Cooking the Books: Strawberry Shortcake Murder by Joanne Fluke

Wow, I continue to be impressed by Joanne Fluke. Most series have even a wee bit of sophomore slump with the second entry, but Strawberry Shortcake Murder not only extrapolates from the events in the first book to bring us a compelling murder mystery but loses none of the wit and verve of the debut.

In this novel, the Hartland Flour Co. has chosen Lake Eden to host what could be the first in an annual series of Dessert Bake-Offs. This is a big deal for the small town, as the competition brings in tourist dollars during the slowest months of winter. So everyone wants the competition to be a success, especially our heroine, Hannah Swensen, who’s been chosen as the head judge.

When dentist Norman Rhodes—the guy I think should be her boyfriend—calls to say that one of her judges will have to drop out due to a shattered tooth and the replacement turns out to be wife-beater Boyd Watson, Hannah is less than thrilled. Domestic assault aside, his critiques of the contestants are unnecessarily harsh, even to the occasionally tactless Hannah. It doesn’t matter that his sense of taste is completely on point.

Trying to make up for her dislike of the guy, she gives him a strawberry shortcake to bring home to his ailing wife, Danielle. So when Danielle calls Hannah all in a panic later, Hannah hurries over to the Watson residence—to find that someone has done Boyd in with a hammer. Good riddance to bad rubbish, Hannah thinks, until she realizes that the sheriff’s office will be more than happy to prosecute Danielle for the murder.

Her other suitor, Mike Kingston, is the lead detective on the case and warns her not to meddle, which of course causes Hannah to take umbrage. And then, her sister Andrea—who is married to the other local detective, Bill Todd—has discovered a taste for detecting herself and pushes for Hannah to investigate together with her. Next thing you know, the sisters are out asking questions, breaking into apartments, and discovering another body on their way to finding out the truth behind Boyd’s murder.

This was such an entertaining book, and I loved Hannah’s showdown with the killer at the end. I also completely understood her willingness to enjoy Norman and Mike’s rivalry; it always annoys me when the focus of a love triangle is tormented about it—like, just pick one and move on if it tortures you so.

And, of course, there were seven delectable recipes to choose from. I admit that the “Strawberry Shortcake” was never even an option for me, as I’m a food snob and don’t believe that real strawberry shortcake is made with anything apart from a sweet biscuit—anything else is just a strawberry cake. I decided to try out this recipe instead:

Hawaiian Flan

Preheat oven to 350° F., rack in the middle position.


1 cup white sugar

½ cup water

6 eggs

1 can sweetened, condensed milk (don't use evaporatedit won't work)

¼ cup white sugar

1 ½ cups pineapple juice

⅛ teaspoon salt

1 small can crushed pineapple (well drained)

Sweetened whipped cream topping (optional)


Find an 8-inch-by-8-inch square pan (either metal or glass) or any other oven pan that will hold 6 cups of liquid. Do not grease or butter it. Simply have it ready, next to the stove top.

Combine one cup of white sugar with a half cup of water in a saucepan. Bring it to a boil, stirring at first, then swishing it around until the mixture turns golden brown. (This gets as hot as candy syrup so wear oven mitts.)

Carefully, pour the syrup into the pan you've chosen and tip it to coat the bottom and the sides. This is your caramel sauce. (Be very careful. This is extremely hot.) Run water in the saucepan you used and set it in the sink. Then set the baking pan aside while you make the custard. (You may hear cracking noises as the caramel cools. Don't worry. It's the caramel cracking, not your pan.)

Beat the eggs until they're light yellow and thick. (This will take a while if you don't have an electric mixer.) Add the sweetened condensed milk, the sugar, the salt, and the pineapple juice, and beat thoroughly.

Get out a strainer and strain the mixture into your baking pan.

Find a larger baking pan that will contain your custard pan with at least an inch to spare on all four sides. Place the custard pan inside the larger pan. Slip both pans into the oven and pour hot tap water in the larger pan, enough to immerse your custard pan halfway up the sides.

Bake one hour, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Remove the custard pan from the water and let it cool on a wire rack for at least 10 minutes. (This custard can be served either warm, or cold.)

To serve, turn the custard out in a flat bowl or a plate with a deep lip. (This is so the caramel sauce won't overflow.) Place slices of custard in a dessert dish and sprinkle some of the crushed pineapple over the top. Then spoon on some of the caramel sauce and top with whipped cream, if you wish.

I’d never made flan before and had certainly never thought to make a large one. I’m more used to seeing individual servings, but this probably worked out better as I still haven’t gotten round to stocking my kitchen with ramekins. I still haven’t decided how I feel about the amount of effort commensurate to the end product for flan in general. Flans are super delicious, but I can also be super lazy.

Fortunately, Ms. Fluke breaks down the process into easy-to-execute steps. I love her chatty little asides; it felt like having a friend in the kitchen with me (besides my lovely assistant Karin, of course). And wow, what a great idea to add pineapple to it! The only drawback of flans is that sometimes all that sweetness can be cloying, so the pineapple in this recipe cuts through that with the perfect amount of acid. I did have a bit of trouble flipping the large flan over, but once I sliced the servings, the presentation looked just fine.

Next week, I continue my streak of ignoring the title recipe to try out an intriguing-sounding cookie. Do join me!

See also: Cooking the Books: Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder by Joanne Fluke


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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.

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