Setting a gracious table for dining at Downton

DEB LINDSEY / Washington Post
DEB LINDSEY / Washington Post
Posted: January 10, 2013

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 made its anticipated debut on PBS Sunday - 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 edibles into some of the series' most memorable plots.

Who can forget Mrs. Patmore's disastrously salty raspberry meringue pudding? How many fans fell for the implication that Branson the chauffeur would kill the famous British general with a poison-laden soup?

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 spin-offs 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 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 many dishes inspired by France.

Some noble families employed French cooks on the weekend 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," the countess says. Even without today's technology, "they produced absolutely beautiful food."

At Highclere Castle, the downstairs area once included marble tops in a pastry area and separate preparation spaces for different types of food to avoid cross-contamination, 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, a kitchen set was built at London's Ealing Studios, about 60 miles away.

Production designer Donal Woods says 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 bring a working kitchen to life. 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 sinks.

"Probably about 60 to 70 percent of the stuff in there is from that period," he says.

Food economist Lisa Heathcote consults her library of historical cookbooks as well as her own knowledge of period food to decide which comestibles will appear. Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management is an important guide for her, as it is for Foster. Handwritten menus in French from grand country homes, similar to what Lady Carnarvon has collected at Highclere, are also good references.

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 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.

Long shoots can wreak havoc on prepared food, so certain ingredients, particularly fish, are off-limits. Heathcote's tricks include dyeing cream cheese pinkish-red to resemble salmon mousse and serving an entree she calls "chicken fish" - 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, says Lady Carnarvon.

"There were a lot more courses," anywhere from five to seven, she says. Also, "the table was set differently then and the decorations were more elaborate," she says. The problem is that large centerpieces aren't photogenic. (Imagine would-be lovers Mary and Matthew trying to make eyes at each other with a massive, ornate piece of silver in the middle of the table.)

"It's a fun costume drama. It's not a social documentary," Lady Carnarvon says. "Because it's so popular, I think some people take it as historical fact."

Still, the film crew does go to extreme lengths to convey authenticity. Designers created a family crest for the Crawleys, which is printed on menus and baked onto the china, Adams says. The crest even had to pass muster with a heraldry authority to ensure it didn't resemble the coat of arms of a real family.

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, 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."

Saute Chicken Lyonnaise

Makes 6 servings

1/3 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly

   ground black pepper 2 tablespoons fresh

   thyme, finely

   chopped (may subs-         titute 1 tablespoon

   dried thyme)

6 (about 21/2 pounds

   total) boneless, skin-      less chicken breast

   halves (tenderloins

   removed), patted dry 1 large egg

3 tablespoons vegetable

   or olive oil

2 onions, thinly sliced

1 large clove garlic,


1/3 cup white wine

2 tablespoons red wine


2 teaspoons tomato


1 cup homemade or

   no-salt-added chick-         en broth

Pinch sugar'

1. Preheat 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 bowl. One at a time, dip the chicken pieces into the beaten egg, letting the excess drip back into the bowl, then transfer to the bag. Seal and shake to coat the chicken in the flour mixture. Transfer the chicken to a plate.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Once 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.)

3. Transfer 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.)

4. Reduce the heat to medium and add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil to the skillet. Stir in the onions, garlic, and 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 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.

5. Transfer to a serving platter or individual plates and spoon the sauce over the chicken.

- From the Washington Post; adapted from Abbey Cooks Entertain (Pamela Powered Inc., 2012)

Per serving: 310 calories, 42 grams protein, 8 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 10 grams fat, 140 milligrams cholesterol, 260 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber

Raspberry Meringue Pudding

Makes 6 servings

For the meringues:

4 large egg whites, at

   room temperature

1/4 teaspoon cream of


1 cup superfine sugar

1/2 teaspoon pure

   vanilla extract

For the pudding:

Unsalted butter, for

   greasing the casse-         role dish

2 cups nonfat milk

2/3 cup superfine sugar 4 large egg yolks, plus 1 whole egg

1 teaspoon pure vanilla


11/4 cups plain fresh

   bread crumbs

Finely grated zest of 2

   lemons (about 2


For assembly:

3/4 cup seedless

   raspberry jam

1 pint raspberries

Superfine sugar, for


1. For the meringues: Place racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 300 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners.

