Fun, Foodie Mysteries

Mystery novels. Are you a fan of them? I am, to a point.  This is not my #1 favourite genre but there definitely are some mystery series that I absolutely love.  The series which I do read faithfully are by British authors and the tone is generally between a cozy mystery and a thriller.

A colleague of mine who loved gory police procedurals used to comment on the fact that both she and I read mysteries but mine were the ones with the “bloodless” murders.  And really, that’s true. I have no interest in reading a book that will give me nightmares and I’m definitely more about the solving of the crime(s) through deduction rather than guns ablazing and shootouts in the menacing back alleys of big cities.

Sometimes though I need a change from the small village, multiple murder novels from the UK and switch to something lighthearted. These two American authors fit the bill.

Diane Mott Davidson was probably one of the earlier foodie mystery writers, starting her Goldy Schulz mystery series over 25 years ago with Catering to Nobody.  Goldy is a single mother who is trying to raise her son while make a living in Colorado as a caterer. In the course of building her client list and catering at various locations, public and private, evil doings start to occur and Goldy can’t help but become involved. Catering to Nobody was nominated for an Agatha Award for in the “Best First Novel” category but was beaten out by Katherine Hall Page for The Body in the Belfry.  All of Davidson’s novels include recipes of dishes mentioned in the story and in fact, in 2015, Davidson released a combination cookbook-memoir titled Goldy’s Kitchen Cookbook : cooking, writing, family, life.

The other is G.A. McKevett.  McKevett (a pseudonym for Sonja Massie) is the author of 50 books which include the 22 (so far!) which feature ex-cop turned private detective Savannah Reid. The titles always make me smile (“Fat Free and Fatal”, “Corpse Suzette”, “Cooked Goose” … you get the idea) and so do the stories themselves. A transplanted Georgia peach and lover of fine dining and Southern homestyle delights, Savannah sets up the Moonlight Magnolia Detective Agency and soon is trying to clean up the streets of LA…or at least, her area of Southern California.

In a side note about culinary mysteries, back in the 90s British culinary writer, Janet Laurence, wrote a mystery series featuring (surprise, surprise) a culinary writer named Darina Lisle. They were light reads but the sleuthing was well thought out. If you can get your hands on them, they’re worth a read.

Enjoy this recipe from Diane Mott Davidson’s “Catering to Nobody”, a favourite with my family. And if you’re looking for a light mystery, give these authors a try.

— Sandi H.

Dungeon Bars (a.k.a. Oatmeal Raisin Bars)

1 c. unsalted butter, softened

½ c brown sugar

½ c white sugar

2 eggs

2 tsp vanilla

1 c. all-purpose flour

½ tsp salt

¼ tsp baking soda

1 c. oatmeal

1 c. raisins

Preheat oven to 350F.

Cream butter and sugars.  Beat in eggs and vanilla. Add in flour, salt and soda. Stir in oats and raisins.

Spread mixture in a lightly greased 9 x 13” pan. Bake for 30 minutes. Cool slightly and cut into bars.

Only in Naples

What is it about Italy?  I am not Italian nor do I have any Italian blood in my ancestry but like millions of others, I enjoy preparing Italian dishes to savour, dream of visiting Italy (especially when shovelling the driveway again after the snow plow rumbles through), contemplate trying to learn the language online (free through Mango Languages with your library membership, by the way) and love to read about those travelling or relocating to Italia.

So, when I spied “Only in Naples” by Katherine Wilson on the new books display at the Main Library, it was a no brainer. Charming cover, combination foodie memoir and travelogue, set in ITALY.  Yes, this was a book for me.

American Katherine Wilson, a Princeton graduate from a privileged family, travelled to Italy on an unpaid internship. Through reaching out to a local contact, she meets Salvatore Avallone and his family. She quickly falls in love with one while being completely and warmly embraced by the other.

