Downtown Abbey Opening Season Dinner Party

by Cynthia Y. Thompson

On January 5, 2014, the long-awaited first episode of the 4th season of Downtown Abbey finally arrived on PBS. The excitement mounted as my husband and I relived the 3rd season episodes each Sunday evening – plus the previews of the coming season in anticipation of the new season. We began a new ritual of elegant dining in front of the fireplace using some of our favorite menus and recipes. However, we decided to do something extra special to celebrate the new season.

The Carmichaels of Germantown, TN

The Carmichaels of Germantown, TN

This antique silver centerpiece is always on my dining room table with seasonal flowers to match the occasion or the china service I am using.

This antique silver centerpiece is always on my dining room table with seasonal flowers to match the occasion or the china service I am using.

So we invited some fellow Downtown Abbey “groupies” over for an elegant dinner party using our French Limoges (Theodore Haviland), which my husband inherited from his grandmother. We seldom have an occasion that is appropriate to use it.

What made the dinner party really special was the music we enjoyed during dinner. The Carmichaels brought the “Downtown Abbey CD,” the original music from the television series by John Lunn. I highly recommend this lovely touch for your special Sunday night dinner if you are a fan. It will take your dinner party back to The Gilded Age.

It was an unseasonably cold evening for Memphis and the perfect time for a cozy dinner party for four. I decided on an Italian theme for the menu because I wanted to serve Grisanti’s “Elfo Special.” If you are from Memphis, you know this is a special recipe! It appeared in the Commercial Appeal on January 11, 2011, and I was so thrilled to finally have it! It’s a luscious concoction of butter, garlic, shrimp, mushrooms, grated Romano cheese and thin spaghetti. I channeled Tessie Oelrichs, known as the The Gracious Hostess among the leaders of the Newport, RI, summer colony of The Gilded Age, as I cooked imagining her servants making this meal at Rosecliff for one of her elaborate dinner parties.

Place setting of Limoges with Chantilly silver by Gorham and Cherrywood crystal also by Gorham on Battenburg lace placemats.

Place setting of Limoges with Chantilly silver by Gorham and Cherrywood crystal also by Gorham on Battenburg lace placemats.

Here’s the entire menu for our special Downtown Abbey Dinner Party.

I love using the Limoges covered casserole for sauteed spinach.

I love using the Limoges covered casserole for sauteed spinach.

A green Italian Salad with chopped romain lettuce, red onions, grape tomatoes and Parmesan cheese

Elfo’s Special Pasta

Sauteed spinach with garlic and olive oil

A  loaf of Italian bread for dipping with olive oil and freshly

ground pepper

Italian Cream Cake with Prosecco

The Limoges Coffee Service

The Limoges Coffee Service

We started the evening in the great room in front of the fire and moved to our formal dining room for dinner ending up back in front of the fire for Italian Cream Cake, coffee and Prosecco for dessert.

We made a special memory on this night and I bet there are others who did also. Did you have a special dinner party for the Downtown Abbey opening season show? If so, please share it with us!

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An Elegant Celebration Dinner Party

The china pattern is Autumn by Lenox. The engraved silverware is Chantilly by Gorham. The crystal is Lady Anne also by Gorham.

The china pattern is Autumn by Lenox. The engraved silverware is Chantilly by Gorham. The crystal is Lady Anne also by Gorham.

Recently a dear friend had very serious open heart surgery to repair an aneurism in his aorta. In his third week of recovery we decided he was up to a celebration dinner party at our house. So we invited him and his wife, another couple, and a dear friend who recently turned 95! With this diverse group, I decided a seafood dinner would be most appropriate. We started the evening around 6:30 with wine and cheese by the pool. The weather was perfect!

Wine and cheese were served by the pool.

Wine and cheese were served by the pool.

There was baked brie with walnuts and dates, which is always a popular choice among our friends. I threw in a little French surprise just for fun – ice cold radishes with butter and salt. Turns out the guest of honor loved the radish appetizer. He said he used to pick radishes from his mother’s garden growing up, and the radishes brought back warm memories for him. Isn’t it fun when you can make a nice memory for someone? Who knew? Here’s my dinner menu.

We moved to the dining room for dinner. The table was set with our Autumn Lenox china, our Lady Anne crystal by Gorham, and the Gorham Chantilly sterling silverware my husband inherited from his mother. We used our gold ruffled glass chargers with the Lenox. I love these chargers from Pier 1 because they look like Annie Glass. The sterling is engraved with my mother in-law’s three initials. When she died, her friends said she was the only lady left in the County who knew the correct forks to use. She was quite an elegant hostess and loved to entertain the local and state politicians. I think she would be delighted that we are using her sterling silverware when we entertain.

