Cooking the Books: Christmas Card Murder by Leslie Meier, Lee Hollis & Peggy Ehrhart
Kensington Books has been publishing seasonally themed collections of mystery novellas from their culinary cozy (and adjacent) authors since 2007, and this is probably my favorite of the ones I’ve read so far! A lot of my friends have complained of shorter attention spans since the pandemic started, and while I’ve been lucky not to have been afflicted in the same way, this delightful collection is the perfect remedy, packing a ton of plot and character into each 100-plus page story. It also serves as a terrific introduction to the work of each author if you haven’t yet had a chance to discover them.
The book’s opener is the titular novella, Leslie Meier’s Christmas Card Murder. With her kids nearly all moved out, Lucy Stone is thinking of expanding her bedroom in their rehabilitated farmhouse to a master suite with an adjacent bath. Her husband, Bill, grumbles his way into agreeing with her and unearths a surprising discovery while demolishing a wall: a Christmas card with a very unsettling message inside. Being a reporter, Lucy senses a story and sets about investigating the family who’d previously lived there. But an unexpected snowfall and a prisoner who may have been wrongfully convicted complicate her investigations more than she could have possibly anticipated.
This was a very strong lead-in to the book, showcasing not only Lucy’s unerring nose for investigation but also casting a critical eye on the flaws of our judicial and penal system. It’s a very thoughtful, empathetic look at who we believe and why and what constitutes adequate punishment and restitution. Despite Bill and Lucy’s middle daughter, Sarah, being wildly irritating to me as usual, this was definitely my favorite Lucy Stone mystery to date.
The middle novella also revolves around a Christmas card with less than merry tidings. By turns hilarious and touching, Death of a Christmas Carol sees town flirt Carol Waterman sending a Christmas card to our heroine, Hayley Powell; one of her best friends, Mona; and her boss’s wife, Rosana, announcing that she’s about to run off with one of their husbands while the women are at an office Christmas party. The three frantic women are relieved when their husbands show up—though not before they’ve each had time to worry and commiserate about the state of their marriages. The next morning, the trio decides to call on Carol and engage in a little “friendly” girl talk only to discover that instead of running off with one of their men, she’s been strangled to death instead.
If you’re at all a fan of Lee Hollis’s work, this novella is a must-read! There is a significant development in the lives of one of our cast of characters that will definitely shake up future installments of the Hayley Powell Food & Cocktails Mystery series, and you do not want to miss how it all goes down here. I also thought the ending was perfectly bittersweet, serving as a terrific appetizer for more novels in the series. There were also six delightful recipes included, though I opted to try one from our final author for this column instead.
Peggy Ehrhart’s Death of a Christmas Card Crafter is our closing novella. Pamela Paterson is overseeing her knitting group’s booth at the holiday craft festival and is overjoyed that her beloved daughter Penny is home with her for the season. Their happiness is marred however by the murder of Penny’s beloved former art teacher, Karma Karling, at the Christmas tree lot just across the way. When a mild-mannered knitter is arrested for Karma’s death, Pamela and her reporter best friend, Bettina Fraser, must get to the bottom of things while avoiding Penny’s disapproving gaze.
As always, I had to grab my knitting and sit down with one of the best casts of characters in a culinary cozy today. It was super fun to catch up with them as they got into their crime-solving shenanigans. In addition, Ms. Ehrhart included a knitting pattern and two recipes, and I decided to try out the following:
Nell’s “Not Too Sweet” Quick Bread
2 cups flour–no need to sift
½ cup sugar
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
1 ½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
¾ cup milk
1 egg beaten lightly with a fork
2 tbsp. butter, melted
1 cup dried fruit, chopped if the pieces are large
1 cup walnuts or pecans, chopped
If your fruit is very dry, put it in a small bowl an hour or so before you plan to make your quick bread and add 3 tbsp. of boiling water. Stir the moistened fruit from time to time in order to make sure it all comes in contact with the liquid and plumps up.
Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add the milk, and then the beaten egg and the melted butter. Stir until the batter is smooth with no dry bits. Then stir in the fruit and the nuts.
Scoop the batter into a greased 5-inch x 9-inch loaf pan and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour. To test for doneness, stick a wooden toothpick into the middle of the top. If the toothpick comes out clean, your quick bread is finished.
This is good sliced and served warm with butter, even for breakfast. You can warm slices in the microwave for subsequent servings.
I asked my husband to surprise me when selecting the dried fruit while out grocery shopping the other day, and he rose to the occasion, coming home with delicious dried cherries. This quick bread is definitely not as cake-like as more common bread, such as banana or zucchini tend to be, living up perfectly to its “not too sweet” descriptor. As Ms. Ehrhart says, it is really good warm with butter, which is how my family enjoyed it as a great morning or even afternoon treat over the following days. I do think I baked it for a little longer than necessary, so I recommend checking in on your loaf around the 45-minute mark and in five-minute increments from there, as an hour definitely dried it out a bit even in my cool-running oven.
Next week, we travel to the Midwest to catch up with the latest in a culinary cozy mystery series beloved by many more than just me and bake up some cookies while preventing serious crime. Do join me!