On Thin Icing by Ellie Alexander is the 3rd in the A Bakeshop Mystery series where Jules Capshaw finds a dead body in the freezer of her bakery as her ex-husband just happens to show up and become the lead suspect (Available December 29, 2015).
It's the dead of winter in the sleepy town of Ashland, which means no tourists-and fewer customers-for Jules Capshaw and her bakery. But when she's asked to cater an off-season retreat for the directors of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, business starts heating up…until Jules finds a dead body in the freezer.
Someone at the retreat has apparently iced the bartender, a well-known flirt with a legendary temper-that is, before a killer beat him to the punch. Then, from out of nowhere, Jules's own ex-husband shows up at the shop-and soon becomes a suspect. With accusations piling up higher than the snow-and thicker than a chocolate mousse cake-Jules has to think outside the (recipe) box to find the real culprit…and make sure he gets his just desserts.
They say that you can’t go home again. I’m not sure that’s true. I’d been home for almost six months, and found myself settling back into a comfortable and familiar pace.
Working at our family bakeshop, Torte, had helped ease the sting of leaving my husband and the life I’d known behind. I didn’t have any answers about what was next for Carlos and me, and the longer I was home the less it seemed to matter. Ashland, Oregon, my welcoming hometown, was the perfect place to mend. Being surrounded by longtime friends and family for the past few months had made me realize that while my heart may have been a bit broken, I wasn’t. It was an important distinction, and hopefully a sign that I’d made the right decision.
I’d been so consumed with baking and growing our catering business at Torte that I hadn’t had much time to reflect. Ashland is best known for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The world-famous theater company draws in thousands of visitors each year. From February through October our sleepy town transforms into a tourist hub. Theater enthusiasts, families, school groups, and travelers from every corner of the globe descend on our quaint streets.
The steady stream of visitors was great for business. During the height of the theater season it was nearly impossible to get a table at Torte, or any other restaurant in town. Shopkeepers make their yearly profits in the busy summer months. Torte had a booming summer and fall season, so much so that my only focus had been on the bakeshop. Now that winter had closed in and OSF had closed its doors for the season, it was as if the entire town shuttered in as well. I’d forgotten how quiet Ashland becomes in January—and how cold!
After spending ten years working as a pastry chef for a cruise line, I hadn’t experienced a winter like this in a long time. My winters had been spent island-hopping in the Caribbean and sailing in the Mediterranean, where the sun sparkled on warm waters despite the fact that the calendar read January.
January in Ashland was a different story. The temperature had been dropping steadily since October. Fall’s cool crisp mornings felt practically balmy compared to the icy layer of frost that coated the ground. I’d invested in a new collection of sweaters and wool socks. Despite pulling on heavy layers before leaving my apartment, I still shivered on my short walk to Torte.
Torte is located in the heart of downtown. The bakeshop sits in the middle of the plaza, nestled between shops and restaurants, with a front-row view of the bubbling Lithia fountains across the street. It’s a prime location for grabbing a pretheater snack or a catching up on the latest gossip. My mom, Helen, had been running the bustling bakery solo since my dad died and I took off to see the world. Her delectable handcrafted pastries are legendary with locals and anyone passing through town. Not only do people find comfort in her sweet creations, they also seek her out for advice and her kind listening ear. Everyone who walks through Torte’s front door is treated like family. That’s the secret to Torte’s longevity. Well, that and the binder of recipes passed down through generations of my family that Mom keeps locked in the office.
Keeping baker’s hours means that I’m always awake long before anyone else. This morning as I hurried through a biting wind to Torte, the streets felt especially dark and gloomy. I quickly unlocked the front door, flipped on the lights, and cranked on the heat.
A large chalkboard on the far wall displayed a Shakespearean quote reading: “In winter with warm tears I’ll melt the snow. And keep eternal spring-time on thy face.”
