SPOILER WARNING for Downton Abbey fans: DO NOT read this if you haven’t yet seen season 3!
Will Cora and Robert’s marriage continue to heal? How will Lady Mary cope without Matthew – and with George?
And now that Bates is out of jail, will he and Anna live happily ever after?
Downton Abbey – the PBS nighttime soap opera that took America by storm 3 1/2 years ago – resumes its voyage through 1920s England Sunday night, and the show’s loyal fans are eager to learn the answer to the questions above.
The show entranced millions of us with its lush setting; its look into the private lives of the very wealthy (and their “downstairs” help) and, most of all, fine acting from what’s become an all-star cast – even though two of the beloved regulars, Sybil and Matthew, were killed off last season (BOO HISS!)
Still, so long as the Dowager Countess doesn’t disappear – I’m in.
In honor of Sunday’s season 4 opener, I’d like to offer you an array of British treats. Whether you observe the occasion with low tea, high tea, or simply a celebratory Pimm’s Cup or glass of ale, you’ll find the perfect go-with among the (English) muffins, Welsh cakes, Irish tea brack, Scottish shortbread, and other goodies, both sweet and savory, below.
First up: English muffins.
Did you know that people in England don’t eat English muffins?
In fact, they DO eat “English” muffins; it’s just that in England they’re called “muffins;” while what we think of as plain muffins (blueberry, bran) are called “American muffins.”
Do you know the muffin man? 19th-century Londoners did; some of England’s first street food was sold by dapper fellows like this, who’d roam the streets, ringing a bell and carrying their wares on their head. (Thanks to Theodora Gibbons’ A Taste of London in Food and in Pictures for this photo.)
You must never, ever slice the muffins with a knife.
But don’t take our word for it –
Here’s what Englishwoman Hannah Glasse says, in the first known written recipe for muffins, English-style:
“And when you eat them, toast them with a Fork crisp on both Sides, then with your Hand pull them open, and they will be like a Honey-Comb; lay in as much Butter as you intend to use, then clap them together again, and set it by the Fire, when you think the Butter is melted turn them, that both Sides may be butter’d alike, but don’t touch them with a Knife, either to spread or cut them open, if you do they will be as heavy as Lead, only when they are quite butter’d and done, you may cut them across with a Knife.”
—The Art of Cookery Made Plain & Easy, Hannah Glasse, facsimile first edition 1747 [Prospect Books:Devon] 1995 (p. 151) (Our thanks to the ever-helpful Food Timeline site for this.)
If you’re a beginning baker and don’t want to jump right into the kneading, rolling, cutting, and dry-frying required for classic English muffins, try this easy batter bread: English Muffin Toasting Bread. If you’ve been afraid to tackle yeast bread (or you simply want fresh, hot bread with extremely little time and effort), this is a great place to start.
Next: the quintessential English teatime treat.
Denser than muffins, crumpets share their lighter cousin’s hole-y interior. Imagine half an English muffin, craggy and tunneled, with a very light crust atop the holes: that’s a crumpet.
Butter melts and settles in the holes. Jam seeps down in there, too. The whole becomes a super-moist, super-flavorful teatime (or breakfast) treat.
Speaking of jam –
Homemade Microwave Berry Jam goes from fruit-on-the-vine to jam-in-the-jar in under 20 minutes.
Best part? You can sweeten to taste; no need to overload the berries with sugar so they “jell” correctly.
If you’re a Downton fan, you know Lady Sybil eloped with the chauffeur, Branson, to Ireland – where, unfortunately, they didn’t live ever after, happily or otherwise.
Of the three Crawley daughters, I really would have liked to have Sybil for a friend – and now she’s gone. Sigh… I hope, before she left Downton to make a couple of TV series and her character was snuffed out, Sybil enjoyed a few loaves of Irish Tea Brack, a moist, fruit-filled batter bread whose liquid is, as its name implies, strong brewed tea.
Think date-nut bread with a Gaelic twist.
If you’ve experienced Irish brown breads that are dry and fairly tasteless, try this one: Irish Buttermilk Brown Bread. Sweeter and moister than classic Irish brown bread, and thus more typically American, it’s made with lots of buttermilk; and butter both in the bread itself, and brushed over its crust.
