Gretchen McKay

Serve afternoon tea, the “Downton Abbey” way

Sweet Butter Scones with Lemon Curd/Gretchen McKay

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 as high tea), for your final episode viewing party. Even though at 9 p.m. on a Sunday, when the show airs on WQED-TV, 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., Ms. 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.

Margaret’s Fine Imports on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill is among Pittsburgh tea shops that have everything you need to host a British tea at home, from demitasse teaspoons and tiered tea trays to hold your  savory sandwiches and biscuit-like scones, to jars of clotted cream and lemon curd to spoon on top of them. Of course, the shop also carries a selection of traditional British teas.

You’ll also find a huge selection of loose-leaf teas and tea bags at Nicholas Coffee in Market Square, Downtown (plus helpful people to tell you how to properly brew it), Te Cafe on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill, Prestogeorge Coffee and Tea on Penn Avenue in the Strip District, and Allegheny Coffee and Tea Exchange, also in the Strip (formerly known as Fortune’s Coffee) among others.

Now, back to the series. 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.

Gretchen McKay:, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Sweet Cream Scones

Sweet Cream Scones/Gretchen McKay

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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

1½ 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 ¾-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

Lemon Curd/Gretchen McKay

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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

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Not everything served at high 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. 

2½ cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

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

¼ to ½ cup iced water

1 bunch asparagus spears

4 eggs

1¼ 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

Classic Egg Salad and Cucumber Tea Sandwiches/Gretchen McKay

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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

Chocolate DIgestive Biscuits/Gretchen McKay

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A sweet treat that Brits believe wouldl 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)


Breakfast ‘n wed

Who doesn’t love a wedding? The dress, the flowers, the promise of love everlasting …

Add to the mix a good-looking member of the British royal family, an historic venue and a bride who’s just as self-assured as she is lovely to look at, and it’s guaranteed television magic. Even in the wee hours, when much of the world (husbands, mainly) would rather be sleeping.

As many as a billion are expected to tune into the Event of the Century, aka the royal wedding of Prince William and commoner Kate Middleton. Coverage gets under way, with great pomp and circumstance, at 4 a.m. (Pittsburgh time) April 29, with the wedding at 6 a.m. (11 a.m. in London).

To help folks celebrate in the appropriate style, hotels all across the country have rolled out the royal carpet with wedding specials. At New York’s Trump International Hotel, for instance, Anglophiles with an extra $149 in their pockets and mimosa in their right hand can watch the young couple get hitched on TV at a reservations-only Trump Royal Wedding Breakfast. The tasting menu — doors open at 5 a.m. — includes scrambled eggs with caviar.

Eggs also are on the menu across town at the New York Palace, only there they’ll be served with Devonshire cream. Other traditional English breakfast offerings at the $150 event, which commences at 5:30 a.m. with coffee and tea, include scones with marmalade and bangers — British-speak for sausage.

Here in Pittsburgh, Lord and Lady Palumbo of London, who bought Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kentuck Knob in Fayette County in 1986, will host a group of diehard royalphiles at a strolling dinner reception at Allegheny Country Club in Sewickley Heights on the evening of the wedding. The festivities, a $250-per-head benefit for the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, will include a royal look-alike contest along with wedding cake and Champagne. Hats, gloves, kilts and serious jewels recommended, though optional.

A less elaborate option, but still oh-so-British, is high tea from 1 to 3 p.m. on the day of the wedding at The Fire Escape coffeehouse in Ben Avon. For $12, you get scones with jam and clotted cream, finger sandwiches and jam layer cake. Ladies are encouraged to wear hats, and there will be games and door prizes. Reservations: 412-772-8569. Or throw your own tea with English goodies, including Dorset Drum Wedding Cheddar, Spotted Dick (steamed suet pudding) and jarred lemon curd, from McGinnis Sisters in Monroeville. They’ll even teach you how to brew a good cup of tea, which apparently is harder than you might think.

I’ll most likely be watching the ceremony in the pre-dawn darkness from bed, with only the glow of the TV and the occasional stink bug to keep me company, as my husband is not a fan of other people’s weddings in general, and the royals’ in particular. Though I am keeping my options open: Arriving in the mail last week was my friend Kim’s invite to a 5:30 a.m. wedding breakfast at her Ben Avon home.

“Please bring tiara, diamonds and pajamas,” it instructs.

