Serve afternoon tea the ‘Downton Abbey’ way

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 23, 2016

By Gretchen McKay

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

If you’re a fan of “Downton Abbey,” chances are you’re soon to be in a funk.

After six seasons, PBS’s “Masterpiece” series will air its series finale March 6, leaving scores of Anglophiles crying in their crumpets.

It’s been a long, slow ride where — admit it — it sometimes feels like nothing ever happens at the Crawley family’s Yorkshire country estate. Lord Grantham, in particular, is so stuffy and boring that I wasn’t even sure he had warm blood running through his veins until he spit up a ton of it, all over the dining room table, no less, in a recent episode. Finally, he showed some signs of life.

But at least the family seems to eat well, thanks to the culinary prowess of Mrs. Patmore and her kitchen maid-turned- assistant cook Daisy Mason. As related by Emily Ansara Baines in “The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook,” one of several cookbooks and blogs devoted to the food from the Edwardian days. For its evening meal, the family could expect anywhere from eight to 13 courses, depending on the occasion and time period. (The show kicked off in 1912 and ends in 1925.) And that’s not counting the “removes” served between the heavier courses.

It wasn’t so grand in the downstairs kitchen, of course, but like their moneyed employers, the servants at least got to enjoy a nice spot of tea whenever they weren’t polishing shoes or helping the ladies undress after service, or standing at rapt attention in the dining room during those hours-long meals.

Hmm, tea. Is there anything more warming when it’s bitterly cold outside, and you need a quick pick-me-up? Or anything more British than the mini-meal known as afternoon tea that goes with it?

In that spirit, we thought it would be fun to offer a do-it-yourself afternoon tea (sometimes known, incorrectly, as high tea), for your final episode viewing party. Even though on a Sunday night, when the show airs, it’s more likely Mary, Edith and the rest of the clan would just be sitting down to a gut-busting, sumptuous dinner.

Typically served between 3 and 5 p.m., Baines writes, afternoon teas was “not nearly as low-key as it sounds.” Along with the title beverage, the menu would include an array of dainty, crustless finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream or fruit jam, biscuits, pastries, cakes and maybe even meat dishes, along with bread and cheese.

In homes such as the Crawleys, it was always served in the drawing room on fine china, with Earl Grey flowing from a silver tea service. This is where life events such as marriage were proposed, after all. We think it’s perfectly fine to set it up on your living room coffee table, within easy viewing distance of the TV, so long as you keep in mind that a proper cup of tea is NEVER served in paper or plastic.

With Netflix, it’s possible to get your “Downton Abbey” fix whenever you want. But also keep in mind that executive producer Gareth Neame hasn’t ruled out a “Downton” movie for the big screen.

Sweet Cream Scones

These are so easy to make, and not just for tea — they make a wonderful breakfast, too. Serve scones with clotted cream, marmalade or lemon curd. I drizzled half my batch with melted chocolate just because.

1 cup sour cream

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon baking soda

4 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into pieces

1 egg, at room temperature

Heavy cream, for brushing

Granulated sugar, for sprinkling

Blend sour cream, vanilla and baking soda together in a small bowl. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a large baking sheet.

In large bowl, blend together flour, sugar, baking powder, cream of tartar and salt. Cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse bread crumbs. Stir in sour-cream mixture and egg until just barely moistened.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, kneading briefly. Pat dough out into 2 3/4-inch-thick rounds. Cut each round into 12 wedges and place them 2 to 3 inches apart on the greased baking sheet. Lightly brush with cream, then sprinkle with granulated sugar.

Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until golden brown on the bottom.

Makes 24.

— “The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook” by Emily Ansara Baines (Adams Media)

The Countess’ Lemon Curd

A popular spread for bread and scones served at afternoon tea, lemon curd also makes a great filling for cakes and pastries. Don’t worry if it’s not completely smooth like pudding — the zest gives the curd a bit of texture.

4 unwaxed lemons, zest and juice

7 ounces sugar (about 1 cup)

7 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into cubes

3 eggs, plus 1 egg yolk

Combine lemon zest, juice, sugar and butter in a small pan set over simmering water. (Do not allow the mixture to touch the water.) Stir to help butter and sugar melt properly.

Lightly whisk eggs and yolk, then whisk them thoroughly into the mixture. As eggs cook, the mixture will thicken. When it is completely cooked through, you will be able to coat the back of a spoon, and then draw a clear line through it with your finger, 10 to 15 minutes.

Spoon into hot, sterilized jars. Cool thoroughly before putting on the lid. This will keep for up to 3 months in the refrigerator.