My dad started the tradition of a revolving quote when I was a kid. He loved everything Shakespearean, hence his insistance on naming me Juliet. I prefer Jules. There’s too much pressure attached to having a name like Juliet. But each time I glanced at the chalkboard, I smiled at the memory of my dad’s sparkling eyes and quick wit.
Torte’s front windows had frosted overnight. I rubbed my hands together for friction and made my way to the kitchen. The bakeshop is divided into two sections. Customers can nosh on a pastry or linger over an espresso at one of the tables or booths in the front. A long counter and coffee bar separates the dining space from the kitchen. It gives the bakery an open feel and allows guests to watch all of the action in the back.
I grabbed an apron from the rack and tied it around my waist. Our red aprons with blue stitching and a chocolate Torte logo in the center are as close as it gets to a uniform around here. Everyone on staff wears one of the crisp aprons that match Torte’s teal-and-cranberry-colored walls.
My first task of the day was getting the oven up to temp. We’d been down an oven for a while. Managing with one oven was doable during the slow season, but Mom and I had been tucking cash away in hopes of upgrading our equipment before things got busy again. I turned the oven on high, and leafed through the stack of special orders waiting on the kitchen island.
On today’s agenda were two birthday cakes, a pastry order for the theater, and our normal bread deliveries. The tight-knit business community in Ashland diligently supported and promoted each other, especially in the off-season. Wholesaling our bread to local restaurants and shops definitely helped with cash flow.
I washed my hands with honey-lavender soap and got to work on the bread. There’s something so therapeutic about making bread. From watching the yeast rise to kneading the dough, I allowed my thoughts to wander as I went through the familiar steps. Some of my colleagues in culinary school had complained when they had to work early shifts. I remember one aspiring chef said that she always felt lonely in an empty kitchen. Not me. I like working in a quiet space with nothing more than the hum of a mixer and the scent of sourdough bread baking around me. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy a vibrant kitchen with bodies squeezing past each other and a counter chock-full of delectable treats. I guess, like so many things in life, it was finding the balance between solitude and socialization that counted.
With the first batch of bread rising, I quickly sketched out a menu for the day. Once the team arrived everyone would have an assignment. The cold weather had our customers hungry for hearty breakfast options. I’d have Stephanie, one of the college students I’d been mentoring, bake chocolate, cinnamon, and nut muffins. Mom could handle stocking the rest of the pastry case with an assortment of sweet and savory delicacies. That would give me time to focus on the special orders.
As I finished writing the menu and task list on the whiteboard, the front door jingled and Andy walked in. He wore a puffy orange parka and knit stocking cap. His shaggy sandy hair stuck out from beneath the cap. “Morning, boss,” he called, rubbing his arms. “Man, it’s cold out there.”
Andy had been working for Mom since he was in high school. Now he attends Southern Oregon University, and runs Torte’s espresso bar whenever he’s not studying. He’s a genius when it comes to crafting coffee drinks. His creative flavor combinations have earned him a loyal following. There’s always a line for one of Andy’s expertly pulled shots or specialty lattes. He has an innate talent, and I’ve enjoyed watching him thrive.
He shrugged off his parka, stored it and his backpack behind the counter, and tied on an apron. Without missing a beat, he revved up the espresso machine. “You want to try something new?” he asked, pulling a canister of beans from underneath the bar.
“I’d love anything you want to make me,” I said as I roughed out a sketch for one of the birthday cakes. The order form read: Anything chocolate. Talk about a dream client. Chocolate was wide open for interpretation. Since this was for an adult birthday, I thought it would be fun to work some childhood nostalgia into the cake. I’d make an Oreo mousse cake and slice it into four layers. Then I planned to fill each layer with chocolate mousse and fresh berries. I would top it with more berries, Oreos, and gold dust. It should give the cake a whimsical yet elegant touch.
While I whipped egg yolks and sugar in the mixer for the mousse, Andy plugged his phone into our sound system and blasted some tunes. I watched as he swirled steaming milk to the beat of the music.
