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Britain vs America (Photo: ITV/ THEO KINGMA / REX)

Social media is all abuzz this week with the announcement from Downton Abbey producers that Shirley MacLaine has been cast to play Martha Levinson, Cora Crawley’s mother in Season 3. Perhaps any crumb about the new season would be eagerly gobbled up by starving Downton fans who have seen all previous episodes (some many times…guilty). Even the huge feast of the Christmas Special could hardly keep us satisfied for long.

But this casting news is no small crumb. Downton Abbey has drawn a wide huge audience from the United States, many from a younger demographic than what PBS normally attracts. Brian Wheeler, BBC News Washington correspondent recently wrote a great piece: The US Cult of Downton Abbey, examining the popularity. Some insights include great looking young people both upstairs and down, American fascination with British Aristocracy, a glimpse into a simpler time, and it’s free on PBS, so that everyone can enjoy it.

Sparks are Sure to Fly

The first leap fans have made is that Martha will certainly be an formidable match for the caustic Violet, who has been quite public about her views about Americans. I particularly enjoyed her “wigwam” quip to Cora–Canadians ensure references to the”igloo’s”we apparently all live in.

This clip foreshadows the relationship Violet is to share with Martha. Oscar winning actress Shirley MacLaine will surely not disappoint in generating some memorable drama on the show.

Anglo American relations in the 1920s

This is all great for ratings, but the brilliance of the choice ties in well with history. Season 3 will be set in the 1920s, an important period in history which signalled the rise of the United States and decline of Britain as a world power. What better symbolism of the struggle for world domination than cat fights between two feisty old ladies. “Without our family money, Downton would have been ruined” Pow! “Oh good, let’s talk about money”. Bam!

Back to Food

As a foodie I am delighted to see the introduction of another major American character. Cora follows the British traditions in her newly adopted homeland. Her mother, how ever, will likey have much to say about broadening their horizons to American ideas of the time (think The Great Gatsby). Including food. I can also imagine her own maid packing newly created American sweets like Oreos, Wrigleys Gum and Twizzlers. I see Daisy in a sugar coma and Mrs. Hughes scraping chewing gum out of carpets.

The introduction of American influences into Downton opens the door for me to explore more of the amazing foods invented by Americans in that era. Cupcakes (aka fairy cakes), for example is every girl’s idea of a good time. Red velvet cupcakes are my favorite, which were created around WWI which used beets, providing the red color.

The American English Muffin vs. The British Crumpet

Americans also gave us those lovely muffins we enjoy in North America as a quick breakfast. Visiting relatives from the UK will not immediately recognize the tray of muffins you put in front of them. You may also think that English Muffins are a British invention when in fact they are an Americanized version of the English. Both are yeast based and relatively simple to make. Try them yourself. Which is better? Who cares? Either way your tummy will thank you.

So the battle of between Violet and Martha may boil down to the preference between crumpets and english muffins; who cares which is better as long as we get a taste.

English Crumpets

yes you can make your own crumpets

Ingredients

  • 3 2/3 cups all purpose flour
  • 1.5 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 envelope active dry yeast (2 1/4 tsp.)
  • 1/2 tsp. sugar
  • 2 1/4 cups lukewarm water
  • 3 1/2 tsp. coarse sea salt, crushed or ground
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 2/3 cup lukewarm milk

Special Equipment

  • crumpet rings about 3 1/2 inches diameter, greased. You can also use tuna cans, biscuit cutters which make wee portion controlled crumpets.

Method

  1. Sift together the flours and baking powder into a large bowl.
  2. Pour 3/4 cup of lukewarm water into a glass, sprinkle yeast over the water, add the sugar and let stand until foamy, 5 to 10 minutes.
  3. Stir in the remaining lukewarm water.
  4. Mix the yeast mixture into the flour to make a very thick, but smooth batter, beating vigorously with your hand or a wooden spoon for two minutes.
  5. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let stand in a warm spot until the batter rises and then falls, about 1 hour.
  6. Add the salt and beat the batter for about 1 minute. Then cover the bowl and let stand in a warm spot for 15 to 20 minutes, so the batter can rest.
  7. Dissolve the baking soda in the lukewarm milk. Then gently stir it into the batter. The batter should not be too stiff or your crumpets will be “blind” — without holes — so it is best to test one before cooking the whole batch.

