Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Butter, Sugar, and Downton Abbey

The old dishes I find at estate sales can come in handy at special occasions.  This was recently the case, when some vintage glass and pottery serving pieces helped support a very special event.

Shortbread cookies take center stage on
a vintage Anchor Hocking cake stand,
flanked by two antique English glass candlesticks.
That's a TV camera in the background.
KLCS, our local public TV station, was having an advance screening of the first episode of Season Five of the landmark British drama Downton Abbey.  I work with the station's management in my "day job," and I was pleased to be able to help with the refreshments for the station's viewers who attended the Downton Abbey screening and a Q&A session with actress Lesley Nicol, who plays Mrs. Patmore on the series.

Actress Lesley Nicol and KLCS station manager Sabrina Fair Thomas
field questions from the KLCS viewers
who attended the advance screening of the first episode
of Season 5 of Downton Abbey.
But I knew I couldn't do it alone.  I needed some help from my old recipe book, some vintage serving dishes I found at a couple of estate sales, some butter and some sugar.  

Since Downton Abbey is set in England, I decided to make shortbread cookies from an old recipe.


1 cup (two sticks) butter (not margarine)
at room temperature

1 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup sugar, 
plus a bit more 
for dusting the tops of the cookies

2 cups flour

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. In a medium-sized bowl, cream the butter and sugar.  Add the dry ingredients, and blend them with a fork (or your fingers) until the mixture resembles cornmeal.  You can form the cookies one of two ways: 

1) by rolling them into 1 1/2-inch balls, placing them on a baking sheet covered with baking parchment, and gently flattening the cookies with the bottom of a glass dipped in sugar; 

2) by rolling the dough on a lightly-floured board to about 1/4 inch thickness, and cutting them with small round cookie cutter.  Place the cookies on a baking sheet covered with baking parchment. Prick the top of each cookie with a fork a couple of times and dust them with sugar.

Bake the cookies at 300 degrees for about 20 minutes, until they are a very light (not medium or dark) golden brown color.   Remove the shortbread cookies from the pan and let them cool on a wire rack.  They will keep nicely for a few days in a covered container.

The shortbread cookies make a guest appearance
next to a framed picture of Lesley Nicol's
Downton Abbey character, Mrs. Patmore.
I dusted the shortbread with powdered sugar just before the guests arrived, and served them on a vintage clear glass cake stand (found at an estate sale) made by the Anchor Hocking company.

The other snack I concocted was one I make every Christmas, just because people like it so much.  It's brown sugar fudge, or penuche ("pen-OO-chee").

The penuche poses in front of a framed photo of the cast of Downton Abbey.
 Regular chocolate fudge, as well as some star-shaped
chocolate cookies, play supporting roles.

 Easy Penuche
(Brown Sugar Fudge)

1/2 cup (one stick) butter (not margarine)

1 cup brown sugar (packed)

Pinch of salt

1 teaspoon vanilla (real, not imitation)

1/4 cup milk*, 
plus additional milk 
to thin the mixture if needed

3 1/2 cups powdered sugar, preferably sifted

1 cup chopped nuts (I use walnuts)

* You may use whatever kind of milk you have on hand -- whole milk, reduced fat, or canned evaporated milk.  If you're one of those people who'd use skim milk to cut the calories, though, you need a reality check -- the calorie horse has already left the barn in this recipe.

In a large saucepan, melt the butter over low heat and stir in the brown sugar.  Bring this mixture slowly to a boil, then reduce the heat so it's just simmering, stirring constantly for about two minutes.  Scrape the sides of the pan as needed.

Remove the pan from the heat and set it aside; stir in the milk.  Bring the mixture back to a simmer and stir it over the heat for one minute.  

Remove the pan from the heat (turn the heat off -- you're through cooking) and let the mixture cool for about five minutes.  Add the vanilla and stir.  Add the powdered sugar a little at a time, mixing it until the penuche is a thick pale gold color.  If it becomes too difficult to stir, add a couple of teaspoons of milk.  Then mix in the chopped nuts.  

Pour the penuche evenly into a wax paper-lined, then buttered, 8x8" or 9x9" square pan, and set it in a cool place for a few minutes.  (The refrigerator will do just fine.)  Then cut the penuche into one-inch squares while it is still slightly soft and continue to let it cool until it is set.  Remove the wax paper with the penuche to separate the squares prior to serving.  (You can use less powdered sugar and/or more milk and turn the penuche into a very intense frosting for banana cake or date nut cake.)

The penuche, alongside some traditional chocolate fudge, was in a vintage yellow Fiesta Ware oval serving platter for our Downton Abbey reception.

The other dishes and platters I used are a couple of patterns produced by the English pottery company Susie Cooper.  

This pattern is called "Patricia Rose."

The maker's mark on the back is as artistic as the design on the front. 
This mark was used by the company from about 1932 to 1964.

This Susie Cooper pattern is called "Wedding Band."

A highlight at the reception and screening was an array of tiny mincemeat pies and hot cross buns provided by a KLCS viewer who drove in from Orange County.

A ceramic Staffordshire dog figurine keeps an eye
on an assortment of small hot cross buns.
And there was Downton Abbey tea, provided by PBS.  The station's staff brought fresh popcorn, which they served in official Downton Abbey paper cups. 

Season 5 of Downton Abbey airs on PBS stations starting in January 2015.  



Here's the KLCS website:

The PBS Downton Abbey website:

Here's a website on the history of Anchor Hocking glass:

Fiesta Ware:

And Susie Cooper:

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