Mom and Stephanie arrived a few minutes later. Stephanie had originally been hired to help at the front counter, but her introverted personality—and the fact that she could really bake—made her a much better match for the kitchen. When I first met her, I thought she was a bit sullen. I’ve come to realize that there’s a kind and caring young woman underneath the layers of black eyeliner, purple hair, and her standoffish attitude. Mentoring Stephanie in the bakery had been one of the highlights of the last few months. She was a quick study and had an eye for design.
“Morning, everyone,” Mom yelled over the music. She really needs hearing aids. “It’s already hopping in here this morning.”
I signaled for Andy to turn down the music. He nodded and turned the volume down.
Mom patted Andy on the shoulder in silent thanks as she walked toward the rack of aprons.
“You know it, Mrs. C. It’s Monday. That means we crank up the tunes and the grinds.” Andy grinned and drizzled white chocolate sauce over a steaming latte. “Order up, boss,” he said to me.
“What is it?” I asked, grabbing the coffee from the front counter.
“I’m thinking of calling it a snowflake latte.” He reached under the bar and pulled out a notebook that he uses to track coffee recipes and ratios of milk to espresso. “It’s an almond latte with a little touch of white chocolate and whipped cream. Give it a try. I’m hoping it’s not too sweet. It’s my gift to the snow gods. We need some fresh powder on Mount Ashland. I’m dying to hit the slopes.”
The coffee smelled heavenly. I caught a whiff of almond as I took a sip. The creamy latte was perfectly balanced with just the right touch of sweetness. Andy had succeeded once again. We make all of our sauces and syrups at Torte. Our white chocolate sauce is a customer favorite. It’s much richer in flavor and texture than mass-manufactured sauces. I’m not a fan of sugary coffee drinks. Andy knew exactly how to add a splash of sweetness without letting the sugar overpower the drink.
“This is delicious.” I held the mug up in a toast. “It’s like winter in a cup. I think the snow gods will love it.”
“That’s what I was going for, boss.” His cheeks reddened. “Anyone else want to give my snowflake latte a try?”
Mom and Stephanie raised their hands in unison. Andy laughed and started steaming more milk. I knew he appreciated the praise. It was well deserved. I could drink Andy’s lattes all day. That is, until I started to shake from too much caffeine intake.
“This one needs to go up on the special board today,” I said, cradling the warm mug in my hands.
Stephanie tucked her hair behind her ears. “What do you want me to do first, Jules?” She normally wears her dark hair with streaks of purple, but today it was dyed in a shockingly bright violet. The look was startling.
“You changed your hair,” I noted.
She shrugged. “Yeah, I was tired of the black.”
“It matches your gorgeous eyes,” Mom said, returning to the kitchen and handing Stephanie a snowflake latte.
“Thanks.” Stephanie looked at her feet as she spoke. She was dressed in all black, quite the contrast from her cheery red apron and purple hair.
“Can you start on the muffins?” I asked, pointing to the whiteboard. “We’re going to need an extra dozen of each flavor for Lance’s order.”
Stephanie sipped her latte and studied the board. “What are you thinking for the cinnamon muffins?”
One of the many things that I appreciated about Stephanie was her willingness to ask questions. When I worked on the cruise line one of my biggest pet peeves with apprentice chefs was that they were afraid to ask questions. How are you going to learn if you don’t ask? I’d much rather have a chef-in-training ask too many questions versus doing it wrong and having to dump an entire batch of pastries in the trash.
“What do you think?” I threw it back at her. “We could do cinnamon chips or a cinnamon crumble on the top.”
“I’ll do both,” she said.
“Works for me.” I returned to the mixer.
Mom squeezed between me and the butcher block island that sits in the middle of the industrial kitchen. She’s shorter than me by a few inches. I inherited my height and lean frame from my dad. Even in her clogs, she has to stand on her toes to meet my eyes. “I see you’ve already got a head start back here.”