This memoir is light and humourous with Wilson sharing embarrassing moments and charming ones. And she also shares very important facts with her readers. For example, “Never eat the crust of a pizza first.” This is a major faux pas in Naples, the home of pizza.  Apparently pizza originally was a dish only enjoyed by the poor but soon became widely accepted, especially after the visit of Queen Margherita of Savoy. Yes, that Margherita pizza you enjoy at Famoso in UpTown Waterloo was first made in Naples.

Through the close relationship she forms with her future mother-in-law, Raffaella, Wilson learns about the culture and traditions of the Neapolitan people.  She is guided through the “do’s and don’ts” of her adopted homeland. She is also painstakingly taken through the careful preparation of dishes which Raffaella swears her Salvatore will not be able to live without!  Not that he’d have to since the newlyweds end up setting up house in the same apartment complex as the parents.  And, you guessed it, Raffaella sends some of her “famous” dishes (which Katherine struggles to duplicate exactly) to them daily via the elevator. Now that’s takeaway with a personal touch!

“Only in Naples” is a heartwarming book and I did enjoy it although I have to admit the smattering of Italian words and phrases started to feel a bit affected by halfway through the book.  Recipes are included but I wasn’t enticed enough to try them.  The descriptions of the food, the sauces, the cooking methods, will send you scurrying to Vincenzo’s for provisions as soon as you can!

I have been lucky enough to visit Italy and yes, it was a wonderful as I imagined, and yes, you should go if you ever have the opportunity. We visited northern Italy for an all-too-brief time, lingering in Milan and at Lake Como and having the most incredible and memorable meal of our lives.  (my husband still says the best pizza he ever had was in Innsbruck, Austria but that’s another story) Oh, and YES, we definitely plan to return to Italy and explore many other regions.

I don’t have a traditional, Neapolitan recipe to share from my own collection at this time so another favourite Italian recipe will simply have to do!

— Sandi H.

Chicken Marsala

3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut crosswise into 3 pieces
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tblsp olive oil
2 tblsp butter
1 onion, chopped
15 cremini mushrooms, sliced
2 tblsp minced garlic
1 c Marsala wine
3/4 c mascarpone cheese
2 tblsp Dijon mustard
2 tblsp chopped fresh Italian parsley
Fettucine or mashed potatoes

Instructions

Heat olive oil in heavy, large skillet.

Sprinkle the chicken with salt and pepper. Cook until just brown, then remove to a plate and cool slightly

While the chicken cools, melt 2 tblsp of the butter in the skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and saute 2 minutes or until tender.  Add mushrooms and garlic. Saute 12 minute or until mushroom juices evaporate. Add wine and simmer 4 minutes or until the sauce reduces by half. Stir in mascarpone and mustard.

Cut the chicken into 1/3″ thick slices. Return to the skillet and coat with sauce. Cook for 2 minutes over medium-low heat until chicken is completely cooked through. Stir in parsley. Season with more salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with buttered fettucine noodles or mashed potatoes. Smells divine and tastes even better! If serving with potato, I recommend roasted carrots as a side dish.

Battle of the Confections

How often do you have two books you’ve placed on hold come in at the same time AND they both have a slightly unique word in the title?

Last week The Confectioner’s Tale (by Laura Madeleine) and Confections of a Closet Master Baker (by Gesine Bullock Prado) came in for me at the library. One fiction, the other non-fic. One new, one oldish. Both I’d looked forward to reading. Both had engaging covers…not that we ever judge a book by that!

After a very technical decision process (eenymeenyminymoe) I started with the novel, The Confectioner’s Tale. The book bounces between Paris in 1910 and Cambridge (England, not Ontario) in 1988. A reluctant student, Petra, discovers a mysterious photo of her beloved grandfather. Setting aside her studies, Petra sets out on a quest to learn the truth behind the old black and white.

