Viewers are flocking to the worlds of The Hobbit and Downton Abbey. • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Peter Jackson's prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, broke December opening-weekend box office records, and Downton Abbey, PBS's hit show, drew 5.4 million viewers for its Season 2 finale. • What's the appeal? • Some say it's the acclaimed directors or the award-winning cinematography. I say it's the food. Whether it's the comforting meals of Middle-earth or the glamorous Grantham dinner parties, we can't help wanting just a taste. • Now's your chance to pretend you live in a cozy hobbit hole or a glamorous British mansion (your choice) by having a themed meal party with fellow fans.
In theaters now
To re-create Bilbo's hobbit hole, just remember what made it so welcoming — the food, of course.
In Chapter 1, Bilbo prepares a meal for Gandalf and the dwarves that is similar to high tea, a meal the British working classes might have at the end of the day. Invite some fellow Anglophiles to share this comfort food, and you'll feel like you're in Middle-earth in no time. Plus, it's easy to decorate for the occasion. Just hang this sign on your front door (every dwarf will know what it means): "Burglar wants a good job, plenty of Excitement and reasonable Reward." Don't worry about what your neighbors think. (Bilbo had trouble with his, too.)
Start by offering your guests a cup of hot English breakfast tea or a cold beer. Serve some sliced, cold roasted chicken from your local grocery store. (Or roast one yourself if you're so inclined.) It's one of Gandalf's requested foods, and everybody knows that if you create a spread fit for wizards, one is bound to show up. Next, toss a mixed salad with sliced hard-boiled eggs and season with oil and vinegar dressing. It's a healthy addition to an otherwise sweet meal.
That brings me to Bilbo's favorite portion of the tea: seed cakes, which he liked to save for an after-supper treat. You can serve guests your own twist on his recipe by baking a lemon poppy seed cake. Unlike Bilbo, you won't have to worry about running out of cakes, because you'll have plenty of baked goods for your guests to sample. It's just not high tea without some buttered scones. If you want to make the dwarves happy (they'll show up whether you invite them or not), offer raspberry jam on the side. Finally, a warm apple tart with sliced cheddar cheese will complete the meal. If you really want authenticity, offer your guests some pipes and practice blowing smoke rings before a roaring fire. Who needs Middle-earth when you can enjoy all of its treats, without worrying about dragons?
Returns Sunday on PBS
Downton Abbey enthusiasts, the wait is almost over. While fans overseas have already devoured Season 3, we've endured yet another four months without even a glimpse of our favorite British family. Now that Downton is about to reach American shores on Sunday, it's time to celebrate with a high-class dinner party that would make even the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) nod in approval.
Although a traditional dinner party at Downton would call for up to 22 courses, we've streamlined the menu to a more manageable size. After all, not everybody has a Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) to cook for them. To echo the lavish feel of the show — half its appeal comes from its gorgeous costumes and sets — ask guests to dress in elegant evening wear. You can pretend that Anna (Joanne Froggatt) is there to help you put on your red silk chiffon dress. Let's face it, we all wish we had a lady's maid like her, to help us do our hair and hide the occasional dead body. Fine china and flickering candlelight will help transport your guests into the early 20th century, when people like the Dowager Countess still feared the dangerous vapors of electricity.
You will begin your elegant dinner with a first course of leek and parsnip soup with caviar and black-pepper cream, which can be prepared up to a week before your party and refrigerated (a big advantage when you don't have a Downton-sized kitchen staff). For the meat and vegetable courses, serve a balsamic-glazed London broil and oven-roasted asparagus. These dishes are so easy to make, even kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) couldn't mess them up. (Despite her growing talent in the kitchen, I'm still not ready to overlook the episode where she confused household poison with a chopped egg garnish. Had the poison made it upstairs, there may never have been a second season!) Toast with a glass of cabernet sauvignon. After dinner, treat your guests to a chocolate ginger cake with bourbon sauce. If any dessert can capture the decadence of the Grantham lifestyle, this would be it.
As you prepare for your dinner, just remember, confidence is key. You are the mistress of the house. As the Dowager Countess would say, "Don't be defeatist, dear. It's so middle class."