If you’re craving what we Americans think of as Irish soda bread, though, this is your loaf: American Irish Soda Bread. With more than twice as much sugar as the aforementioned Irish buttermilk loaf, it’s assertively (though not overwhelmingly) sweet.
Studded with raisins or currants and caraway seeds, and including an egg for richness, this moist, craggy bread is basically an American muffin in loaf form.
We seem to have transitioned from breakfast to teatime, haven’t we? And you and I both know the perfect teatime treat. Or coffeetime, if Starbucks is any indication –
British scones are usually much plainer than their American cousins, though these whole-grain English Brown Scones with Walnuts and Golden Raisins are just fancy enough to pique interest within the chocolate chip/raspberry/caramel swirl scone crowd. (You know who you are. And I’m right there with you.)
I’m also an enthusiastic fan of these 100% American Fresh Apple Cinnamon Scones, with their crunchy sugar topping, chopped fresh apples, and cinnamon chips.
Oh, wait – I forgot Blueberry Scones, a summertime favorite.
Now, how can you serve tea without cookies? Classic Scottish Shortbread, a less-sweet, more substantial, crumblier shortbread than American shortbread (think Girl Scout cookies), this Scottish version includes ground oats – which add a delightfully nutty note to the predominant taste of butter and sugar.
Mr. Bates would enjoy these. His grandmother was Scottish – which you’d know if you were a true DAFFY (Downton Abbey Fan For Years).
So we’ve traveled around the British Isles, touching down in every country but one: Wales.
While I know very little about Welsh cuisine, I do know that these tender, moist, cinnamon-y cakes are an enormous hit whenever and wherever I serve them.
Welsh Cakes fall somewhere between a cookie, a biscuit, and a pancake. Cut like biscuits, they’re fried like pancakes, and are sweet as cookies – especially when showered with a blizzard of cinnamon-sugar.
Are they breakfast food? A coffee break snack? Dessert? I’m not sure, but I do know they’ve got a lot in common with potato chips – you can’t eat just one!
British high tea is equivalent to America’s supper – a substantial end-of-day meal. As such, it can reasonably be followed by dessert, right?
Jam-filled Victoria Sandwich Cake is the standard round cake that every English homemaker has in her repertoire. Made with “self-raising flour,” it’s considered an everyday kind of cake meant for tea, rather than for a birthday party or an elaborate celebration. You’ll find a recipe for Victoria Sandwich (or Victoria Sponge) in every British baking book. Though jam (usually strawberry) is the constant, some also include whipped cream or buttercream betwixt the layers.
NicksterSmith’s review of our recipe sums it up nicely: “I am English and Victoria sandwich cake is the quintessential tea time recipe and my comfort food. This is a good recipe and will be in my faves folder. I like the cake without cream and good quality jam in the middle and of course with a good cuppa – English tea naturally! You have made me very happy!”
Here’s another typical English cake – and another English/American “war of the words” – Sticky Toffee Pudding.
Doesn’t look like a bowl of Jell-O instant butterscotch, does it? That’s because in Great Britain, “pudding” is used to denote a wide variety of desserts, from Spotted Dick (a steamed pudding with dried fruit) to Roly-Poly (fruit or jam rolled in pastry and steamed) to Sticky Toffee Pudding: baked date cake with a rich caramel glaze.
Finally, how could we possibly finish our tea without once mentioning Wills and Kate, a.k.a. the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge?
The formula for Will and Kate’s Wedding Cake was one of the best-kept secrets of that stunning 2011 royal marriage, right up there with the designer of Kate’s gown.
As it turned out, the main attraction was a typical heavy, iced British fruitcake. But the groom’s cake, pictured above, was one of Will’s childhood favorites: a “cake” made of layers of rich, thick chocolate pudding (make that American-style pudding) and light, crunchy vanilla cookies.
Think your typical American Oreo “trifle” in reverse – minus the Cool Whip.
Presented with a ladylike slice of this cake at tea, we think the Dowager Countess would have sniffed haughtily – then enjoyed a secret smile.