The back story follows a young man, Gui, who is struggling to survive in Paris in the early days of the 20th century. He works long days, labouring for the railway, sending the majority of his pay home, while dreaming of a better life. This “better life” would be in the kitchen of one of the top patisseries in Paris, learning on the job to become a top if not master baker. A chance encounter with the owner’s daughter and a dramatic rescue during the devastating Paris floods, sets Gui on the path to the career (and the woman) of his dreams. But, as we all know, “be careful what you wish for” are words to heed.

While I found the story, particularly that focusing on Petra’s journey through her grandfather’s past, interesting, the book really didn’t hold my attention completely. I could put it down BUT I was curious enough to read it cover to cover and crave a freshly made raspberry macaron. Onto Confections of a Closet Master Baker.

I learned about Gesine Bullock-Prado through a friend. Yes, the author is Sandra Bullock’s sister but this book isn’t about stars, Hollywood or the movie industry. Those topics are touched upon lightly as Bullock-Prado previously worked as head of her famous sister’s production company. While she and her sister are very close, the Hollywood lifestyle was not for Bullock-Prado. Basically, she hated it.

Bullock-Prado and her husband, Ray, who is also in the movie industry, made the leap. They quit their jobs, moved to Montpelier, Vermont and open a small bakery/coffee shop. Throughout the book, family recipes are shared as are memories, the majority focusing on Bullock-Prado’s mother, a former opera singer.

The stories she shares are in turns humourous and touching. The recipes sound wonderful although some are most definitely not for beginners. I flew through the book, enjoyed each shared memory and made note of a fair number of recipes I definitely want to try.

So, the winner of the Battle of the Confections? Confections of a Closet Master Baker. I’m looking forward to reading her other biography/memoir, “My Life From Scratch.” which I have already placed an interlibrary loan request for as it is not part of the WPL collection. For a list of Bullock-Prado’s cookbooks, visit http://www.gbakes.com/p/books.html

In honour of Bullock-Prado generously sharing family recipes for her favourite baked goods, I will do the same, sharing my great-grandmother’s recipe for devil’s food cake. She first made it in the late 1930s/early 1940s and it has been THE birthday cake recipe in our family every since. Enjoy.

— Sandi H.

Devil’s Food Cake

½ c Fry’s cocoa
2 tsp baking soda
½ c. warm water
¾ c butter, softened
1 ¾ c. white sugar
¾ c sour milk*
2 eggs, room temperature
2 ½ c all purpose flour

Preheat oven to 375F.

Grease 2 – 8” round baking tins. Set aside.

In medium bowl whisk together cocoa, soda, and warm water. Set aside.

In mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar. Stir in sour milk and eggs. Blend in flour and then the chocolate-soda mixture.

Divide batter evenly between the two pans. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the cakes pass the tooth pick test. Let cool slightly in tins before removing the cakes to cool on racks. When completely cool, ice with your favourite frosting.

* for the sour milk, we measure out the ¾ c milk, add a little lemon juice, and letting stand for a few minutes

Let’s Hear It For Tartan!

Unless you’ve been living under a rock since 1990 you have probably heard of Diana Gabaldon’s hugely popular “Outlander” series of time-travelling books featuring strong-willed, ex-Army nurse Clare Randall and Highland warrior, Jamie Fraser.  If somehow those 8 large novels (and the series isn’t wrapped up yet!) escaped your attention, maybe the current “Outlander” TV show has caught your eye.

Between the incredible historical detail (thanks to Gabaldon’s exhaustive amount of research), a cast of intriguing characters and the stunning backdrop of the Scottish Highlands, these books have gripped the imaginations of millions of men and women around the world.

Confession time.  I have never read these books. Over the years, many WPL customers have raved about them to me, encouraging me to give the series a try. Colleagues too have recommended them as the “perfect book for you”.  Yes, with my Irish family plus Scottish and English roots, my reading tastes are decidedly slanted to contemporary British authors and books set in the UK and Ireland. So, I have tried on 3 separate occasions to read “Outlander” and each time didn’t make it past the first couple of chapters. I don’t know why but the books don’t hold my attention.