2. Beat the egg whites on high speed in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Once the egg whites are foamy, add the cream of tartar and beat until the whites hold soft peaks, about 3 minutes. Add the sugar a little at a time, beating until the meringue is shiny and holds very stiff peaks, 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.

3. 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.

4. For the pudding: Boil a kettle of water. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Grease a large casserole dish with butter.

5. Pour the milk into a medium saucepan and slowly bring it to a boil over medium heat.

6. Combine the sugar, 4 egg yolks and 1 whole egg in a medium 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.

7. 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, at least 4 hours and preferably overnight.

8. For assembly: Melt the jam in a small saucepan over low heat. (Alternatively, place the jam in a medium 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.

- From the Washington Post; adapted from Abbey Cooks Entertain, (Pamela Powered, 2012)

Note: The meringues must be made at least 2 hours and up to 2 weeks in advance. They can be stored in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks. The pudding needs to chill for at least 4 hours; it improves in texture after an overnight rest in the refrigerator.

Per serving (using one meringue per pudding): 380 calories, 8 grams protein, 79 grams carbohydrates, 64 grams sugar, 5 grams fat, 175 milligrams cholesterol, 160 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber

Potato Puffs

Makes about 21 puffs or 5-7 servings

1 medium onion, cut

   into 8 wedges

2 pounds Yukon Gold

   potatoes, peeled and

   cut into quarters, or

   into sixths if the

   potatoes are large

2 tablespoons unsalted


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


1/4 cup finely chopped

   flat-leaf parsley

1. 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, about 40 minutes, keeping the water at a low boil. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the onion to a colander and allow 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 to a blender and puree until smooth.

2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a baking sheet with nonstick cooking oil spray.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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 11/2 ounces each). Brush the balls with the beaten egg and sprinkle with a little parsley, then dip them in the crumbs, rolling to coat evenly. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet.

7. Bake for 20 minutes, until heated through. The potato balls will brown slightly. Serve hot.

- From the Washington Post; adapted from Kitchen Essays, (Persephone Books, 2008)

Note: 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.

Per serving (based on 7): 200 calories, 4 grams protein, 32 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 7 grams fat, 80 milligrams cholesterol, 240 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber

Easy Apple Charlottes

Makes 4 servings

2 tablespoons unsalted

   butter, plus more

   for greasing the


2 medium cooking

   apples, peeled,             cored, and diced

1 teaspoon pure vanilla


2 teaspoons freshly

   squeezed lemon


3 tablespoons light

   brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon ground


3 large eggs

2/3 cup nonfat milk

1 tablespoon superfine

   sugar, plus more for


10 slices stale challah

   or raisin bread, 1/2

   inch thick (about 12

   ounces), crusts re-         moved

Confectioners' sugar


1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Generously grease four 5.4-ounce ramekins with butter. Melt the 2 tablespoons of butter in a medium 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 the apples you are using. Stir occasionally to avoid burning. The mixture should thicken and turn a medium caramel color.

2. Combine the eggs, milk, and 1 tablespoon of superfine sugar in a shallow dish. Mix until fully combined.

3. Use a 21/2-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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. Use a fine-mesh sieve to dust each portion with confectioners' sugar, if desired. Serve warm or at room temperature.

- From the Washington Post; adapted from Abbey Cooks Entertain (Pamela Powered, 2012)

Per serving (without confectioners' sugar): 472 calories, 15 grams protein, 68 grams carbohydrates, 28 grams sugar, 16 grams fat, 282 milligrams cholesterol, 471 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.

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