Makes about 10 ounces.

— “Tea at Downton: Afternoon Tea Recipes from the Unofficial Guide to Downton Abbey” by Elizabeth Fellow (CreateSpace)

Asparagus Tart

Not everything served at afternoon tea has to be sweet. This simple-yet-elegant asparagus tart adds a savory flair to your spread. This recipe calls for one large pastry but you can make several smaller tarts if you prefer. I substituted Martha Stewart’s recipe for pate brisee for the crust because it’s fail-safe.

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

1 cup (2 sticks) chilled butter, cut into chunks

1/4 to 1/2 cup iced water

1 bunch asparagus spears

4 eggs

1 1/4 cup light cream

4 tablespoons parmesan, finely grated

Salt and pepper

Pinch of grated nutmeg

1 to 2 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves picked

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Sift flour into mixing bowl with salt and sugar. Crumble in butter and rub into flour to give crumb texture. Add iced water, a little bit at a time — you only need enough to bring the mixture into a ball of dough with your hands.

Dust worktop and a rolling pin with flour. Roll dough out thinly in a circle that is large enough to fill an 8-inch tart pan. Carefully lift dough circle into place and press it into the tin. Trim edges with a knife. Prick base all over with a fork, fill with dried beans or pie weights and bake in oven for 20 minutes.

Snap off hard part at end of asparagus spears and trim ends to neaten. Wash spears well and place in a pot of water that will hold them horizontally. Bring to boil, simmer for a few minutes until half-cooked and drain.

Remove tart from oven, remove beans or weights and return pastry to oven for a further 5 minutes. Set pastry shell aside while you prepare filling.

Beat eggs in bowl. Stir in cream and parmesan until well combined. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

Dry asparagus spears with paper towels. Arrange spears in a fan in pastry shell, tips facing in. Carefully pour egg mixture around asparagus until tart shell is almost full. Sprinkle thyme leaves over top. Bake for about 40 minutes, until golden.

Serve tart hot, cut into wedges.

Serves 8.

— Adapted from “A Year in the Life of Downton Abbey: Seasonal Celebrations, Traditions and Recipes” by Jessica Fellowes (St. Martin’s Press)

Classic Egg Salad and Cucumber Tea Sandwiches

These finger sandwiches are a must at any English tea, and about as easy to make as a cup of tea.

For egg salad

6 large hardcooked eggs

4 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 tablespoon mustard

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon kosher salt

20 slices soft white bread

For cucumber filling

8-ounce package of cream cheese, softened

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and finely diced

1/4 teaspoon garlic salt

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill

20 slices soft white bread

Make egg salad: Cut eggs into cubes. In medium bowl, mix together eggs, mayonnaise, mustard, cayenne pepper and salt.

Make cucumber filling: Combine cream cheese, mayonnaise, cucumber, garlic salt, pepper and dill.

Make sandwiches: Spread egg salad over 10 slices of bread. Cover with another slice. Remove crusts.

Spread cucumber mixture over 10 slices of bread. Cover with another slice. Remove crusts.

Place sandwiches on a large baking sheet and cover in plastic wrap; chill in refrigerator for 35 minutes. Use a cookie cutter to cut out shapes, or use a knife to quarter sandwiches.

Each filling makes 40 finger sandwiches.

— “The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook” by Emily Ansara Baines (Adams Media)

Chocolate Digestive Cookies

A sweet treat that Brits believe would also help with digestion.

3/4 cup whole-wheat flour

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 tablespoon rolled oats

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

6 tablespoons brown sugar

4 tablespoons whole milk

6 ounces high-quality bittersweet chocolate, melted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease medium to large baking sheets. Sift together whole-wheat flour, all-purpose flour, salt, and baking powder in a large bowl, then mix in oats. Set aside. In a medium-sized bowl, cream together butter and brown sugar. Add to dry mixture, then stir in milk until mixture forms a thick (and quite sticky) paste. Cover and chill in refrigerator for 1 hour.

Knead dough on a lightly floured surface until smooth. Dough will be sticky; wet your hands to combat stickiness. Roll out dough to approximately 1/8-inch thickness. Using a biscuit or cookie cutter, cut into 2- to 21/2-inch rounds. Transfer to cookie sheets, impressing patterns on biscuits with a fork. Bake cookies for 20– 25 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool on a wire rack before coating with melted chocolate, then let cool again. Store in an airtight container.

Makes 2 dozen cookies.

— “The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook” by Emily Ansara Baines (Adams Media)