It wouldn’t be a true celebration without something a bit fancy, and authentically British, to nibble on while drinking coffee — er, sipping tea.

But not too authentic.

I’m guessing it’s so early in the morning that Kim, or anyone else not accustomed to pre-dawn eating, won’t be feeling Britain’s famous “fry up” breakfast of scrambled eggs with sausage, black pudding, bacon, half a tomato and baked beans. Ditto with any dish that requires a lot of prep work or can’t be eaten in bed (remember, it all begins at 4 a.m.).

With the five-hour time difference, it’s a stretch to think Americans will want to breakfast on the braised partridge and Filet de Sole Mountbatten a 21-year-old then Princess Elizabeth (now the Queen) and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten enjoyed after their wedding in 1947. Or the brill (a type of turbot) in lobster sauce and chicken breasts topped with lamb mousse that guests devoured at Diana Spencer and Prince Charles’ 1981 reception at Buckingham Palace. Definitely not the cod with oyster sauce historians believe was served after Queen Victoria’s wedding to Prince Albert in 1840, or roasted capons with mushroom-madeira sauce that graced the wedding breakfast table after the Queen Mother’s 1923 nuptials to “Bertie,” the Duke of York. You’d have to get up too darn early.

That’s not to say an easy menu that celebrates British food isn’t possible. For ideas, I tracked down on Amazon a copy of “Eating Royally” by Darren McGrady, who began cooking at Buckingham Palace shortly after the marriage of Lady Di and Prince Charles. All of the dishes I share below can be made the day before the wedding, and eaten either half-asleep in bed or enjoyed later in the day with a glass of celebratory Champagne.

Cheers, William and Kate! A toast to love and laughter, and happily ever after.

Royal Tea Scones

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Royal Scones/Gretchen McKay

These are on the sweet side but taste delicious with lemon curd. Also feel free to slather on strawberry preserves, clotted cream (a thick, buttery cream often used in desserts) or whipped cream. Be careful not to cut out the scones too large or place them too close together on the baking sheet, as they do expand.

— Gretchen McKay

  • 3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-fine granulated sugar
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 stick ( 1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 3/4 cup to 1 1/4 cups milk
  • 1 cup raisins (optional)
  • 1 beaten egg yolk for glazing

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine the flour, sugar and baking powder in a large bowl. Cut in butter and stir until flour mixture resembles fine bread crumbs. Make a well in the center of the mixture, and add beaten egg and about 3/4 cup milk. Add raisins, if using. Bring mixture together with a metal spoon, making sure you don’t overmix and toughen the dough. If mixture seems dry and crumbly, add more of the remaining milk, but add it gradually. You want a lightly bound dough that is neither too wet nor too dry.

Lightly dust a cutting board with flour, and roll or pat out dough to about 1 inch thick. Then, using a 2-inch round cookie cutter, cut out about 16 scones and place them on an ungreased baking sheet about 1 inch apart. Brush tops of scones with the beaten egg yolk.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until scones are lightly colored. Serve hot or transfer scones to a cooling rack.

Makes 16.

— “Eating Royally” by Darren McGrady (Thomas Nelson, 2007)


Homemade Lemon Clotted Cream

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Lemon extract and fresh zest brighten this traditional English spread.

  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 3 ounces mascarpone (Italian cream cheese)
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
  • 3 tablespoons powdered sugar
  • Zest of 1 lemon

In a mixing bowl fitted with a whisk, whip heavy cream until soft peaks form. Add remaining ingredients and whip until evenly combined.

Makes about 2 cups.

— Maureen Petrosky,


Asparagus and Cheese Tart

Cheese and Asparagus Tart/Gretchen McKay

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The Royal Wedding luncheon is sure to include seasonal items, including asparagus. I used grated Parmigiano-Reggiano for the dough, and cheddar for the filling.

For the pastry
  • 5 ounces plain flour
  • 3 ounces butter, cubed
  • 3 ounces cheddar or other hard cheese, finely grated
For the filling
  • 5 eggs
  • 6 ounces milk
  • 3 1/2 ounces cheddar or other hard cheese, grated
  • 10 1/2 ounces asparagus, trimmed and cut in half lengthwise

Put flour in bowl, add butter and rub with your finger tips until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add grated cheddar into the pastry and mix. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for 5 minutes. Butter a deep loose-bottom tart tin or a rectangular tart tin.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly dust the work surface with flour, roll out the pastry and line the tin. Chill in freezer for 20 minutes.