Cook your crumpets

a batch of crumpets on the go

  1. Heat a very clean griddle or frying pan over moderately low heat for about 3 minutes until very hot.
  2. Put a well-greased crumpet ring on the griddle.
  3. Spoon or pour 1/3 cup of the batter into the ring. The amount of batter will depend on the size of your crumpet ring. The crumpet should be about 3/4 inch thick.
  4. As soon as the batter is poured into the ring, it should begin to form holes. If holes do not form, add a little more lukewarm water, a tablespoon at a time, to the batter in the bowl and try again.
  5. If the batter is too thin and runs out under the ring, gently work in a little more all-purpose flour and try again. Once the batter is the proper consistency, continue with the remaining batter, cooking the crumpets in batches, three or four at a time.As soon as the top surface is set and covered with holes, 7 to 8 minutes, the crumpet is ready to flip over.
  6. To flip the crumpet, remove the ring with tongs, then turn the crumpet carefully with a spatula. The top, cooked side should be chestnut brown.
  7. Cook the second, holey side of the crumpet for 2 to 3 minutes, or until pale golden.
  8. Remove the crumpet from the griddle. Be sure that the crumpet rings stay well oiled.
  9. Crumpets are best enjoyed toasted with your favorite spread.

English Muffins

English muffins: americanized crumpet

English muffins were invented in the 19th century in America. They are likely called “English” muffins as they were based on the crumpet. Like crumpets they are yeast based, and thicker than crumpets. English muffins are a quick and easy breakfast because they were designed to be quick and easy. Cut them in half and you get two surfaces to spread your favorite preserves. This version comes from my favorite book of yeast breads, Great Bread Every Time.

makes 12  – 14 muffins

Ingredients

  • 1 cup warm water
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 1 tbsp. traditional yeast
  • 3 tbsp. sugar
  • 1/2 cup skim milk powder
  • 1 egg
  • 1½ tsp salt
  • 3 tbsp melted margarine
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1/4 cup cornmeal

Method

  1. Proof:  In a bread bowl, pour 1 cup warm water.  Add 1 teaspoon of sugar, but do not stir.   Slowly sprinkle 1 tablespoon yeast into the water, making sure each particle gets wet.  Again, do not stir.  Wait 10 minutes until the yeast is thick and foamy.
  2. Mix:  Then add the following ingredients, stirring well between each addition:  3 tablespoons sugar, ½ cup skim milk powder, 1 egg, 1½ teaspoons salt, 1 cup flour, 3 tablespoons melted margarine.
  3. Add Flour (slowly):  add flour ½ cup at a time to retain a soft dough.  Coat the dough lightly with flour before turning it out.
  4. Knead: turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic.  About 8 minutes.
  5. 1st Rising: Place the dough in a greased bowl, turn to grease the tip, set in a warm draft free place, allow to rise until double:  1½ hours.
  6. Shape:  turn the dough out onto a clean surface and with a rolling pin roll inot a rectangle that is 1/2 inch thick.  Let the dough rest for a minute, and then cut it out with a 2″ biscuit cutter.  Place the muffins on a ungreased cookie sheet that has been sprinkle with some of the cornmeal.  Continue gathering the dough up and rolling it out until all of the dough has been used up.
  7. 2nd Rising:  Place the cookie sheet in a warm, draft-free spot and allow to rise until double, about 30 minutes.
  8. Cook:  sprinkle an electric frying pan or griddle with cornmeal after preheating to 350 degrees F.  Place the muffins on the cornmeal and cook for 10 minutes on each side.
  9. Enjoy:  Cut in two and slather with butter and your favorite jam while still warm, or toast.

For Crumpet and other Tea Recipes