Book Chat: Downton Abbey

— by Hannah Lee

The third season of the British drama series, Downton Abbey, premieres on this side of the Atlantic on Sunday. For the diehard fan, I recommend The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook by Emily Ansara Baines (who also wrote The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook, which I reviewed last March). It contains recipes for the elaborate multi-course meals enjoyed by the aristocratic Crawley family as well as the homespun, simple meals partaken by the servants of the Grantham estate. Anglophiles would enjoy learning about the customs and etiquette of the Edwardian era. Language enthusiasts would delight in tidbits like how “red herring” became an iconic phrase in mystery novels, named for the diversionary tactic of British fugitives in rubbing the aromatic herring across their trails to confuse the bloodhounds used by detectives.

More after the jump.
Other books I’d recommend for the serious fan are: The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes (niece of Julian Fellowes, creator and writer of the Downton Abbey series) with its many lovely photographs of the cast and the sets used in the television series — I had to refrain from looking inside until I’d watched all the episodes to avoid any spoilers — and Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by the Countess of Carnarvon. Published in November is The Chronicles of Downton Abbey: A New Era by Jessica Fellowes, Matthew Sturgis and Julian Fellowes, which examines the background and motivations of each cast member.

A chapter in the cookbook is on afternoon tea, customary served between 3 and 5 pm. This meal, Baines notes, is said to have been created for Queen Victoria to sustain her until the late elaborate dinner. It is no simple affair, consisting of several kinds of tea, finger sandwiches, scones, pastries, fruitcake and maybe even a layer cake as the finale. High tea, in contrast, is a working-class meal of meat, bread, and cheese and usually served between 5 and 7 pm. I have a fond memory of partaking afternoon tea at Harrods in London, where I was introduced to clotted cream. I cheered over the easy methods Baines gives for making clotted cream and golden syrup, which I have not read in any other book.

I learned that cream of barley soup was served on the Titanic on its fateful maiden trip across the Atlantic Ocean (and the beginning of the Downton Abbey saga with the death of the heir aboard that ship). And I would love to taste the Saxe-Coburg soup, which was perhaps created for Prince Albert incorporating his beloved Brussels sprouts or, notes Baines, it could have been named for Queen Victoria’s eldest son.

My dream menu for a Downton Abbey-themed dinner would include the rosemary oat crackers, the spicy mulligatawny (“pepper water”) soup, Brussels sprouts with chestnuts, and the roasted parsnips with horseradish, maple syrup and herb butter sauce. I’d serve the Edwardian chicken tikka masala, substituting seitan for the chicken to keep it kosher in a dish that also calls for heavy cream. Baines references the former Labor Secretary Robin Cook who made headlines in 2001 when he declared in a speech that this dish was “British’s true national dish.” For the finishing touch, I’d serve Eccles cakes and Bakewell tarts.

Much fish was consumed in the Victorian era, writes Baines, and salmon was one of the varieties affordable to the poor. So, for Shabbat for the family, I’d prepare the mustard salmon with lentils, which I could serve with the no-knead Sally Lunn bread and treacle tart.

The British love their biscuits, called digestive biscuits or digestives, both then and now. For the April 2011 wedding of Prince William and Catherine (Kate) Middleton, I served to my family what was touted as Prince William’s favorite dessert. I substituted the kosher Kedem brand tea biscuits for the English brand, McVities.  Here is a recipe from Sense and Simplicity.

Prince William’s Chocolate Biscuit Cake
Serves 8

  • 4 tbsp (60 ml) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup (125 ml) granulated sugar
  • 4 oz (110 g) dark chocolate, chopped
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 8 oz (225 g) McVitie’s Rich Tea Biscuits, about 28 biscuits broken into almond-sized pieces
  • 8 oz (225 g) dark chocolate, chopped – for the icing
  1. Line bottom of 7-inch (18 cm) spring form pan with parchment paper and butter sides of the pan.
  2. Cream butter and sugar until fluffy using electric mixer on medium setting.
  3. In double boiler melt 4 oz chocolate.
  4. Stir in butter mixture.
  5. Stir in egg.
  6. Remove from heat and add biscuits, stirring until well mixed.
  7. Spoon mixture into springform pan filling all gaps and refrigerate for three hours until set.
  8. Remove pan and turn cake upside-down on cooling rack set over a parchment lined baking sheet.
  9. Melt 8 oz chocolate in double boiler.
  10. Pour the melted chocolate over the cake, smoothing it on the top and sides.
  11. Let stand for one hour until set.
  12. Carefully remove cake from the cooling racks and place on serving plate.

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