They did catch Canadian author KC Dyer’s attention, though, and she has written a very cute, funny, charming book called “Finding Fraser”.  This book I read over a weekend.  Actually, I read most of it sitting in the sun on the deck of my favourite coffee shop in Stratford, Balzac’s, but I digress.

“Finding Fraser” is the story of 29-year old Emma Sheridan, a HUGE fan of Diana Gabaldon’s books and great admirer of the fictional character, Jamie Fraser. Emma’s life in Chicago isn’t going so well.  The only job she has done well at and managed to hold onto is coffee shop waitress. Her love life, well, it (like Jamie Fraser) doesn’t exist.

Frustrated and perhaps a bit desperate, Emma decides to sell all of her worldly possession, which are few, quit her job and travel to Scotland. Perhaps in Scotland life will make more sense, will come together, and maybe she’ll even find a real-life Jamie Fraser of her own. In an attempt to make the trip seem more focused than frivolous, she decides to blog about her highland adventure.

“Finding Fraser” is a light, fun, fast read which actually made me quite literally LOL in a few places. Emma’s adventures in Scotland are fairly comedic and I felt in turn sorry for her and, yes, even a little envious at moments.  Fans of the “Outlander” series will enjoy it (and the book does have Gabaldon’s blessing) but, as I have proven, it’s not a prerequisite.

Now, deciding what recipe to share this time round was easy.  It must be shortbread!  I usually make a very traditional shortbread with white sugar, butter and flour. However, one of my favourite shortbread recipes is one shared by a former WPL colleague and is a little different. Warning. It is soooo delicious (especially warm from the oven) and you will not be able to stop at eating just one piece.

Brown Sugar Shortbread

½ lb. butter, softened
½ c. brown sugar, packed
2 ¼ c. all-purpose flour
White sugar (for sprinkling)

Preheat oven to 300F.

Lightly grease a cookie sheet and set aside.  Lightly flour a baking board and rolling pin. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Add half the flour. Combine. Add the remaining flour. Stir to combine. Using your hands, gather the dough into a bowl.  Transfer dough to floured baking board.

Knead gently for 3 minutes or until the dough forms a smooth ball.  Pat down, then roll out til the dough is in a rectangular shape measuring 11” x 8” (approx. 1/3” thick).

Using a sharp knife, slice into fingers, approximately 1” x 3”.  Place on baking sheet.  Prick each shortbread finger 3 times with a fork.  Sprinkle each cookie with a tiny amount of white (granulated) sugar.

Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, depending on the power of your oven. The bottom of the cookies should be slightly golden.

Cool 5 minutes on baking sheet before transferring to cooling racks. Store in an air tight container.

Arthur Pepper is Charming

Have you ever found an unexpected item, whether in your own home or perhaps a favourite thrift store or antique shop, and decided to try and trace the history of the item? This is what happens to Arthur Pepper when, almost a year after his wife Miriam’s death, he decides it’s time to clear out her wardrobe. Arthur finds a charm bracelet tucked away. It’s a piece of expensive jewellry which he did not purchase for her and which he never saw his conservative wife wear.

Intrigued, Arthur studies the little charms dangling from the gold bracelet. One has a tiny engraving on the back…a phone number. Daringly, quiet, reserved Arthur dials the number and finds himself speaking with a doctor in India who declares Miriam was his former Nanny. Poor Arthur, who thought his wife of 40 years had never left the UK, is shocked but also fascinated.

Thus begins a journey where Arthur tries to discover the meaning between each charm and, at the same time, discovers more about his wife’s hidden life. A rather exciting life led before she became a wife and mother.

From an up close and personal meeting with a tiger to sleeping in a hostel with young women from Germany to visiting a bridal boutique in Paris, Arthur’s quest takes him from one adventure to another. He soon casts off his regimented, solitary life (and his mustard-yellow vest) and is leaving his house and his fern Frederica, meeting new people, learning something new every day, and moving forward in life.