Our dinner started with Shrimp Gratin (inspired by Ina Garten’s Bay Scallop Gratin) I love this dish because it can be made ahead and kept in the refrigerator until right before dinner. Bring it out about 20 minutes before you bake it and let it come to room temperature. It’s so much fun using the scallop sea shells! Guests always “ooh and aah” when I serve with them. I have quite a collection in every size. They are so easy to find at Memphis estate sales.

Shrimp Gratin

Shrimp Gratin

The entree was seared cod with risotto and fresh asparagus. I usually sear the cod (or Chilean sea bass) on my Jenn-Air gas grill in the kitchen. On this evening, I prepared it on the gas burner of our Char Broil Red gas grill out by the pool. There was no grease splatter to clean up inside, which I loved!

Dessert was an ice cream delight inspired by a Sandra Lee’s Ice Cream Bomb Cake. This was an easy and delightful dessert for a summer evening. I’ve served it twice and there was not a drop left on the dessert plates either time. So, I’d say it’s a hit and a keeper! All you do is thaw the french vanilla ice cream in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes until it’s soft enough to stir. Then I dish it into small round individual ramekins, the ones I use for creme brulee, and let it freeze until it’s quite hard – about 2 hours. Then melt some Polaner’s Raspberry All Fruit in small sauce pan until it’s pouring consistency. Drizzle the raspberry sauce on the dessert plate and then turn the ice cream out on top. It comes out easily after setting it in hot water for 10 seconds. Then completely cover it with Magic Shell fudge chocolate and garnish with a few fresh raspberries. It makes a very dramatic dessert!

Following coffee and liqueurs, we moved to the great room for after dinner drinks and great conversation. It was such a lovely evening celebrating life with our dear friends and enjoying  great food. It was an evening I think Alexandra Stoddard would call “living a beautiful life.”

My version of Sandra Lee's Ice Cream Bomb

My version of Sandra Lee’s Ice Cream Bomb

What Happened to Elegant Dining?

When I was a teenager, I could not wait for The French Chef to come on TV each week with a new episode of cooking french meals. The Kennedys were in the White House with their French chef, and I loved reading about the elegant dinner parties they hosted. During the 60’s we were not worried about cholesterol and how many calories were in each dish. We just enjoyed good food and elegant dining – thanks to Julia! I could not wait until I was old enough to have a home of my own and begin entertaining. I dreamed of the day when I would be old enough to host my own dinner parties.

After graduating from high school, most of my girl friends headed off to college. Not I – I went to Patricia Stevens Finishing School because I wanted to make sure that I was properly trained to be a gracious hostess . . . to walk properly . . to dress correctly. . . and most importantly to use the proper fork with each course at the elegant dinner parties I planned to attend and host.

My first dinner party was for 30 people. I remember sending handwritten invitations by snail mail and people really RSVPed!!  Remember those days? It was an elegant affair and people were seated all over the house. It did not matter that everyone couldn’t fit into the dining room. Each table was elegantly draped with fine linen and the tables were set with my fine china, crystal, and silverware. There were even place cards at each place setting! The menu was composed entirely of french crepes from the appetizers to the dessert. It took weeks to make all those crepes and freeze them so that I could fill them on the day of the dinner party. I made over 150 crepes! I can still remember the wine we served – Lancer’s Rose and Blue Nun. We thought it was fine wine back in the day! What a sense of accomplishment that was hosting my first dinner party!

I then moved to my Annual Cold Duck parties at Christmas time. Everyone at the bank where I worked was invited along with their spouses to kick off the holidays at my home in the country. I purchased enough Christmas china to serve 30 people easily. Imagine – I had not learned of Martha Stewart yet and would not dream of using several china patterns. During the early 70’s, it was very popular to serve a sparkling red wine called “Cold Duck.” It went great with – you guessed it – duck a l’orange. It was quite an elegant affair and everyone was required to dress in their most festive holiday attire.

I long for those days to return. Most of the invitations I receive these days are by text or email and they always say, “Casual Attire.” And wouldn’t it be lovely to watch a chef prepare an elegant dinner party on Food Network or The Cooking Channel? I think we all know how to do casual meals by now. I am so delighted when I receive a formal invitation to a sit down dinner where the hostess actually uses china, crystal, and silver! I long to bring elegant dining back. Let’s talk about cooking, entertaining, hosting elegant events. We will discuss wine and china patterns, and floral arrangements. Let the journey begin!