Cooking the Books: A Side of Murder by Amy Pershing
Samantha Barnes’s life has just turned upside down. From being the head chef of a successful restaurant in New York City working alongside her bad-boy chef husband, Stefan, she’s suddenly unemployed and divorced after a volatile, violent argument the two have outside their apartment one evening is recorded by a passerby. The video hits the internet, causing the pair to go viral and effectively ending both their professional and personal partnerships.
It’s almost a relief to Sam when she gets a phone call soon after this telling her that she’s inherited a house in her Fair Harbor, Massachusetts, hometown. Sam’s Great-Aunt Ida was a taciturn woman not given to closeness, but she’d apparently decided to bequeath Sam with her somewhat dilapidated Cape Cod home. Sam figures that getting out of the city will help her notoriety die down while she figures out how to dispose of her new property. Besides which, she’s looking forward to spending time with her two best friends from high school, stay-at-home mom Jenny Snow Singleton and organic farmer Miles Tanner.
When Krista Baker, the pushy editor of the local paper, insists that Sam help her out while in town by writing restaurant reviews for the Cape Cod Clarion, Sam finds it hard to say no. After all, she’ll be getting paid for eating and writing about free food, and Sam is no dummy. Recruiting her best friends as well as her new neighbor, librarian Helene Greenberg, to accompany her, their first trip takes Sam to a place that brings back unfortunate memories of her first love, Jason Captiva. Unable to help herself, she goes to take a solitary stroll to the place where she and Jason shared a disastrous first kiss, only to find a corpse bobbing in the water nearby.
While the local sheriff figures it’s an open and shut case of a drunken Estelle Kobolt falling into the water and accidentally drowning, Sam isn’t so sure. She shares her concerns with both Krista and with law enforcement, but everyone tells her to drop it. Determined to get to the bottom of things, she decides to keep investigating as part of her new role as lifestyle-reporter-at-large for the Clarion but soon finds that she may have bitten off far more than she can chew.
A Side of Murder is a wonderfully twisty, layered mystery, told in the charming voice of an impulsive chef-turned-reporter, peppered throughout with wry humor and the occasional cooking tip. There’s a lot of attention paid to sailing, particularly in a Sunfish, which had me thinking fondly of my own childhood reading Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons and puttering around in my best friend’s Optimist. It’s a terrific culinary cozy series debut, including as well four recipes at the back that go wonderfully together as a casual dinner for friends. Since we made a decadent lobster mashed potatoes last week for this column, I thought I’d try the dessert this time around.
Sam’s Thin and Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies
(makes about 4 dozen cookies)
10 ounces high-fat French or Irish butter, softened to room temperature
1 ¼ cups dark brown sugar
¾ cup white sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons kosher salt (or 1 teaspoon table salt like Morton’s)
2 large eggs
1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour (plus another 2 tablespoons of flour set aside to coat the chocolate chips)
1 teaspoon baking soda
8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350.
Combine butter, brown sugar, granulated sugar, vanilla, and salt in a bowl and cream on medium-high speed until light, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs and mix on medium speed until blended, about 2 minutes.
Whisk the flour and baking soda together in separate bowl, then mix into the dough at medium speed for 2 minutes.
In another bowl, combine the chocolate chips with the set aside 2 tablespoons of flour. Use a spatula to stir the flour-coated chips into the dough by hand.
Drop the dough by slightly rounded tablespoons onto cookie pans, preferably lined with parchment paper. To allow for spreading, 12 cookies per sheet works well.
Bake until golden brown, 8-10 minutes.
Let the cookies cool for 5 minutes before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely.
One of these days, I’ll be able to portion out my cookies so they make the right amount in the right sizes. My own shortcomings regardless, these turned out deliciously, reminding me very much of the cookie cakes my co-workers and I used to buy each other for birthdays at the one restaurant I worked at. These cookies were soft and delicious, and the edges that didn’t run into each other (which was, again, entirely my fault and not the recipe author’s!) were delightfully crispy. Amy Pershing also notes in her book that you should wait for your high-quality butter to soften to the point where you can easily poke a finger through it to ensure that the cookies come out perfectly thin and chewy.
Next week, we head to the Midwest to investigate a stunning murder while slow-cooking a delicious meal. Do join me!