Friday, March 15, 2013

Cooking Up a Culinary Cozy--Guest Post by Judy Alter

by Judy Alter, @JudyAlter

In another life, I’d probably be a chef. I love being a writer, but cooking is my avocation. I like nothing better than to try out a new recipe on company—usually it works fine, though there have been disasters. But I am known as the “foodie” among my friends. Everyone laughed that I made the protagonist in my Kelly O’Connell Mystery series a non-cook who fed her children pizza or took them out for turkey burgers.

I always wanted to write a culinary mystery, but who can match the inimitable Diane Mott Davidson with her sophisticated and tempting recipes? I have a friend who has tried some and reports delicious results. But in my new Blue Plate Café Mystery series I have reached a compromise—a culinary touch to a cozy mystery set in a small town. Only this is not sophisticated cooking; it’s strictly down home.

Two threads from my life are woven into this café-based series: for almost twenty years, my children and I spent lovely weekends with dear friends who owned Arc Ridge Ranch, outside of Ben Wheeler in near East Texas. Sometimes we went to the nearby town of Edom to a café called The Shed for dinner. The Saturday night special was always fried catfish, and they had a mean lemon meringue pie. Breakfasts were equally tempting, and I can still mentally put myself inside that small restaurant.

But the other thread was cooking at the ranch with Reva, or as my children called her Aunt Reva. Reva was a great, down-home cook, a Missouri farm girl transplanted to Texas. She and I were a terrific kitchen team, though mostly I learned from her as we put together huge feasts. We made everything from pot roast and mashed potatoes to barbecued chicken and potato salad. We  tossed salads and created wonderful desserts. Each of us contributed recipes and ideas. If one of the children got lucky and caught a sizeable bass in the lake in front of their house, we cooked that (after Uncle Charles cleaned it).

Arc Ridge Ranch was a B&B with several two-bedroom cabins, complete with kitchens. Reva stocked the fridges for breakfast with orange juice and usually her famous prune bread (secret recipe—she wouldn’t even share it with me). Most guests were on their own for lunch and dinner, but we were family, and those dinners on the front porch, overlooking the lake, stand out as among the happiest, most peaceful moments in my life.

By the time I compiled a cookbook, Cooking My Way Through Life with Kids and Books, Reva had left us, but I had enough of her recipes to include them along with a tribute to our happy days at the ranch. Charles even gave me the treasured prune bread recipe.

Murder at the Blue Plate Café, the brand new first in the series, has a short appendix of recipes, all from Gram who ran the Blue Plate until her death. But Gram’s recipes are really Reva’s—chicken salad, meatloaf, beans, sheet cake (over which we had endless arguments: she called it sheath cake and I maintained it was a sheet cake because it was baked on a jelly roll sheet). Here’s a new one, her recipe for Toffee Bars, sent to me one year so I could serve it at my annual Christmas party:

Toffee Bars
½ lb. (2 sticks) butter
1 c. brown sugar
1 egg yolk
2 c. flour
1 tsp. vanilla
12 oz. semisweet chocolate chips
1 c. chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 350° and grease a 9x13 pan.

Cream butter and sugar. Add the egg yolk and beat. Sift in the flour and then add the vanilla. Spread the batter in the pan—it will be difficult to cover all the corners; you’ll have a thick batter that you will probably have to spread by hand, and then it will be thinly distributed. Bake for 25 minutes.
Take the cake out of the oven, cover it with chocolate chips, and return to the oven for three minutes. When you remove it from the oven this time, smooth the chocolate evenly with the blade of a table knife and sprinkle with nuts. Cool.

Makes about thirty pieces, depending on how you cut them.

About Judy Alter:

An award-winning novelist, Judy Alter is the author of three books in the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries series: Skeleton in a Dead Space, No Neighborhood for Old Women, and Trouble in a Big Box. With Murder at the Blue Plate Café, she moves from inner city Fort Worth to small-town East Texas to create a new set of characters in a setting modeled after a restaurant that was for years one of her family’s favorites.

Contact Judy at  or visit her web page at
Blogs: Judy’s Stew and Potluck with Judy

Murder at the Blue Plate Café:

When twin sisters Kate and Donna inherit their grandmother’s restaurant, the Blue Plate Cafe, in Wheeler, Texas, there’s immediate conflict. Donna wants to sell and use her money to establish a B&B; Kate wants to keep the cafe. Thirty-two-year-old Kate leaves a Dallas career as a paralegal and a married lover to move back to Wheeler and run the café, while Donna plans her B&B and complicates her life by having an affair with her sole investor. Kate soon learns that Wheeler is not the idyllic small town she thought it was fourteen years ago. The mayor, a woman, is power-mad and listens to no one, and the chief of the police department, newly come from Dallas, doesn’t understand small-town ways. Kate’s suspicion about her grandmother’s sudden death deepens when the mayor of Wheeler becomes seriously ill after eating food from the café, delivered by Donna’s husband.  When Donna’s investor is shot, she is arrested. Kate must defend her sister and solve the murders to keep her business open, but even Kate begins to wonder about the sister she has a love-hate relationship with. Gram guides Kate through it all, though Kate’s never quite sure she’s hearing Gram—and sometimes Gram’s guidance is really off the wall.

Read an excerpt here:
Turquoise Morning Press:
Available for most e-readers at Smashwords:
Print available from your local bookseller, Amazon or Turquoise Morning Press