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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× five = 35

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