Laura Bradford, author of several cozy mysteries, writes about how she came to be a baker:
When creating a main character in what an author hopes will be a long-running series that character’s motivations have to make sense. So when it came to uncovering the reason behind Winnie’s (the main character in my new Emergency Dessert Squad Mysteries) passion for baking, I really only had to look to myself for the perfect answer…
I think I was only three or four when my big sister let me help make a “cake” in her EZ Bake Oven. I remember peeking in at the little pan as it baked, so excited that I’d helped. When it was done, we topped it with frosting and sprinkles and presented it to our grandfather with much pomp and circumstance. He, in turn, tossed it into his mouth and ate that entire “cake” in one bite.
If I try really hard, I can remember a pang of disappointment that he’d eaten it so fast. But what I remember most is the face-splitting smile he wore when he was done.
I’d made him smile.
With something I’d baked.
Needless to say, I was hooked on baking from that moment forward. I didn’t care if it was cupcakes, brownies, cakes, pies, or cookies, I just wanted to relive that moment of utter satisfaction again and again. And I have. Many times over.
Baking has become a part of who I am in much the same way it is a part of Winnie. The only real difference is that she’s made a career out of baking, and I’ve made a career out of writing. But because I write her, I get to be there with her as she dreams up the perfect recipe (and emergency-themed name) for a new customer. Because I write her, I get to be there as she measures and mixes. Because I write her, I’m there, right beside her, as she pulls her baked creation out of the oven. Because I write her, I get to experience the smiles her desserts bring to the faces of her customers.
And best of all, because I write her, I have yet another excuse to sit at my kitchen table, scouring cookbook after cookbook for new recipes to try. Sometimes, the picture and the list of ingredients looks and sounds perfect just the way it is. Sometimes, I imagine how it might be if I added a pinch of cinnamon or a bit of caramel, or tried it without a certain taste entirely. But generally speaking, if a recipe has all the things I like, I’ll give it a whirl.
Funny thing now, though? No matter what I bake these days, I find myself trying to think what Winnie would call it if it had a spot on her Emergency Dessert Squad’s menu. For instance, my kids’ favorite s’more bar has become Winnie’s Worry No s’More Bar (for her most stressed customers), my favorite Black & White cookies have become Winnie’s Black & Blue cookies (for injured customers), my dad’s favorite peach pie is now Winnie’s You’re A Peach pie (for someone who needs to know they’re treasured). The more books I write in the series, the more desserts Winnie needs on her menu. And the more desserts Winnie needs on her menu, the more excuses I have to bake.
And just think… It all started with a smile.
So tell us, why do you bake?
As a child, Laura Bradford fell in love with writing over a stack of blank paper, a box of crayons, and a freshly sharpened number two pencil. From that moment forward, she never wanted to do or be anything else. Today, Laura is the national bestselling author of several mystery series, including the Emergency Dessert Squad Mysteries, the Amish Mysteries, the Jenkins & Burns Mysteries, the Southern Sewing Circle Mysteries written as Elizabeth Lynn Casey, and the upcoming Tobi Tobias Mystery Series. She is a former Agatha Award nominee, and the recipient of an RT Reviewer’s Choice Award in romance. A graduate of Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, Laura enjoys making memories with her family, baking, and being an advocate for those living with Multiple Sclerosis.
Browse her books here:
Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best.
When the proposal for Stir came in, it was subtitled “How My Brain Exploded and I Got Cooking.” What I found in those pages just about made my own brain explode. Here was a memoir by a first-time writer who had survived a traumatic brain injury, a Harvard Ph.D candidate who lost sight in one eye, her sense of smell, and a chunk of her skull so large that she had to wear a hockey helmet to protect her brain, impressive enough, but what made the proposal a standout was not her injury, but the way she wrote about how food and the simple everyday acts of cooking, baking, stirring, sautéing, and sharing it, helped her to heal. As she writes in the book, getting well meant finding her everyday, and she found hers in the kitchen. This stunning book didn’t fit neatly into any category in the bookstore, but everyone at Penguin Random House who read it loved it, and we knew we had to publish Stir.
Every author takes an approach to writing that makes sense to them. Some outline, others write set pieces to be stitched together later. Some write almost in a fugue state, getting the book down on paper from beginning to end, barely stopping to put in commas. Jessica was not that kind of writer. She was careful, precise. Every word worked at the sentence level. The challenge with Stir was broader—we didn’t want the book to be pigeon-holed as a recovery memoir, but we also knew that her illness was the natural beginning of her story. During editorial talks, we spent much of our time discussing how to weave various strands together. First, of course, there was the aneurysm. Then, there was the food—the facts of cooking it and eating it and recovering because of it. Beyond those two main threads, there was a love story between Jessica and her unflappable husband, Eli, including their attempts to start a family (spoiler: they do! as anyone who follows her wonderful blog, sweetamandine.com knows from the pictures of her two adorable daughters she posts there); an ode to the constellation of women in her life—her mother, stepmother, grandmothers, her Aunt Fran, and close friends—whose influence she feels strongly in the kitchen; and, finally, the story of how she came to a new understanding of the link between food and identity.