The-Curious-Charms-of-Arthur-Pepper.jpgThis is the first book by Phaedra Patrick and it is humourous, touching and indeed, charming. But this book should come with a warning. I had plans for my day off, which ended up being postponed as, once I picked up “The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper”, I could not put it down. Let’s hope Patrick is a quick writer and doesn’t make us wait too long for her next novel.

Arthur’s good-hearted neighbour, Bernadette, is always dropping off delicious baked goods at his door. Here’s a recipe of mine worth sharing with a neighbour.

Croissant Bread Pudding

3 extra large whole eggs
8 extra large egg yolks
5 c. half-and-half cream
1 1/2 c. granulated sugar
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
6 day-old croissants
1 c. raisins

Preheat oven to 350F.

In medium bowl, whisk together eggs, yolks, cream, sugar and vanilla. Set aside.

Slice croissants in half, horizontally. In a 10″ x 15″ x 2 1/2″ baking dish, make a layer of the croissant bottoms. Sprinkle raisins on top. Cover with croissant tops. Pour egg mixture over croissants. Allow to soaks for 10 minutes. Press down gently.

Set baking dish in a larger pan. Put 1″ of water in the larger pan. Cover both pans with foil, tented so that the top doesn’t touch the croissants.

Bake 45 minutes. Remove foil, and bake another 40 minutes or until custard is set. Cool slightly and enjoy!

The Food of Love Cookery School

The cover says “A novel to make your mouth water and your heart miss a beat.” I agree with the former but not exactly the latter.

This book, about four strangers who travel to Sicily on a cookery tour, definitely will make you want to visit Italy (if you didn’t already), perhaps try your hand at making pasta from scratch (if you haven’t already) and dream of “amore”.

By coincidence, the host and teacher at the school was called Luca Amore. But don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a romance novel (not that there’s anything wrong with those if that’s your “thing”). Far from it. But these women aren’t travelling to Italy looking for love or to be swept off their feet.

Moll, Tricia, Valerie and Poppy (two Brits, and American and an Aussie) each are there with their own reasons and agendas. One is searching out her Italian roots while another is fulfilling a lifelong, foodie dream; ticking one thing off the bucket list. Someone escaping sadness; another one there as a result of a slightly misguided gift.

Is there love and romance in this book? Yes, but it most definitely takes a backseat to the food and the stories of friendships made and life appreciated.

The characters from Luca to his friends in the mountain village of Favio to his guests, are flawed, likeable, real. The author’s love and appreciation of cooking and food is obvious and she has shared a few recipes at the end of the book.

To learn more, visit Nicky Pellegrino’s website or follower her on Twitter @nickypellegrino

Also Reads: Delicious and Recipe for Life by Nicky Pellegrino.

As for me, I’m sharing a favourite recipe of mine. Buon appetito!

— Sandi H.

Stracoto with Porcini Mushrooms

1.9kg pot roast
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
2 onions, sliced
6 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 c dry red wine
1 ¾ c beef broth
½ oz dried porcini mushrooms
1 tsp dried rosemary

Preheat oven to 350F.

Sprinkle beef with salt and pepper. Heat oil in roasting pan. Brown beef on all sides; will take approx 15 min.

Remove beef from pan. Add more oil. Cook onions until tender, about 5 min. Add garlic. Cook for a minute. Be careful not to burn the garlic. Add wine, broth and mushrooms. Return beef to pan. Cover.

Roast for 1 ½ hours. Turn beef over in pan. Roast for another 1 ½ hr or until fork tender.

Transfer beef to cutting board. Cover with foil to rest. Transfer juices and vegetables to blender. Blend til smooth. Add salt, pepper, rosemary to season. Keep this gravy warm in saucepan until ready to serve.

Stracoto means “overcooked”. This roast always turns out perfect, tender, juicy. Guinness can also be used instead of the red wine and is equally delicious.