Why Now Was the Perfect Time to Write My New Book

I’ve been a cookbook and food magazine writer and editor for over 20 years. I’ve also banged out stories as a wine writer and a restaurant reviewer (a position I held at The Des Moines Register for 15 years). I’ve traveled and dined in best-of-the-world restaurants from La Broche in Madrid to Charlie Trotter in Chicago.

And yet … in the past few years, I’ve found myself less and less interested in the kind of detailed, ground-breaking, experimental cuisine that I once passionately sought in every place I traveled. These days, when someone at a party comes up to tell me about the latest Michelin-starred restaurant they’ve dined at in some far-away spot — somewhere they say that I just have to try — I listen and nod for as long as I can, then try to duck away as fast as I can.

While I still seek well-crafted dishes made with well-chosen ingredients, on most days, I’d rather have a thoughtfully prepared trout amandine than an exquisitely detailed plate at a #foodporn-worthy restaurant. A good-quality gin on the rocks with lime and a splash of excellent tonic—served in the appropriate rocks glass—makes me infinitely happier than a rarified craft cocktail. 

Indeed, I’m most gratified when I’m at a table where, as renowned Boston chef Gordon Hamersly once put it, “the food is not being worshiped or fawned over, but rather has just simply taken its natural place in the moment.”

And so, when my editor from Harvard Common Press asked me if I’d write a cookbook based on foods in Louisa May Alcott’s masterpiece, “Little Women,” the timing could not have been better. The project aligned perfectly with where I’m at in my culinary life right now.

What? You haven’t read “Little Women“? Now’s the time. In celebration of the 150th anniversary (and pegged to the upcoming movie, I’m sure) here’s a beautiful edition of this beloved novel.

Published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, “Little Women” begins with the March sisters taking Christmas breakfast to a destitute German immigrant family; it ends with a picnic in the orchard on apple-picking day, when the sisters and their mother reflect on the great harvest of the fruit and of their lives. 

Food lovingly cooked and happily shared weaves in and out of the 450-plus pages of Little Women, but it’s never the sole focus. No one ever fawns; rather, food takes its natural place in an ongoing narrative of lessons learned, affection given, love made visible.

Food’s true role is perhaps most movingly apparent when Jo seeks to earn money from her writing so that she can give her gravely ill sister Beth everything she desires, “from strawberries in winter, to an organ in her bedroom.” 

Want a taste of what this book is all about? Try my recipe for Amy’s “Pickled Lime” sugar cookies. It riffs on one of the more prominent foods in the book: pickled limes, a trendy treat among the schoolgirls in 12-year-old Amy’s set. 

What, pray tell, were pickled limes? According to a cookbook published in 1845, pickled limes were made by curing the limes with salt, then pickling them in a mixture of garlic, onions, clove, ginger, vinegar and mustard seeds. Though hard to believe, pickled limes were a food fad during the mid- to late 19th century.

Alas, this delicacy did not stand the test of time. While I developed the recipes in my book to match a genuine spirit of the era, I only included recipes that we’d truly yearn to cook and eat today. I put Amy’s beloved limes (albeit candied, not pickled) atop a buttery sugar cookie (something the March sisters would have definitely enjoyed). Hence I came up with this sweeter and more delightful way to tip our hats to charming Amy and the beloved limes she’s so eager to share with her friends.

Amy's "Pickled Lime" Sugar Cookies
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 36
 
Would the March sisters have used a mix? Honestly, I bet if a truly good sugar-cookie mix had been available during the Civil War, they may well have done. The trick is to use an excellent mix, such as Betty Crocker's Sugar Cookie Mix, that calls for adding a stick of butter. When I developed this recipe, I tested it with five different from-scratch sugar-cookie recipes, and honestly, truly, this start-with-a-mix version won out. But if you wish to use your own tried-and-true sugar cookie recipe, do so, and simply top with my zippy-sweet lime frosting and a jellied lime candy. Enjoy!
Ingredients
  • 1 package sugar cookie mix (see note*)
  • 1½ tablespoons unsalted butter, allowed to stand at room temperature for 20 minutes to soften
  • 1½ cups confectioners’ sugar
  • 4½ teaspoons fresh lime juice
  • 1½ teaspoons grated lime zest
  • ½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • Milk (optional)
  • Green food coloring (optional)
  • 8 jellied lime candy slices, cut into small wedges
Instructions
  1. Prepare the sugar cookies according to the package directions. Allow to cool completely.
  2. For the lime frosting, beat the butter with an electric mixer on medium speed for a few seconds to soften. Add the sugar, lime juice, lime zest and vanilla. Beat until smooth. If needed, add milk,
  3. teaspoon at a time, to make a spreadable frosting. Tint as desired with food coloring. (A little goes a long way, so start with the smallest dot possible.)
  4. Frost the cooled cookies with the lime frosting and top each with a wedge of jellied lime candy. To store, layer the cookies between sheets of waxed paper in an airtight container and keep in the refrigerator up to 3 days. Makes 3 dozen cookies.

 

 

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Favorite Photos and Recipes from The Little Women Cookbook

Just the other day, I received my one advance author’s copy of The Little Women Cookbook. As you can imagine, I’m pretty excited. The official pub date is October 1, but it’s nice to get an actual copy into my hot little hands. The book’s designer and photographs did my recipes proud. It’s just so gratifying to work with such a great publisher (Harvard Common Press) again.

