Cooking the Books: Dining on Murder, Part II

Cleo Coyle’s White Chocolate Mocha
Cleo Coyle’s White Chocolate Mocha
As I mentioned yesterday, adding recipes to mystery novels was a big bonus for readers in my book. Anytime you can add food to the story, I’m a happy camper.

My mother-in-law was one of the best cooks I’ve ever known. She took great pride in saying, “I’ve never used a box of mix to make a cake,” and boy, did she make some great cakes. She used to fix homemade German chocolate, fresh apple, and pure butter pound cakes. They were wonderful, and they made our family meals very memorable. I’ve never made any of the above-mentioned cakes, but I do enjoy reading the recipes. Does that count?

Last time I talked with Diane Mott Davidson and Avery Aames about their cooking heroines, Goldy and Charlotte. Today, I’m going to introduce to two more writers who not only write the mysteries but create the recipes for their books, Virginia Lowell and Cleo Coyle. In my opinion, that makes them doubly good writers!

Scientists have proven that the sense of smell can provoke the strongest memories. I read about a woman who began crying while washing dishes because the smell of the soapy water reminded her of her grandmother.

Foods provide that sense of memory too. I will never forget the acrid smell of making sweet pickles. As much as I loved the crunchy cucumbers, the smell drove me crazy when my mother and I were making them.

The smell of baking often evokes wonderful memories of Christmas and special family meals. You can get scented candles that smell like lots of wonderful baking items—cookies, chocolate cake, or cinnamon buns!

But now it’s time to finish our virtual meal with dessert and coffee.

As a history buff I really enjoy the antique elements of Virginia Lowell’s Cookie Cutter Shop series, like the vintage cookie cutters and the historic setting. And who knew there were cookie cutter museums? As it turns out there are two—one in Missouri and one in Michigan. Virginia uses a collection of antique cookie cutters as a hook in the first book in the series when her heroine receives a set and becomes a murder suspect.

A Cookie Before Dying by Virginia LowellVirginia said she works on characters first when planning her books and it’s evident in the way she has created these two young women. Olivia Greyson is getting over a divorce from a self-centered, career-minded surgeon, and Maddie Briggs, who has been her best friend since elementary school, is her new business partner. I want them to be my BFFs and I absolutely adore Spunky, the Yorkshire Terrier Livie rescue, who is convinced he is a ferocious Mastiff guarding the gates of the city.

Since she works with mostly decorated cookies Virginia doesn’t have to prepare every recipe for her books, though she does bake lots of cookies to pass on tips along to her readers. Getting into a character she loves or loves to hate is what Virginia enjoys most. She also admitted freely that she thinks better munching on a cookie while working.

I like the way Virginia says she uses sights and smells to keep her inspired. She may not have the cookies themselves sitting around, but she’ll have a variety of spices or newsletters from the cookie cutter associations or even cookbooks to help her set a scene. It sounds like lots of fun to me.

The third book in this series, When the Cookie Crumbles, will be out in August.

I see Livie as the practical and Maddie as the spontaneous and they complement each other beautifully. I liked the way Maddie took the flowers she’d cut out with cookie cutters and shaped them just a little differently in the second book so that it made them another flower than what they were originally intended to be. I would never have thought of that!

 “If I mention a new one, I like to know how it feels to prepare that recipe so I can describe it more accurately,” Virginia said. “Of course, I need to know what it tastes like. I do have to be careful, though. Unlike Livie and Maddie, I gain weight if I eat too many cookies!”

I can certainly identify with that . . . but it doesn’t stop me from indulging.

Mint Chip Cookies
by Virginia Lowell

Antique Cookie Cutter2¼ Cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
½ Cup butter
½ Cup canola oil
¾ Cup granulated sugar
¾ Cup packed light brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1½ Cups mint chips (Guittard makes great green-colored mint chips)
½ Cup white chocolate chips 

Preheat oven to 375º F.

Combine flour, baking soda, and salt in small bowl.

Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, and vanilla extract in large mixer bowl, gradually adding the canola oil. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually mix in flour mixture. Stir in morsels. Drop by rounded Tablespoon onto ungreased baking sheets.

