Cooking the Books: Blackmail and Bibingka by Mia P Manansala

Lila Macapagal’s Brew-ha Cafe is starting to do really well in her Midwestern hometown of Shady Pines as the cafe’s first Christmas season approaches. While she bakes up delicious treats, her business partners, Adeena and Elena, are in charge of the beverages and the plant boutique, respectively. With sales trending upward, the three women are definitely interested in diversifying—particularly if it’s mutually beneficial for other small, local companies.

When they’re approached by the new owners of the Shady Pines Winery, it seems like a good fit, especially since the vintner is looking to make coconut wine, a Filipino liquor that will complement what Brew-ha already serves. The trouble is it’s Lila’s good-for-nothing cousin Ronnie Flores who’s behind the new initiative. He left town under a cloud 15 years earlier, breaking the heart of his mother, Lila’s Tita Rosie, who runs the restaurant next door to Brew-ha with Lila’s grandmother, Lola Flor. Tita Rosie is eager to welcome her prodigal son home again, but Lila and Lola Flor are far more suspicious. Ronnie swears he’s on the up and up though, proudly introducing his family to his business partners and investors. When one of the latter drops dead, however, it looks like Ronnie’s troubles have come back to town with him.

If it weren’t for how much she cares about Tita Rosie, Lila would be more than happy to let Ronnie figure out how to get himself out of trouble. But Lila can’t stand to see her beloved aunt suffer, so she takes it upon herself to find out for certain whether or not Ronnie had anything to do with the investor’s death. The more she investigates, though, the more she discovers about the many secrets Ronnie is hiding. Will Lila be able to save him—from a murderer and from himself—even if it puts her own life on the line?

This is another immersive installment of the Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mystery series, as Mia P. Manansala effortlessly blends cozy mystery shenanigans with diaspora culture and delectable food descriptions. I really enjoy the realistic amount of work Lila has to put in to make a going concern of her cafe, as well as the ongoing depiction of her efforts to strengthen ties with her diverse community. It was also pretty great to see her use technology to her benefit and to help keep her safe while sleuthing.

There were four recipes included here of items described in the novel, and I decided to try out this fusion of flavors:

Lila’s Salabat Snickerdoodle Squares

Makes 12 Squares

Ingredients

Cookie Bar

1 stick of butter, melted

1 egg

½ cup granulated sugar

⅓ cup brown sugar, packed

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup flour

¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ cup crystallized ginger, chopped (optional)

Salabat

¼ cup granulated sugar

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1-2 teaspoons ground ginger

⅛-¼ teaspoon cayenne (optional)

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350°F. Prepare an 8-x-8-inch baking pan by lining it with foil and/or spraying it with oil or nonstick baking spray 

In a large bowl or stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, mix the melted butter (cooled to the point it’s no longer hot) with the egg, sugars, and vanilla extract. Mix until smooth.

Add the flour, cream of tartar, salt, and crystallized ginger (if using) and stir until just combined. Don’t overmix it!

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top lightly with a spatula.

In a bowl, combine all the ingredients for the topping and whisk until combined.

Evenly sprinkle the salabat topping mixture over the batter. Use all of it! It may look like a lot but it soaks in while baking.

Bake for about 25 minutes, or until done. A knife or chopstick inserted in the center should come out clean or with a few moist crumbs, but no wet batter.

Cool before slicing and serving.

Oh wow, these were amazing! In the novel, Lila describes these as being even better than the cookie version she originally made, and I would have to agree. While spicy, gingery snickerdoodle cookies certainly sound delicious, the brownie-like texture of these squares—soft with crispy edges—is just out of this world. I could take or leave the crystallized ginger though, and in all honesty, I probably won’t use them again the next time I bake this. I also learned my lesson from the last time I baked a recipe from this series and didn’t go overboard with the cayenne here, as I did while putting together the otherwise delicious salabat banana bread featured in an earlier book.

These salabat snickerdoodle squares are a great twist on two traditional desserts and should absolutely go into your holiday rotation, especially if you like a little spicy with your sweet.

Next week, we head to the East Coast to make a traditional tea-time treat while looking into the case of a reality show that goes from disruptive to deadly. Do join me!

See alsoCooking the Books: Murder at the Blueberry Festival by Darci Hannah

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