royalTEA: mr. cornelius meets the Queen (with Darren McGrady’s chocolate biscuit cake!)

“I have to be seen to be believed.” ~ Queen Elizabeth II

Roll out the red carpet and practice your curtsies. Polish your tiara if you like.

A very special guest is joining us for tea today!

Mr. Cornelius has been a fan of Her Majesty the Queen for a long time. He likes that she loves animals and chocolate, lives in several beautiful royal residences, always wears the best hats, and has reigned for an amazing 60 years!

A tea lover from the start: Princess Elizabeth with her parents Queen Elizabeth and King George VI.

Needless to say, he was beside himself when she accepted our invitation. We spiffed up the dining room, stocked up on Earl Grey and Darjeeling (reputedly her favorite), and made finger sandwiches and cake.

She’s so photogenic!

We were a little nervous but she immediately put us at ease. Imagine our great surprise when she brought Charles, Camilla, William, Kate and Harry with her! They were such a jolly group and didn’t seem to mind dipping in hot water. 🙂

We filled the sandwiches with Coronation Chicken, which you may know was served at Her Majesty’s Coronation Banquet back in 1953. English food writer Constance Spry and chef Rosemary Hume are credited with inventing coronation chicken, which may have been inspired by jubilee chicken, a dish served at George V’s Silver Jubilee in 1935. It’s basically cold chicken tossed with a dressing of mayonnaise, curry spices and mango chutney, reflecting the British love of Indian cuisine. It can be served as a salad or as sandwich filling.

Of course we simply had to make Chocolate Biscuit Cake. It’s the Queen’s and Prince William’s absolute favorite, and we’ve been curious about it ever since the royal wedding, when William requested it for his Groom’s Cake.

I made Darren McGrady’s recipe from his most excellent cookbook, Eating Royally: Recipes & Remembrances from a Palace Kitchen (Thomas Nelson, 2007). Darren was chef at Buckingham Palace for eleven years, and Princess Diana’s private chef at Kensington Palace for four years after she separated from Prince Charles.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Darren’s royal reminiscences, as he worked in the kitchens  not only at Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace, but at Windsor Castle, Balmoral, Sandringham, and even aboard the HMY Britannia.

He’s included over 100 recipes, from French gourmet cuisine served at fancy balls, diplomatic receptions, state dinners and holiday celebrations, to teatime treats for garden parties, to traditional everyday British fare the royals enjoyed when dining alone. Imagine trying to get your cheese soufflés to rise when they’re wobbling back and forth and you’re seasick in a swaying yacht! Or getting your chef’s uniform soaked when two mischievous Princes race into the kitchen with their new water guns!

Pomp and ceremony aside, what I enjoyed most was hearing about Darren’s time with Diana and the boys. In stark contrast to the strict protocol followed at Buckingham Palace, life at Kensington Palace was more streamlined and relaxed. He fondly recalls how Diana sometimes sat at the kitchen counter if she was eating lunch alone, how William would wander into the kitchen in search of ice cream, happily chatting away as he polished off a scoop or two while sitting in the windowsill.

For the most part Darren was cooking simple, wholesome food for them, with the occasional splurge for childhood favorites like pizza, stuffed potato skins, and pasta. When Diana entertained, Darren would often make a fat-free version of a dish just for her, unbeknownst to the guests. And William and Harry loved to please their mother by asking to help make her favorite stuffed eggplant for dinner.

Diana’s favorite Bread and Butter Pudding recipe (photo by Leonardo Frusteri, Eating Royally).

Darren developed a special friendship with Diana during their short years together and considers Kensington Place in some ways the most important place he’s ever worked in his career. It was fascinating hearing about the day to day behind-the-scenes things that went on, some quite poignant.

Diana Frances Spencer

I didn’t realize Diana was alone at Christmas — the boys spent the holiday with the royal family at Sandringham, and Darren and the other staff members left on Christmas Eve to be with their families. He made sure to stock the fridge with her favorite goodies, but it was still heart wrenching to know she wasn’t able to spend Christmas with her boys.

