transfer to the oven.
Fill the roasting pan with enough boiling water to reach halfway up the sides of the dish. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes. Keep checking until the pudding is almost set, yet still slightly wobbly in the center. Remove the dish from the water bath and place it on a wire rack to cool.
Cover the cooled custard with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled, for at least 4 hours and, preferably, overnight.
To assemble: Melt the jam in a small saucepan over low heat. (Alternatively, place the jam in a medium-size microwave-safe bowl and microwave on medium for 30 seconds. Stop and stir well. If necessary, continue to microwave the jam on medium at 10-second intervals until it has reached a fluid consistency.)
Just before serving, place scoops of the pudding on six individual serving plates. (You can use a ring mold or biscuit cutter for a cleaner round shape.) Top with the melted jam, the 6 most presentable-looking meringues and fresh raspberries. Sprinkle the superfine sugar over each portion.
Makes 6 servings.
Nutrition information per serving (using one meringue per pudding): 380 calories, 5 grams fat (2 grams saturated), 175 milligrams cholesterol, 8 grams protein, 79 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams dietary fiber, 160 milligrams sodium
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