The characters of “Downton Abbey,” the long-running PBS historical drama spun into a feature film that premiered Friday, are beloved. The starchy butler Carson, the bon-mot-slinging Dowager Countess, the chauffeur-turned-family-member Tom Branson …
But food, food has always been a star, too — the teas and puddings and roasts and cakes and souffles, around which both the downstairs servants and the upstairs British aristocrats banter and scheme.
That tradition continues in the new movie, where food not only serves as a lush prop painting a picture of life in an opulent country estate, circa 1927, but as a key agent of the plot, which centers on a visit by King George V and Queen Mary that upends life at Downton and conveniently ushers in new characters to join the soapy goings-on.
In the two-hour film, the procurement, storage, preparation and presentation of food is the crux of the action among Downton’s staff. And upstairs, as ever, the drama revolves around the table. At least twice, (mild spoiler alert!) food is used as a weapon in one of the movie’s central conflicts: the battle between the Crawley family’s staff and the visiting battalion of royal servants imported to Downton for the monarch’s visit.
“A royal luncheon, a parade and a dinner? I’m going to have to sit-down!” sputters Mrs. Patmore, the oft-beleaguered cook of the family estate, in an early scene. Another not-so-spoiler: She doesn’t sit, or at least for long, and the household is swiftly caught up in a whirlwind of preparation.
This is the cake you’re likely to spot on a side table at the Crawley family’s afternoon tea on “Downton Abbey.” Madeira cake, named after the fortified Portuguese wine with which it was often paired, was a favorite throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. We can see why: It has a delicate citrus flavor and a tender crumb that holds together well enough to not mar a beautiful dress. It may remind you of a lightened-up pound cake.
Note: Dusting the pan with sugar instead of flour gives a slightly crunchy exterior. Feel free to swap in orange or lime zest for the lemon.
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, plus more for the pan
1 cup flour
Finely grated lemon zest from 1 large lemon (about 1 tablespoon)
½ teaspoon baking powder
3 large eggs
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus more, at room temperature, for the pan
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees with the rack in the middle. Grease an 8½ by 4½-inch loaf pan, then lightly coat with sugar, tapping out the excess.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, lemon zest and baking powder. Beat the eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer on medium-high speed, until thick, pale yellow and creamy, 3 to 5 minutes. Gradually beat in the sugar until thoroughly combined, followed by the melted butter and vanilla. Carefully fold in the flour mixture just until combined, taking care not to deflate the egg mixture. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.
Get the pan into the oven quickly, before the eggs have a chance to collapse. Bake for about 35 minutes, until the top of the cake is a rich golden brown and the sides have just started pulling away from the pan. (The cake will not rise to the top of the pan.) A skewer inserted into the center of the cake should come out clean.
Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then carefully turn the cake out onto the rack (a round-edge knife can help loosen it, if necessary), turn the cake upright and let cool completely before serving.
Makes 8 to 10 servings (makes an 8½-inch loaf). Nutrition per serving (based on 10 servings): 210 calories; 10 grams total fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 90 milligrams cholesterol; 45 milligrams sodium; 27 grams carbohydrates; no dietary fiber; 17 grams sugar; 3 grams protein.
— Adapted from “The Official Downton Abbey Cookbook” by Annie Gray. Weldon Owen, 2019.