If you’re interested in purchasing a copy (Christmas presents, anyone?) ordering before the official publication date (10/1) is a good idea. Amazon’s prices fluctuate — when you put your order in, you guarantee that the price won’t go up. And if the price goes down, you’ll get the lowest price between the day you put your order in and the actual pub date.

I wanted to share some of my favorite photos with you.

1. Hannah’s Turnovers

 

Hannah, the March family’s Irish cook, makes hot turnovers for the March sisters to warm their hands on their way to school or work each morning. The turnovers then serve as a snack later in the day.

These flaky pastries are made with a cheese and butter crust surrounding a sweet jam filling. I love serving them at weekend breakfasts (with scrambled eggs), as an hors d’oeuvres, or with a bowl of soup instead of a side bread.

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2. Spice-Trade Deviled Eggs

 

Think the food in 19th-century New England was bland? Not so! Salem, Mass., was the epicenter of the spice trade in the U.S. — and in the book, Laurie’s grandfather is a merchant in the spice trade.

These great little hors d’oeuvres have a spicy filling, and are topped with a touch of chutney. And yes — the March family would have had access to chutney — indeed, cookbooks at that time mention chutney often.

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3. Amy’s “Pickled Lime” Sugar Cookies

 

Remember what a fiasco Amy causes when she brings pickled limes to school to boost her popularity with the other girls? Things don’t go so well. These sweet, buttery cookies with their sweet-tart lime frosting are a tip of the hat to the lesson Amy learns when she tries to use food as a status symbol rather than a way to authentically connect with people.

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4. Mr. Bhaer’s Fruit and Nut Trifle

 

In my opinion, the best scene in the book is when Jo seeks out Mr. Bhaer, searching for him in town in the rain. As they talk around their love for each other, he mentions that he wants to buy fruits, nuts, and oranges to treat the March family to something nice before he leaves for the American West. I’ve folded all of Mr. Bhaer’s treats into a lovely trifle — a popular dessert at the time.

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5. Amy’s Chocolate-Sauced Cream Puffs

Quite possibly my favorite quote from Little Women comes when Amy sails away to Europe:

So Amy sailed away to find the Old World, which is always new and beautiful to young eyes, while her father and friend watched her from the shore, fervently hoping that none but gentle fortunes would befall the happy-hearted girl, who waved her hand to them till they could see nothing but the summer sunshine dazzling on the sea.

Doesn’t that just send shivers?

A few recipes in the book are luscious desserts Amy would have encountered during her travels. Amy loved French chocolate (there’s another scene in the book when she wants to treat all her art-school classmates to French chocolate and other delights). Hence, these cream puffs (aka profiteroles) would fit right in.

I hope you enjoyed this little preview. Want more? Here are a few recent articles:

Blanc-Mange, Little Women, and a Pre-Order Bonus

Announcing … The Little Women Cookbook

Thanks for your interest! And above all, thanks for reading Chez Bonne Femme.

 

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Blancmange and Little Women + A Pre-Order Bonus

Blancmange with Strawberries from The Little Women Cookbook.

“ ‘That looks too pretty to eat,’ Laurie said, smiling with pleasure, as Jo uncovered the dish, and showed the blanc-mange, surrounded by a garland of green leaves, and the scarlet flowers of Amy’s pet geranium.”

Blancmange is the quintessential dessert in Little Women, and it’s one of my favorite recipes in my upcoming Little Women Cookbook. This creamy dessert is a little like a custard, but thickened with gelatin instead of eggs.

I especially love this dessert in summer when served with zippy and bright fruit sauces or fresh fruit. It does this neat trick that I love in a great dessert: It’s both rich (because it’s made with milk and cream) and refreshing (because it’s chilled and served with that bright fruit sauce).

Trouble is, my cookbook doesn’t come out until October 1st. And while there are many great autumn-worthy desserts in the book (Jo’s Gingerbread and Apple Turnovers, for instance), I think the Blancmange recipe is best right now. That is, with summer fruits or fruit sauces.

So, I’ve partnered with my publisher (Harvard Common Press/Quarto Publishing) to put together a mini e-cookbook that offers my master recipe for Blancmange with Strawberries, plus five great sauces to go with it: The five bright and zingy sauces are: Raspberry, Strawberry, Blueberry, Peach, and Cherry.

The Little Women Cookbook: Due out October 1, but you can get a taste of it if you pre-order today.

While a master recipe for blancmange with strawberries will appear in the Little Women Cookbook, the optional summery sauces will not. We simply didn’t have room to put them all in!

To get this e-cookbook (which also tells the story of Blancmange back in the days of Little Women), all you need do is pre-order The Little Women Cookbook, then send a proof of purchase (such as a screen shot of the order details OR the order confirmation email from Amazon) to littlewomen@quarto.com. 

Within one business day, you should receive the ebook. I think you’ll really enjoy it — and it will give you a taste of the kinds of recipes and historical lore you’ll find in the upcoming cookbook.

By the way: Yes — if you already bought the book, you qualify for the free e-book. Just send in your order details OR the order confirmation email from Amazon to littlewomen@quarto.com.

Also — the great thing about pre-ordering on Amazon is that you get their “Pre-Order Price Guarantee.” That means the price Amazon charges when they ship the book will be the lowest price offered by Amazon.com between the time you placed your order and the end of the day of the release date. Amazon’s prices fluctuate often, so ordering now is a great way to ensure you’ll get the best price.

Enjoy. And thank you for reading Chez Bonne Femme.

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