Place a square of parchment on top of the dough, fill with dried beans or pie weights and bake for 15 minutes. Remove beans and paper, and continue baking for 10 minutes.

Crack eggs in a bowl, whisk, then add milk and whisk again. Sprinkle half the grated cheese over the baked pastry, then add asparagus, egg mixture and remaining cheese. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until egg mixture is set. Serves 8.

— Adapted from

Chocolate Biscuit Cake

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The multi-tiered traditional fruit cake Fiona Cairns is baking for the lunchtime reception hosted by Queen Elizabeth will be decorated in the language of flowers. But Prince William reportedly also has asked for his childhood favorite, a no-bake cake made with McVitie’s cookies. I found the “tea biscuits” by Lyons at Market District.

Coronation chicken/Gretchen McKay


  • 1/2 tespoon butter, for greasing pan
  • 8 ounces McVitie’s rich tea biscuits
  • 4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 4 ounces dark chocolate
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 8 ounces dark chocolate, for icing
  • 1 ounce white chocolate, for decoration

Lightly grease a small (6-inch) springform pan with 1/2 teaspoon butter, and place on a parchment-lined tray. Break each of the biscuits into almond-size pieces by hand and set aside. Cream butter and sugar in a bowl until the mixture is a light lemon color.

Melt 4 ounces dark chocolate in a double boiler or microwave. Add butter and sugar mixture, stirring constantly. Add egg and continue stirring. Fold in biscuit pieces until they are all coated with the chocolate mixture.

Spoon the chocolate biscuit mixture into the prepared cake ring. Try to fill all of the gaps on the bottom of the ring, because this will be the top when it is unmolded. Chill the cake in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours.

Remove cake from refrigerator and let it stand while you melt 8 ounces of dark chocolate for icing. Slide ring off cake and turn cake upside down onto a cooling rack. Pour the melted chocolate over the cake, and smooth the top and sides using a butter knife or offset spatula. Allow chocolate icing to set at room temperature. Carefully run a knife around the bottom of the cake where it has stuck to the cooling rack, and transfer cake to a cake dish. Melt the white chocolate and drizzle on top of cake in a decorative pattern.

Makes 8 servings.

— “Eating Royally” by Darren McGrady (Thomas Nelson, 2007)

Coronation Chicken

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“You should be aware of the most famous dish invented for a Royal event,” my Londoner friend Tony Wales responded via email, when I asked what “real” Brits would be eating on the day of the royal wedding. “Coronation Chicken was designed for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation (in 1953) as a dish that every guest from every part of the Empire could happily eat (i.e. no pork, no red meat, mild spices, etc).” He included a link to a recipe for Coronation Chicken that ran in 2009 in The Telegraph.

So it’s not exactly breakfast food. But the chicken-salad-like dish is perfect for lunch after your post-wedding nap, served either with rice salad or spooned on bread.

I took a shortcut by using two supermarket rotisserie chickens.

For chicken
  • 2 chickens
  • 1 carrot
  • Splash of wine
  • Pinch of thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Handful chopped parsley
  • 4 peppercorns
For sauce
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 2 tablespoons chopped onion
  • 1 teaspoon curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon tomato puree or paste
  • 8 ounces red wine
  • 6 ounces water
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Pinch each of salt, pepper and sugar
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 2 cups mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons apricot puree, made from soaked and boiled dried apricots
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons whipped cream

Poach chicken for 40 minutes in water with carrot, wine, thyme, bay leaf, parsley and peppercorns. Cool in the liquid, then remove the meat from the bones and set aside.

To make sauce, heat oil in a pan and add chopped onion. Cook gently for 3 minutes then add curry powder. Cook for 2 more minutes. Add tomato puree or paste, wine, water, bay leaf and bring to a boil. Add pinch of salt, pepper and sugar, lemon juice, and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. Strain and cool.

Slowly add mayonnaise, then stir in apricot puree or marmalade, Season again — the sauce must not be too sweet. Finish by adding whipped cream. Add only enough sauce to coat the chicken lightly, then eat it with a rice salad.

Serves 6 to 8.

— Adapted from The Telegraph, June 2009