Cooking the Books: Murder with Collard Greens and Hot Sauce by A. L. Herbert

The latest installment of A. L. Herbert’s terrific Mahalia Watkins Soul Food Mystery series not only showcases contemporary life in Prince George’s County, Maryland—as well as some amazing soul food—but also shines a spotlight on a fascinating subject I’ve never known how to ask about before this book: black hair. Our heroine, better known as Halia, is getting her hair done with her much younger cousin Wavonne at Illusions, the hair salon in the same building as Sweet Tea, the restaurant Halia owns. Their stylist, Latasha, informs them that Monique Dupree, local girl turned haircare mogul and celebrity, will be paying a visit to Illusions to kick off her nationwide tour.

Wavonne is as excited as Halia is mystified by the hubbub; the former, of course, is always up on the latest styles and celebrity gossip, whereas the latter doesn’t even do much with her hair beyond the occasional trim. Wavonne promptly trades a bemused Halia’s services as caterer for an invitation to the exclusive meet-and-greet. One thing leads to another, and Halia is soon asked to bring some of her delicious appetizers to Monique’s annual White Party at her mansion in nearby Mitchellville.

The party is quite the do, but Wavonne has a little too much to drink, and Halia has to haul her home early, leaving behind her catering supplies. Halia is almost ready to write the supplies off as an unintended expense until she turns on the news the next morning to find out that Monique has been shot dead in her own den. Having spent the last few days in Monique’s charmed circle—as well as being an incorrigible amateur sleuth—Halia resolves to return to the scene of the crime to see if there’s anything she can discover. She definitely gets more than she bargained for as her quest to find a killer drags her and Wavonne through all sorts of sticky, and hilarious, situations in order to uncover the truth.

This was another solidly constructed mystery that could hold its own against any cozy or traditional mystery out there. Ms. Herbert rounds out her whodunnit with some excellent insights into combative female friendships as well as a truly outstanding character in Wavonne. Whereas the sassy, irresponsible Wavonne of the earlier books certainly had her charms, this installment shows off her greater magnanimity of spirit. It’s so nice to see her grow as the books progress. And, of course, Halia herself is a wonderful creation: confident, intelligent, kind, and a really good influence on her sidekick.

Now, this wouldn’t be a culinary cozy without some recipes! Of the four included, I was quite eager to try out the one dessert:

Celia’s Butter Pecan Cake

Cake Ingredients

2 cups finely chopped pecans (reserve ¾ cup after toasting for icing)

1 cup softened butter (¼ cup for toasting pecans, ¾ cup for cake batter)

3 eggs

1 cup sugar

1 cup applesauce

½ cup whole milk

1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon of cinnamon

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Generously grease and lightly flour two 9-inch round cake pans.

Place pecans and ¼ cup butter in oven-safe pan or baking dish. Toast pecans in oven for 10-12 minutes, stirring every 3-4 minutes; set aside and let cool.

Lightly beat eggs; set aside.

Cream sugar and ¾ cup of butter together with mixer on high speed for 1 minute. Add eggs, applesauce, milk, and vanilla extract. Mix on medium speed for 30 seconds.

Combine flour, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

With mixer on medium speed, slowly add combined dry ingredients to creamed mixture until well blended.

With mixer on low speed, add 1 ¼ cups toasted pecans to batter until fully incorporated.

Pour batter into prepared pans and bake for 25-30 minutes, until a tooth pick comes out clean.

Cool in pans for 10 minutes, then turn out onto rack and cool completely.

Icing Ingredients

1 cup softened butter

⅓ cup brown sugar

2 tablespoons evaporated milk

6 cups confectioners’ sugar

2-5 tablespoons whole milk

1 ½ teaspoons vanilla

Instructions

Add 2 tablespoons of butter, brown sugar, and evaporated milk to a small sauce pan. Heat to boiling over low-medium heat for three minutes, stirring constantly to make caramel. Remove from heat. Set aside.

Cream remaining butter with confectioners’ sugar.

Add caramel to butter and sugar mixture and blend on low speed for 1 minute.

Add milk, one tablespoon at a time while continuing to blend. Stop adding milk when icing reaches a spreadable consistency.

Add vanilla and remaining pecans and mix on low speed until well blended.

I know I’ve been quite vocal about my disdain for nuts in desserts, but I will make an exception for pecans, especially when they’re incorporated throughout. I certainly wasn’t disappointed by my choice, as this was a delicious and surprisingly easy cake to make. The applesauce kept it nice and moist, and that icing is truly special. I’m still not great at icing cakes, as you can see from the photos, but given how quickly my family gobbled up this dessert, it certainly didn’t seem to matter.

I really enjoy this series and am already impatient for the next book! I’m kind of hoping that Halia’s love life does eventually figure more prominently, though I’m also okay with her staying happily single. Mostly, I love how good the mysteries are and how realistic and relatable the characters feel. Each book so far has been an utter joy to read.

Next week, we say goodbye to my home state and travel north to enjoy a winning casserole. Do join me!

See alsoCooking the Books: Murder with Macaroni and Cheese by A. L. Herbert

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