My charming conversation with the disarming Lesley Nicol
“Neither Sophie, who plays Daisy [on Downton Abbey], nor I are any kind of cook. We made sure that we never did anything too technical. So if anybody watches it closely, they’ll see that I never do anything, like even rolling pastry: I won’t do that, because I won’t do it right. I season things, I stir, I present things, and I shout at people, and that seems to me what the chefs do, isn’t it?”
It is really easy to have a guest that everyone loves, and everyone loves Lesley Nicol, who is today’s guest on Food with Mark Bittman. Many of you know her as the curmudgeonly cook Mrs. Patmore from Downton Abbey — the second movie, Downton Abbey: A New Era, comes out this Friday — and I can’t imagine Downton not being one of the most-rewatched shows of the pandemic.
Some of you, though — and I’m talking about our family friend Kevin and people of Kevin’s young age — love Lesley Nicol for her role as Mrs. Beaver in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (and yes, I talked to her about that, and the infamous beaver suit). Before even arriving at Downton, she spent much of her career as a series television regular and is also known for her theater work. The joy and appreciation she brings to her work and her passions outside of her job are apparent, and this is a fun interview.
The recipes featured in the episode — from the Downton Abbey Afternoon Tea Cookbook, naturally — are below. Please listen, subscribe, and review. And we’d love to hear your food-related questions, as we’d like to start doing live Q&A: Email us at email@example.com.
Finally, and most importantly, I’d like to express my condolences to Lesley, whose husband, David Keith Heald, passed away suddenly earlier this month, shortly after she and I talked. From me and my team, Lesley: We are sending you our love.
Thank you, as always. — Mark
English Cream Scones
Makes: 10 scones
Scones have been essential to the British teatime tradition since the mid-nineteenth century, when, according to legend, the fashionable Duchess of Bedford ordered her servants to sneak the small cakes and hot tea into her room for an afternoon snack. In time, she began inviting her friends to join her for afternoon tea, and this homey ritual became a social trend. Queen Victoria, hearing of the new convention, soon began hosting fancy-dress tea parties. The tradition continued into the twentieth century, with Mrs. Patmore serving scones to Lord and Lady Grantham at her bed-and-breakfast in season 6 of Downton Abbey. — The Official Downton Abbey Afternoon Tea Cookbook
2 cups (250 g) flour, plus more for the work surface
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons sugar, plus 1 tablespoon for sprinkling
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (70 g) dried currants
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (200 ml) heavy cream
For the topping
1 egg white, lightly beaten with 1 teaspoon water
1. Preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C). Have ready an ungreased sheet pan.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, the 2 teaspoons of sugar, and salt. Using a large spoon, stir in the currants and cream just until combined. Using your hands, gently gather the dough together, kneading it against the side of the bowl until it holds together in a rough ball.
3. Lightly flour a work surface and turn the dough out onto it. Roll out the dough about 3⁄4 inch (2 cm) thick. Using a 3-inch (7.5-cm) round cutter, cut out rounds from the dough, pressing straight down and lifting straight up and spacing them as closely together as possible. Place the dough rounds at least 2 inches (5 cm) apart on the sheet pan. Gather up the dough scraps, knead briefly on the floured work surface, roll out the dough again, cut out more rounds, and add them to the pan.
4. Using a pastry brush, lightly brush the tops of the scones with the egg white mixture, then sprinkle evenly with the remaining sugar.
5. Bake the scones until golden, 10-12 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Mock Clotted Cream
Makes about 1 cup (250 g)
Clotted cream is a requisite component of a proper English cream tea and a classic accompaniment to scones. Prized for its natural thick consistency and mild nutty flavor, it is produced in Devon and Cornwall, where it is known as Devonshire cream and Cornish cream respectively. It is made by heating unpasteurized milk until a thick layer of cream forms on its surface and then skimming off the cream layer once the milk has cooled. Although no combination of ingredients can replicate the unique flavor and consistency of true clotted cream, this mock recipe, which mixes mascarpone cheese with heavy cream, is a respectable substitute. — The Official Downton Abbey Afternoon Tea Cookbook
1/2 cup (120 ml) heavy cream
1 cup (225 g) mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar, or to taste
1. In a bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the cream on medium-high speed until soft peaks form. On medium speed, add the mascarpone and sugar and beat until incorporated. Taste, then adjust with more sugar if needed. Serve at once.
— Recipes from The Official Downton Abbey Afternoon Tea Cookbook