Cooking is one of my passions. How many other activities give us a chance to make life a little bit more enjoyable every day? Few things give me such simple, deep pleasure as cooking a meal for my family; and when we entertain, good food seems to be about the best way of helping people relax and open up. The latke recipe is the only one that’s actually appeared in one of my stories, but I’ve often mentioned food, with favorite recipes in mind. Here are some I think you might enjoy.
Cathy’s Spud Balls
In “The Last Blue Glass” (Hitchcock’s, April 2016), Boston insurance salesman Frank Morrell impulsively decides to ditch his day job and buy a bar in semi-rural Virginia. His wife, Cathy, always eager to do anything she can to make Frank happy, creates a signature bar snack to draw in customers. She comes up with Spud Balls. It’s a labor-intensive recipe, reflecting Cathy’s devotion to Frank—a devotion so fierce it could lead to trouble. (I’ve made these potatoes often, and in my opinion, they’re worth the work. Cathy’s recipe is based on the classic French dish known as Noisette Potatoes—a pretty classy origin for something called Spud Balls.)
6 Russet potatoes
¼ cup melted butter
freshly ground black pepper
tarragon, paprika, other spices as desired
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- Peel and wash the potatoes. Use the smaller end of a melon baller to scoop out potato balls. Keep them in cold water until ready to cook, then dry thoroughly with a dishtowel. (You can chop up the scooped-out potatoes to use in a hash or other dish.)
- Melt butter in ovenproof pan over medium heat. Saute potato balls in butter over medium heat for 5—10 minutes, stirring often, until they’re nicely browned.
- Transfer pan to preheated oven and bake for 20—25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until potato balls are tender and golden. Season with salt, pepper, tarragon, paprika, or any spices you prefer.
- 4—6 servings.
Aunt Gwen’s French Silk Chocolate Pie
Food plays a prominent role in “A Joy Forever” (Hitchcock’s, March 2015; also included in Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime—Wildside Press, 2016; Agatha and Macavity finalist). Every day, Gwen Mallinger toils for hours in the kitchen, cooking up rich, delicious dishes her husband can’t resist. Clearly, pleasing him is Gwen’s most cherished goal—or is it? One of her husband’s favorite desserts is French Silk Chocolate Pie; the narrator describes it as “richer and thicker than any pie I’d tasted before.” A friend gave me the recipe over three decades ago. It’s so calorie-laden that I don’t make it more than once or twice a year. Every time I taste it, though, I wonder why I ever eat anything else.
1 stick butter, softened
¾ cup sugar
2 squares unsweetened baker’s chocolate, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla
graham cracker crust or baked pie shell
- Cream butter and sugar.
- Blend in chocolate and vanilla.
- Add 1 egg and beat 5 minutes with an electric mixture.
- Add other egg and beat another 5 minutes.
- Pour into graham cracker crust or baked pie shell.
- Top with whipped cream:
- Put beaters and deep bowl in freezer for at least an hour to get them very cold.
- Beat 1 cup heavy whipping cream until it looks like Cool Whip.
- Add ¼ cup sifted confectioner’s sugar, getting as much air in as possible.
This recipe appeared in “Death on the List” (Hitchcock’s, January 1999). Latkes are a traditional Hanukkah treat—a simple dish, but it can easily go wrong. If you use a food processor to grate the potatoes, the latkes can be mushy. If you don’t rinse and soak the grated potatoes and then apply some muscle to squeeze them out thoroughly, the latkes can be heavy and starchy. And if you don’t add a little lemon juice to the batter, it can turn gray unless you fry the latkes up immediately. But if you take the little bit of extra trouble involved in doing things right, your latkes will be light, golden, and delicious—just like Leah’s.
5 medium potatoes
2 large eggs
6 green onions, chopped fine (light green part only)*
3 tablespoons matzo meal (or flour, but it’s not as good)
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
- Grate potatoes by hand, rinse in cold water, soak in bowl of cold water, rinse again, and squeeze all the water out. The grated potatoes should be snowy white. If there’s even a trace of pink, rinse, soak, and squeeze again.
- Beat eggs well; add matzo meal, salt, pepper, and lemon juice; mix well.
- Add potatoes and onions and mix again. (Will keep in a sealed container for an hour or so without becoming discolored.)
- Drop batter by tablespoonfuls into hot vegetable oil, making latkes about 3” in diameter. Fry until underside is browned; turn to brown again.
- Drain on paper towels.
- Serves six. Many people like to serve latkes with applesauce, sour cream, or both.
*Most people use white onions and grate them, and that’s good, too. But I like the little bit of crunch you get with green onions.
Jane’s One-Bowl Spice Cake
In Interpretation of Murder, Jane Ciardi’s roommate, Abby, has many talents. Cooking, unfortunately, is not one of them. So when Abby invites her boyfriend over for dinner, she asks Jane to take charge of the cooking. Jane obliges with a roast chicken dinner complete with glazed carrots, miniature potato kugels, and apple-and-pear Waldorf salad. For dessert, Jane bakes a spice cake. I’ve made this cake many times—it’s a family favorite. The recipe couldn’t be simpler, and the cake is light and fragrant, with a rich, delicate blend of spices.