Bake for about 8-9 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely. 

Hint: Baked for 9 minutes, the cookies will be crispy. If you like them softer watch them carefully after 7 minutes and remove from oven when they look slightly undercooked. They will cook a bit more while left on the pan to cool for two minutes.

*I like the flavor of white chocolate with the mint in this recipe, but if you’d rather use dark or milk chocolate, go for it!

Every good meal needs a finishing touch and coffee always provides that for me. Thanks to Cleo Coyle, that coffee is served up with an exciting mystery set in New York City. Cleo Coyle is actually the husband-and-wife-team of Alice Alfonsi and Marc Ceransini, and they’ve written eleven of these popular coffee house mysteries.

Murder by Mocha by Cleo CoyleLike many people, I can’t get through the day without my coffee, and I love trying different flavors and gourmet coffees. My husband, on the other hand, also a dedicated coffee drinker is like Sergeant Franco in the coffee house series, he thinks a good cup of coffee is plain black coffee with nothing added.

When it comes to the recipes in these books, Alice said they’re very careful to make them and photograph them. “A commandment we try to follow is, ‘Thou shalt respect thine audience.’ If readers spend time and money making one of our amateur sleuth’s recipes, we don’t want to disappoint them,” Alice said. “We develop Clare Cosi’s recipes with care and photograph many of them as we test them. Recipes give readers a way to interact with an element of the story and extend the protagonist’s world beyond the book.”

I absolutely agree. I find I can even picture the characters while I’m preparing the food.

Alice said New York City and its crimes often provide inspiration for the stories in the series.

“Our New York setting is as important as the gastronomy in our Coffeehouse Mysteries. In Roast Mortem we were moved by a real incident that led to the needless deaths of two firefighters. From there, we developed the murder mystery and finally the firehouse cooking aspect of the story,” Alice said. “We’re eleven books in now and we’re as concerned as ever with keeping things fresh. Most mystery readers can sniff out red herrings a kilometer away, which means surprising, delighting, and entertaining our audience is as much a challenge as planning the murder or the menu.”

I’ll raise a glass of iced coffee to celebrate that!

Copycat Starbucks White Chocolate Mocha
by Cleo Coyle

“My version of this popular Starbucks drink allows you to make it at home—with or without an espresso machine. It tastes like a rich, warm, coffee-infused milkshake. Drink with joy!”

½ cup milk
¼ cup good quality white chocolate, chopped; or white chocolate chips
¼ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1–2 shots hot espresso or double-strength coffee (*See how to make
      double-strength coffee at the end of this recipe)

Whipped cream
White chocolate curls

Step 1: Combine milk and white chocolate in a heatproof bowl and place over a saucepan about one-third full of boiling water. (The water level should be under the bowl and not touching it.) Stir constantly until chocolate is melted.

Step 2: Whip in the vanilla using a whisk, hand blender, or electric mixer. Continue to whip about a minute until the warm mixture is loosely frothy.

Step 3: Pour the espresso into a large mug. Add the steamed white chocolate milk and stir to blend the flavors. Top with whipped cream and white chocolate curls.

To create chocolate curls, start with a block of room temperature chocolate. Using a vegetable peeler, scrape the block and you’ll see curls of chocolate peel away.

*How to make double-strength coffee: in a drip coffee maker, instead of using the standard 1½ – 2 tablespoons of ground coffee for every six ounces of water, use 3 – 4 tablespoons.

Unfortunately all good things must come to an end, including our virtual meal. We’ve had some real treats and lapped up the wonderful advice of four great writers who are excellent cooks! I hope that with the recipes we’ve included and their upcoming new books, you’ll be able to enjoy them for many years to come.

Bon Appétit!

Leigh Neely is a former newspaper and magazine editor. She currently does freelance work, blogs at, and recently wrote the short story, “A Vampire in Brooklyn,” which is in the anthology, Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices.


  1. Clare 2e

    If authors are going to spend that muich time digging up recipes, the least I can do is test drive them : ) can I get an Amen here?

  2. Laura K. Curtis


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