“That’s not a bad thing, is it?”
“Not at all. In fact, I might get used to this and start sleeping in.” She winked.
I whipped the yolks and sugar together until the mixture turned a creamy lemon color. One of the things I’ve been trying to teach Stephanie is that each step matters when it comes to baking. The most common mistake novice bakers make is to dump all the ingredients in at once. For a light and airy cake, it’s imperative that the egg yolks and sugar are slightly thickened before incorporating the chocolate.
Mom rolled up her sleeves. She cubed butter and measured brown sugar into a large mixing bowl. She chatted with Stephanie and Andy about their classes as she creamed cookie batter together by hand. Baking was in her DNA. Despite the fact that Torte has two industrial mixers, Mom was old-school when it came to making cookie dough. She prefers her large stainless steel bowl and wooden spoon.
“Mom, you know we have an industrial mixer, right?”
“How do you think I stay so fit?” She flexed her arm and raised the wooden spoon. “Who needs a mixer when I have muscles like these?”
I worried that the years of physical labor were taking their toll on her. Her pace had started to slow a bit, but not her enthusiasm, so I let it go.
I filled the double boiler with an inch of water and placed it on the stove. Then I measured dark chocolate chunks. I would melt the chocolate on a low boil and slowly incorporate it with the eggs and sugar. Soon the entire kitchen became infused with the delightful smell of cinnamon muffins baking in the oven, steaming coffee, and melting chocolate. I couldn’t resist swiping a taste of the warm chocolate as it liquefied in the pan.
“Where’s Sterling?” Mom asked, glancing at the clock on the wall. It was almost six. In a few minutes Torte would be bustling with locals stopping by for a coffee and pastry on their way to work.
“He said he’d be here by seven,” I replied, wiping chocolate from my fingers. “He stayed late last night.” Sterling was our newest staff member. Like me, he’d thought Ashland would be a temporary resting place, but had come to love our quirky small town. His piercing blue eyes, tattoos, and skater style had earned him quite the following among teenage girls. I wanted to tell them that they were wasting their time, while they stood in line, giggling and ordering hot chocolates. Sterling liked Stephanie. I wasn’t sure where she stood. The chemistry between them was definitely palpable, but as far as I could tell that was where it ended.
Sterling and Andy made a dream team in the front. Their personalities complemented one another. Andy with his boyish all-American good looks, and knowledge of local sports, chatted up customers with easy banter. Sterling had a sexy edginess that customers responded to. He discussed indie bands and dabbled in writing poetry. He reminded me of a young Johnny Depp.
After the holidays, Sterling asked me if I’d be willing to give him cooking lessons in the evenings. He didn’t think baking was his style, but he was interested in learning his way around the kitchen. It was great timing for me, since Torte’s catering business had been steadily increasing. Having an extra hand to help prep would be a huge help.
By the time Sterling arrived, Andy had sold a dozen snowflake lattes and packaged up pastries to go for our regular clients. A handful of locals occupied the tables in the front, but we were nowhere near as busy as we are in the summer months. I arranged the theater pastry order in a large white box with the Torte logo stamped on the side. Lance, the artistic director for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, was hosting a breakfast for some local board members and requested pastries to be delivered before eight.
Mom and Stephanie had things under control in the kitchen. My chocolate mousse was cooling on the counter, so I zipped up my coat and balanced the box of pastries. “I’m off to deliver these to Lance,” I called as I pushed open the front door.
A blast of cold air assaulted my face. Hurry, Jules, I thought as I quickened my pace. It’s freezing. Little did I know things were about to get much, much colder.
Copyright © 2015 Ellie Alexander.
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Ellie Alexander, author of the Bakeshop Mystery Series (St. Martin's Press), is a Pacific Northwest native who spends ample time testing pastry recipes in her home kitchen or at one of the many famed coffeehouses nearby. When she's not coated in flour, you'll find her outside exploring hiking trails and trying to burn off calories consumed in the name of research.