1 ¼ cups flour, sifted
1 cup sugar
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon cloves
¾ cup milk
1/3 cup butter or margarine, softened
• Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour 8-inch or 9-inch baking pan.
• Measure all ingredients into large bowl.
• Blend ½ minute on low speed, scraping bowl constantly. Beat 3 minutes on high speed, scraping bowl occasionally.
• Pour batter into pan. Bake 35 or 40 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean.
• Cool; dust with confectioner’s sugar or frost with butter cream frosting.
Meredith Ralston (“True Test,” Hitchcock’s, May 2010) is a loathsome character. But she apparently makes good chili. My own chili recipe has evolved over the years. It started with a recipe in a Good Housekeeping cookbook I received as a wedding present. As time went by, I heard about other recipes and added ingredients that sounded right. My current recipe is something of a hodgepodge, but it’s not as complicated as it may look, and trust me—it tastes good.
2 pounds ground beef
2 onions, chopped
2 cans kidney beans, drained and rinsed
2 cans tomato soup
4 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons flour
6 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons cumin
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 cans tomatoes, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
½ red pepper, chopped
crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
chopped onion, grated cheddar cheese, and hot sauce (optional)
- Brown meat and onion. Using a nonstick pot is definitely a good idea; otherwise, you might end up with a crust of crud on the bottom of your pot.
- Add drained kidney beans and soup and cook 10 minutes.
- Make paste of chili powder, flour, water, salt, cumin, and brown sugar. Blend in.
- Cook over low heat, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes.
- Add tomatoes, peppers, and crushed red pepper flakes; cook at least 30 minutes more, stirring frequently.
- Serve with chopped onions, grated cheese, and, if you’re up to it, hot sauce.
- Serves about eight, depending on how hungry people are.
Professor Woodhouse’s Onion and Olive Crepes
I think almost all of my stories about Iphigenia Woodhouse and Harriet Russo contain references to olive-and-onion dishes concocted by Iphigenia’s mother, Professor Minerva Woodhouse—olive-and-onion salad, olive-and-onion stuffed chicken, olive-and-onion croissants. Like the professor’s bizarre art projects, her obsession with olive-and-onion recipes is an expression of her eccentricity. As I recall, I came up with the olive-and-onion combination because I can’t stand olives and my daughters (at the time) couldn’t stand onions; it was fun to dream up dishes none of us could stomach. I’ll confess that I’ve never actually tried most of the professor’s recipes. But here’s a recipe for crepes that—according to the testimony of my husband, who likes both olives and onions—isn’t bad at all. When I make them, I use chopped tomatoes in my own crepes, in place of the olives. You could also substitute mushrooms or just about anything else you like. (I’ve written a series of stories about the Woodhouses and Harriet for Hitchocock’s; two of those stories are in Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime–Wildside Press, 2016.)
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon oil
¼ cup butter
¼ cup flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
pinch dried tarragon
a little grated nutmeg
1 ¾ cups milk
3 tablespoons sherry
1 cup grated cheese—cheddar, parmesan, Swiss, gruyere, or any
combination you like
2 cups cooked chicken
1 cup halved or chopped black olives (or tomatoes, or mushrooms,
or whatever you prefer)
chopped parsley and/or paprika (optional)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- In large saucepan, sauté onion in oil for 8-10 minutes, until lightly browned; remove.
- In same saucepan, melt butter; add flour and cook for a minute or two; add salt and pepper, tarragon and nutmeg.
- Slowly add milk, whisking well, letting sauce thicken; then add sherry; then add ¾ cup cheese, stirring until it’s melted.
- Mix most of sauce with chicken and onions, reserving about ¾ cup of sauce.
- Spread 2-3 tablespoons of sauce on each crepe; add olives/tomatoes/mushrooms.
- Roll up crepes and place in baking dish, seam side down.
- If you like mushy crepes, spread them with remaining sauce and then sprinkle with remaining cheese. Otherwise, reserve remaining sauce and just sprinkle the crepes with the remaining cheese. (Keep the remaining sauce warm, thinning it with more milk or sherry if necessary, and pass it at the table. That’s what I do.)
- Bake crepes for 10-15 minutes or until heated through.
- If you want to get fancy, sprinkle chopped parsley and/or paprika on crepes. Pass remaining sauce if you’ve reserved it.
- Serves four (2 crepes each)
* You can use frozen crepes or any crepe recipe you prefer. Since I’m lazy, I usually make my crepes with Bisquick (1 cup Bisquick, 2 eggs, ¾ cups milk or a little more if you like thinner crepes). Brush a small skillet or crepe pan (I just splurged on one, and I love it) with a little oil, add a scant ¼ cup of batter, swirl it around, wait about 30 seconds until the underside is browned and the top is bubbly, flip the crepe, and give it another 15 seconds or so. You can make the crepes in advance, and you really don’t need to separate them with wax paper or parchment paper or anything else. You can also make the sauce in advance and reheat it, though you may need to thin it with a little milk or sherry. This is a good dish if you’re having people over for brunch.