I'd never read anything from the Candy Holliday Murder Mystery series before, so I was quite surprised by how decidedly un-cozy the prologue was! A man is brutally murdered in a manner I'm more used to reading of in thrillers and police procedurals. This is by no means a criticism, but it definitely set the tone for a book that isn't your ordinary culinary cozy.
Candy, our heroine, has acquired a reputation in her small town of Cape Willington, Maine, for solving problems large and small—the occasional murder mystery included. She just wants to lead a peaceful life farming blueberries with her dad and writing her community notices column for the local paper.
But when the Milbrights—a local couple who run a maple sugar shack—come to her for help, she has a hard time refusing. Someone has been illegally tapping the sugar maples on their property, and they think the culprit is neighboring strawberry farmer Neil Crawford, who Candy sure does spend a lot of time protesting isn't her boyfriend (though they do admittedly spend a lot of time together).
While Candy is sure Neil would never steal another farmer's sap, she does agree to talk to him—if only to eliminate him as a suspect so they can find the real thief. Before she can do this though, the body of a landscaper she'd recently interviewed for her column is found washed ashore, hands and feet bound, tangled in a fishing net. As Candy investigates his death at the behest of both the mayor and the dead man's widow, she realizes that Neil is missing too, and she’s forced to wonder whether her close friend could possibly be involved in matters far shadier than she'd ever suspected.
I think what surprised me most about this book was the tone. Cozies tend to be written in a way that is almost breathless, as the heroine races from plot point to plot point. Town in a Maple Madness takes a much more deliberate tone, belying its own title. Emotionally, too, it is far more muted than most of its cohort, displaying instead more New England stoicism than I usually encounter in cozies. As much as I love racing along in the narrative, this certainly makes for a not unwelcome change of pace!
One thing this book definitely had in common with the rest of its subgenre, though, was the very excellent recipe section. The four recipes all had a maple theme, and since I couldn't decide on just one, I chose to try out two desserts:
The Black Forest Bakery’s Chocolate Maple Brownies
⅓ cup butter or shortening
2 ounces baking chocolate
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure maple extract
¾ cups flour
¼ teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Grease an 11-inch-by-8-inch rectangular baking pan or 8-inch-by-8-inch square pan.
In a medium saucepan, over low heat, melt ⅓ cup butter or shortening. Stir constantly.
Add the chocolate and stir until melted and blended.
Take the pan off the heat.
Add the sugar and maple extract. Stir well.
Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition.
Add the flour and salt, mix until blended.
Pour into the greased pan.
Bake for 30 minutes.
This was just as scrumptious as the descriptions in the book promised! I would never have thought of mixing maple extract into brownie mix, but the result was heavenly! I'd never made brownies from scratch before, so this was a perfect recipe to add to my repertoire. I was also pleased that the recipe said 30 minutes and meant it; the brownies came out perfectly, no futzing about with a few extra minutes necessary.
On a slightly healthier note, I wanted to try this next recipe mainly to offer to my kids, who are big fans of banana baked goods:
Melody’s Maple Banana Bread
3 bananas, mashed
½ cup sugar
½ to ⅔ cups maple syrup
2 teaspoons maple extract
½ cups chopped walnuts (optional)
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Grease a loaf pan with butter or shortening.
In a large bowl, mix the mashed bananas and the sugar.
Add the maple syrup and mix.
Add the eggs one at a time, mixing after each.
Add the maple extract and mix.
Add the walnuts and mix.
Add the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt a little at a time, mixing after each addition.
Pour butter into the greased loaf pan.
Bake for 60-75 minutes until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Cool and remove from the pan.
I skipped the walnuts on this one, as you can see. As anticipated, my kids loved it, and once the maple brownies were nothing more than a fond memory on my palate, I quite enjoyed the bread too. It also keeps quite well, I feel. I wouldn't recommend serving this bread at the same time as the brownies though, which are so spectacular that any other sweet pales in comparison.
Next week, we travel down south to pick up the second in a series I began for this column last year, and we get to enjoy another tasty helping of the author’s home cooking. 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.