Back to the Chocolate Biscuit Cake!

No doubt you heard about this no-bake confection when the whole world stopped for the royal wedding. What could be more endearing (and “normal”) than for William to request a childhood favorite instead of something fancy and French? McVitie’s made his cake using approximately 1700 rich tea biscuits.

Her Majesty also loves this cake and makes sure she orders it whenever William joins her for tea at Buckingham Palace. With this big buildup I was sure this cake would be the bee’s knees, the cake to top all cakes.

But. No. It’s not really a “cake,” more like a very rich candy bar made with melted chocolate and tea biscuit (cookie) pieces. It’s easy to prepare, but requires advance planning as it must be chilled for at least 3 hours before frosting.

Darren’s recipe calls for 8 ounces of McVitie’s Rich Tea Biscuits, which can be found in the international section of some supermarkets or at places like World Market. If you can’t find McVitie’s, try Petit Beurre or Nabisco Social Tea cookies. Use the best quality dark chocolate you can afford (I like Valrhona).

Once it’s chilled and you’ve poured melted chocolate icing over the cake, you must wait until the icing is set before serving it. Cutting this baby was quite a challenge. Think about it — would you cut a candy bar or chocolate covered cookies with a knife and then eat it with a fork? Why, no. You’d break off a piece and eat it with your hands.

But we dare not displease our guests, so we cut the “cake” using superhuman arm and wrist muscles and presented Her Majesty and the Prince with civilized pieces on pretty plates. They were delighted and didn’t struggle one bit with their forks, having had years of chocolate biscuit cake practice. Such finesse!

If you like cookies and lots of rich chocolate, you will of course love this “cake.” Next time around, though, I might add some heavy cream to the chocolate mixture and icing to see if that will make it easier to slice.

Just in case you’re expecting the Queen and/or Prince William for tea, you can find Darren’s recipe here. Supposedly the cake is better after a day or two in the fridge, when the cookies have had time to soften (and if your resident munchkins haven’t devoured the entire thing by then).

What about the Coronation Chicken?

I adapted Pamela Foster’s recipe by adding finely diced apples and celery. I do love curry powder and mango chutney, so deciding to make this chicken salad was a no-brainer. Just make sure that if the Queen’s coming, you cut the corners off any square or rectangular sandwiches, making a kind of octagonal shape. A coffin-shaped sandwich might suggest you wish her ill.



  • 2 cooked chicken breasts, chopped or shredded
  • 1/4 cup minced celery (optional)
  • 1/3 cup diced apple (optional)
  • 3/4 cup mayonnaise (or enough to moisten the chicken)
  • 1 teaspoon curry powder
  • 2 teaspoons water
  • 1/4 to 1/3 cup mango chutney
  • slices of white or whole wheat bread, crusts cut off to make squares, corners trimmed

1. Mix the chopped chicken, celery and apple with the mayo in a large bowl.

2. In a small cup, make a paste with the curry powder and water. Stir the curry into the chicken mixture, then add the mango chutney to taste.

3. Refrigerate for a few hours or overnight to allow the flavors to blend.

4. Spread the mixture between the slices of cut, trimmed bread.

Note: For a calorie-conscious version, substitute low-fat mayo, sour cream, or plain Greek yogurt for the regular mayo.

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Hold the phone!

We almost forgot something!

It’s a good thing Paddington dropped by with a plate of jam pennies, another of the Queen’s favorites. He made them with raspberry jam (not wanting to sacrifice his personal stash of marmalade). He cut them into rounds to resemble Old English pennies. Clever bear! The Queen, of course, was immensely pleased. 🙂

In all, a royally splendid tea. We extended a standing invitation to Her Majesty, who requested that next time we ready some fresh carrots for her horses. On the way out, she whispered, “I like Colin Firth, too!” See why we love her? 🙂


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♥ For more about Royal Chef Darren McGrady, who now lives in Dallas, Texas, visit his official website.

