Welcome to Lake Eden, Minnesota, where the temperatures are low, the community close-knit, and the cookies, well! The cookies—as baked by our heroine Hannah Swensen for her cafe—are to die for. Metaphorically at least, though Hannah’s discovery of the corpse of her milkman with one of her chocolate chip cookies clutched in his hand certainly makes her re-think that turn of phrase. Fortunately, her cookies had nothing to do with poor Ron LaSalle’s death, though there is certainly an increase in business when townsfolk hungry for gossip as much as for baked goods start showing up at The Cookie Jar to satisfy their curiosity (and cookie cravings!).
Hannah’s brother-in-law, Bill Todd, is an officer for the sheriff’s department angling for promotion to detective. He enlists her aid in keeping her eyes and ears open for information that people might divulge to her that they wouldn’t necessarily to an officer of the law. Hannah, however, doesn’t do things halfway, and she soon plunges into the investigation, pulling along her sister, Andrea, as well. Through it all, Hannah’s mother is obliviously trying to set Hannah up with every eligible bachelor in town, even as her daughters track down a ruthless killer.
So was this the book that essentially set the template for legions of culinary cozies to follow? I’ve read dozens of culinary cozies at this point, and the main features—spunky heroine, delectable recipes, opinionated pet, eccentric supporting cast, and inevitably, a sweetly complicated romantic life—are written so winningly and originally here that I can absolutely see why Joanne Fluke has inspired so many others. Please do let me know if there was a precursor who also had this combination (I feel that Diane Mott Davidson’s Goldy Schulz series is different enough not to count, but I’m interested in hearing your opinions otherwise!).
As to this novel specifically, I really enjoyed how Hannah is judgmental and tactless but essentially a really good person. I did think that Andrea was incorrect in her opinion of Hannah being a bad liar; perhaps in comparison, but Hannah did pull off quite a few small cons in her search for the truth. I’m also super rooting for Hannah and Norman. I don’t care if the other guy is sexy—a guy who makes you laugh is way, way better.
And then, of course, there are the amazing recipes! There are seven included. Originally, I was going to try out the one for “Chocolate Chip Crunch Cookies,” but I’m not a huge fan of cereals in cookies (with the exception of cornflake clusters), so I opted for this instead:
Black and Whites
*Do not preheat oven yet—dough must chill before baking.
2 cups chocolate chips
¾ cup butter (1 ½ sticks)
2 cups brown sugar (or white sugar with a scant 2 tablespoons molasses mixed in)
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups flour (not sifted)
approx. ½ cup confectioners’ sugar (powdered sugar) in a small bowl
Melt chocolate chips with butter. (Microwave on high for 2 minutes, then stir until smooth.)
Mix in sugar and let cool. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Mix in vanilla, baking powder, and salt. Add flour and mix well.
Chill dough for at least 4 hours. (Overnight is even better.)
When you're ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees F., rack in the middle position.
Roll walnut-sized dough balls with your hands. (Messy—wear plastic gloves if you wish.) Drop the dough balls into a bowl with the powdered sugar and roll them around until they're coated. (If the dough gets too warm, stick it back in the refrigerator until you can handle it again.)
Place the balls on a greased cookie sheet, 12 to a standard sheet. (They will flatten when they bake.) Bake at 350 degrees F. for 12 to 14 minutes. Let them cool on the cookie sheet for 2 minutes, and then remove to wire rack to finish cooling.
Yield: 6 to 8 dozen, depending on cookie size.
I’ll admit to giving this recipe a bit of the side eye: this is not the Black and White cookie familiar to anyone who’s ever been to a New York bakery (or even a Starbucks). I’m personally not a fan of that kind of Black and White cookie because fondant is the devil, but reading the ingredients list and instructions persuaded me to give this recipe a shot despite its name.
And I’m so glad I did! These are easily the best cookies either I or my lovely assistant Karin have ever tasted! They had a lovely crispy exterior, a delectably soft interior, and the flavor was out of this world. They were also surprisingly easy to make, even though I hadn’t realized that I’d be making quite so many. Of course, given my heavy hand, we wound up with five dozen instead of the expected six to eight. That just made them easier to gobble down before my children figured out where I’d hidden the rest—teehee!
We’ll be staying in Lake Eden for a while, visiting and solving murders with Hannah. Next week, I’ll be trying out another kind of delectable dessert. Do join me!
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.