As we’d talk, Jessica would occasionally ask me, “How do you think I should…?” We’d mull it over and then she would go off and come up with a perfect solution. When I said as much, more often than not, she’d respond that she had simply looked at a memoir she admired to see how that writer succeeded in doing whatever it was Jessica herself was trying to do. She was applying the skills she’d honed as an academic to the process of writing a memoir. She read and dissected every memoir she could get her hands on —Wild, The Liar’s Club, Eat, Pray, Love, and My Stroke of Insight, and dozens of others– to pick them apart and learn how they performed different feats of narrative and storytelling. She marked her copy of Wild with a “Pivot!” in the margins next to the places Cheryl Strayed switched from one subject to another without losing the reader, and then figured out a way to make the technique her own in Stir. It was as if she was reading to defend her dissertation and her dissertation was how to tell the story of her life. Again and again, I could see her incorporating the lessons she’d gleaned from the writers she loved into her own book.
One day, she sent me a document I’m not sure I was meant to see. It was an eleven page spreadsheet with columns delineating plot, characters, conflict, what we learn (general), what we learn (food), and “to do.” It showed an awareness of how the book was working—or not—from a structural perspective, which helped to keep everything in balance. Another time, she sent me a file that had all of the material dealing with Eli in one document so she could make sure the story hung together, which it did. This all sounds terribly clinical, but the book that came out of it is anything but, despite a good part of it taking place in and out of hospitals after brain surgery.
What I love about Jessica’s writing, especially her writing about food, is how unfussy it is—the opposite of academic writing with its particular conventions, and different, too, from a certain type of food writing, the kind with sumptuous descriptions of dishes that sound like menu items at a restaurant where almost no one can afford to eat. Jessica, however, writes every bit as much for the person who swoons over grass-fed butter as she does for someone who savors a Ritz cracker melting on her tongue. She writes exquisitely but without pomp about how the way we prepare food and who we eat it with connects us to our past, our future, and our true selves.
The moments where she connects to food shine brightly on the page. She writes about the smell of cucumber when her olfactory nerves kick in again, the mushrooms chopped for a favorite pasta dish when she first returns to the kitchen, and an almond cake resting on a counter that acts as a Proust’s madeleine of sorts as it lets her know, as she writes, that food had something to teach her, and that it felt good to listen. I am glad that she did.
Read more about Stir here.
For some, baking and cooking is a comforting and calming way to work through issues. Judith Fertig has taken this one step further with her new book, The Cake Therapist.
What can a little cake therapy do for you? When I was writing my debut novel The Cake Therapist (at the same time as my new cookbook Bake Happy), I had an “aha” moment. What if my heroine could help people solve their thorny life issues—with cake?
Cake that comforts, cajoles, gives us cajones. Cake takes us back to a sunny summer day and unlocks the door to the past. That cake.
For some more cake Therapy, and for the recipe for the beautiful Rainbow Cake, check out Judith’s blog.
Another dessert expert, Linda Lomelino, has a beautiful book of cakes: Lomelino’s Cakes. All the cakes within are stunning, impressive, visually beautiful and amazingly delicious desserts. See below for the full recipe for this gorgeous Pavlova.
Lomelino’s Cakes, p. 37 From Lomelino’s Cakes
This meringue cake with chocolate, cream, raspberries, and pistachios is magnificently sticky and crispy. When the cake is finished, refrigerate it for a few minutes to make it easier to cut the layers. This cake should be made the same day it will be served.
CHOCOLATE MERINGUE LAYERS
1 ¾ ounces dark chocolate (70% cocoa)
Whites from 6 large eggs
1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
WHIPPED CREAM FROSTING AND DECORATIONS
1 ¾ cups whipping cream
1 ¾ ounces shelled pistachio nuts (about 1/2 cup)
8 ¾ ounces raspberries
MAKING THE CHOCOLATE MERINGUE LAYERS
1. Break the chocolate into small pieces, and melt them slowly over a double boiler (see page 10) or in the microwave. Let cool.
2. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
3. Cut a piece of parchment paper the size of your baking sheet. Then, cut out or find a circle template about 6 inches in diameter. Place the circles as far apart as possible on the parchment paper without touching the edges; trace. Turn the parchment paper over, and lay it on the baking sheet. These circles will indicate the placement of your meringue.
4. In a clean, dry bowl, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Add the sugar gradually, and continue beating to a thick meringue. You should be able to tip the bowl without the meringue sliding out.
5. Sift the cocoa powder and cornstarch into the meringue. Add the vinegar, and blend until the batter is smooth. Add the melted chocolate, and stir gently.
6. Divide the meringue among the paper circles. The meringues might shift during baking. Put the baking sheet into the oven, and lower the heat to 250°F.
7. Bake the meringue for 60–75 minutes. The baked layers should be hard and crisp around the edges but still sticky in the center. Turn off the oven, leaving the layers in the oven with the door propped open until the oven has cooled.
MAKING THE FROSTING AND DECORATIONS
1. In a dry, clean bowl, whip the cream until it thickens.
2. Chop the pistachios. Rinse and dry the raspberries.
ASSEMBLING THE CAKE
1. Place the first cake layer on a cake plate. Spread one- third of the Whipped Cream Frosting on the top, and sprinkle on a few raspberries. Repeat with the next layer. Place the third layer on top.
2. Top the cake with the remaining Whipped Cream Frosting, and then add the remaining raspberries and all the chopped pistachios.