I highly recommend Eating Royally (all proceeds from the sale of this cookbook are donated to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric Aids Foundation). The insider tidbits and information about each of the royal residences alone are worth the price of admission. I like the mix of British + French cuisine, with recipes suitable for beginners as well as more experienced cooks. You might even want to make a Royal Birthday Cake (sinfully rich), just in time for the Queen’s Birthday on April 21. 🙂

Queen’s Birthday Tea: Scones, Chocolate Birthday Cake, sandwiches and Raspberry Tartlets.

Enjoy this recent video where Darren talks a little about “Downton Abbey.” He’s leading a culinary tour to England in August 2014 that includes visits to Sandringham and Highclere Castle (more info at his website):

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wkendcookingiconThis post is being linked to Beth Fish Read’s Weekend Cooking, where all are invited to share their food-related posts. Click through and join in the deliciousness!


Copyright © 2014 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.


46 thoughts on “royalTEA: mr. cornelius meets the Queen (with Darren McGrady’s chocolate biscuit cake!)

    1. LOL — yes, hot tubs, hot cups, both fun and relaxing :). I love the old photos too. She was quite an endearing child.


    1. Cornelius enjoys hob nobbing with famous people. Wonder if he’ll still talk to us once he’s rich and famous? 🙂


  1. I especially love the old photos, Jama, along with the recipes of course. And those tea bags are such fun. It must be a very interesting book! Thanks for sharing so much today! Have a cup of tea for me, too!


    1. I really enjoyed Darren’s book. Looking at old photos is always fun, too. I shall think of you while I drink my tea today. Have a nice day, Linda!


  2. Wonderful post, Jama! I didn’t know that Diana spent Christmas alone, that’s so sad. I love those tea bags and that chocolate cake looks divine.


    1. I was sad when I read that. Wonder why she couldn’t have spent Christmas with her brother or someone else in the Spencer family?


  3. So splendid that Cornelius got to be a part of the “Royal We”! I was surprised to find out that Biscuit Cake is made from biscuits and not very cakey. = )


    1. Not cakey at all. From my limited personal experience, I also noted that British cakes made from actual batters aren’t as soft and moist as what we’re used to. They pour warm custard over everything to compensate it seems. 🙂


  4. Love the royal-tea bags! I know someone who would love that as a gift.

    Celebrity trivia: When Cher met Queen Elizabeth, she curtsied. That, by a non-British subject, is a no-no.


  5. Your tea parties are always so thorough! I enjoyed the little bit of extra information about Princess Diana. Usually folks don’t bother to analyze much about her life beyond calling her an inspiration, etc. I have a feeling I would be very, very fond of the chocolate biscuit cake… perhaps I will save that idea for a special occasion!


    1. Yes, the biscuit cake is rich and should be saved for special occasions — or at least when there are lots of people to help you eat it. 🙂

      I still miss Diana, and think she would be so proud of her sons today. She really got a bum deal with the whole Camilla thing. She will forever be beloved by the British people, and it’s nice that her philanthropic efforts inspired Darren to donate his proceeds towards a charity devoted to two causes she actively supported — AIDS and the welfare of children.


  6. I had no idea the royal family took tea baths! But pictures don’t lie. 😉
    And of course, they could not resist your and Cornelius’s hospitality!


  7. Oh, I loved this post. I especially loved all the pictures of Princess Elizabeth. I wrote an article about her that was in Highlights last March. She is a real favorite of mine. I need to find these tea bags.They are so cute. Thanks!


  8. I love the tea bags!! What fun. And I’ve been curious about the chocolate biscuit cake so thanks for the link and and the photos. And I didn’t know about cutting off the corners of my tea sandwiches… Will do that from now on.


  9. I have always been fascinated with the life of royals. How interesting to get a peek into their kitchen. Both recipes sound fabulously yummy.


  10. What fun! Thanks. I may want to read this book before our hoped-for trip to London this fall. I’m planning on a Royal Palaces walking tour that ends with the Changing of the Guard.


  11. I’m starting to imagine your house as an idyllic spot, straight out of a classic children’s book! Enjoyed every word of this lovely post, as always, and especially admire your beautiful blend of imaginative play, historical facts, and current references throughout!


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