Showing posts with label Joanna Carl. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Joanna Carl. Show all posts

Friday, May 16, 2014

Pistachio Cake

by Sheila Connolly

For the past few years, at the Malice Domestic conference I’ve shared a room with the delightful author of the Chocoholic Mystery series, JoAnna Carl.  She usually arrives in Bethesda a few days early in order to enjoy the museums and other historic sites of Washington, and I’m happy to tag along, since I’ve never visited many of them, and others only briefly and long ago.

This year we decided to take the tour of Ford’s Theater, which was sad and impressive (if you could see past the crowds made up mainly of school groups—but at least they’re learning something about their history!). We followed that with a brief stop at an extraordinarily elegant chocolate shop CoCo nearby, where we each indulged in a few carefully chosen candies, and then we had lunch at a pleasant restaurant on the corner.

For dessert I ordered their pistachio cake, and it was excellent—nice flavor, and moist. I’m usually not a fan of nut-based desserts, but I enjoyed this one. So I decided to try to recreate it.

Oddly enough, the recipes on the Internet seem to have been shanghaied by a modern version involving a box of cake mix combined with pudding. I’m sure it’s tasty and easy, but I like to make things from scratch (maybe I’m a throwback). Finding a recipe for that was a bit harder, but I located a couple, which I kind of combined for this cake.

A couple of notes: First, I cheated and bought my pistachios already shelled, since this recipe calls for a total of a cup of nut meats.  I confess: now and then I get lazy. Second, the restaurant served their version as small cakes, maybe four inches across. Believe it or not, that’s one size of pan I do not have, although I may have every other size known to humankind. But this works just as well in a baking pan—it’s just not as refined a presentation. It still tastes good!

Pistachio Cake

3/4 cup (4 oz.) natural pistachios, shelled
1 cup flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup whole milk
1/4 cup sour cream
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp almond extract
1-1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs

(If you really want this to look green, you can add a few drops of food coloring.)

1 cup pistachios (yes, another batch) for topping

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Butter a 13" x 9" metal cake pan, then line the bottom with wax paper. Butter the paper and dust the interior of the pan with flour, knocking out the excess.

Pulse the pistachios in a food processor until finely ground (do not let them turn into a paste!).

Combine the finely-chopped pistachios, flour, baking powder, cardamom and salt and mix.

Combine the milk, sour cream, vanilla and almond extract (and optional food coloring) in a small bowl.

With an electric stand mixer, beat together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.  Add the eggs one at a time, beating well between each addition.

Alternate adding the flour mixture and the milk in batches, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients, and mix only until combined.

For the topping, chop the second batch of pistachios in a food processor until the pieces look like large gravel (about 1/8-1/4"). I suspect this works better if you hand chop the nuts, since the food processor gives kind of a random result (but see confession above).

Spread the batter evenly in the cake pan. Sprinkle the chopped pistachios evenly over the top.

Bake in the middle of the oven about 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.  Cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cake and invert it onto the rack. Remove the paper on the bottom and flip the cake onto a serving platter.

Serve warm or at room temperature. If you insist you can dress it up with whipped cream, but it’s very light and moist as is.

Oh, that's right: there's a book coming out in June:

A big-city developer with big bucks, a Revolutionary War monument, and a body floating in a pond--what more do you want? (How about Nell Pratt's relationship with my favorite FBI agent, that's heating up fast?)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

JoAnna Carl Bakes A Cookie Sheet Chocolate Cake!

A very special welcome to JoAnna Carl, author of the Chocoholic Mysteries. The series takes place in a fictional town with a Victorian atmosphere on the shore of Lake Michigan, and features (oh, yum!) a behind-the-scenes look at making fine, luscious, luxurious European-style truffles and chocolates!

If cooking were hereditary, I’d be Julia Child. Or at least a fry cook. My family is full of wonderful cooks.

Food is important to us all. I can remember laughing, as a dumb kid, because my female relatives never got up from lunch without discussing the menu, supplies, and time schedule needed for dinner. My grandmother saw nothing funny about this. “You have to plan ahead if things are going to be good,” she said.

My grandmother, Nettie, and her sister, Aunt Sula, are the models for Aunt Nettie, the owner of Ten Huis Chocolade and a major character in the Chocoholic books. But neither of them, as far as I know, ever made a bonbon or a truffle. They were too busy baking cakes for church and family, frying chicken-fried steak (Oklahoma’s official state entrée), producing the best piecrust in town, or chopping salad (that’s another blog).

And despite having written ten books about a chocolatier, I can’t make truffles or bonbons either. This is a skill that takes lots of equipment and practice. I’ve never even tried.

But I can make good brownies, and I can bake the family’s favorite chocolate cake. And how this cake came into the family always struck me as funny and very typical of my family.

I first ran into this cake at a convention I attended with my husband. No, it wasn’t served, but the wife of another convention-goer mentioned it to me. She gave me the recipe, just out of her head, and I wrote it down on the back of the envelope I’d gotten my name tag in. I still have that envelope, now all stained with chocolate.

When I got home, I made the cake, and it was great. So I wrote the recipe out neatly and sent it off to my mother, asking her to share it with my grandmother and great-aunt. I felt that I’d made a real contribution to the family archives.

I never had any response to the recipe, however, and eventually I almost forgot sending it.

Then we – me, my husband, and our three kids – went to visit my parents in Wichita. When we arrived, Mother had dinner ready, and as she served it up she said, “Save room for a piece of this new chocolate cake. Someone at church gave Aunt Sula the recipe, and it’s wonderful.”
You guessed it. It was my cake.

None of them had even tried Little Eve’s cake recipe. I might be thirty years old and the mother of three, but I was just an inexperienced cook to those ladies. It was only after the same cake turned up at a covered dish dinner that it won the acclaim it deserved.

I’d have had my feelings hurt if I hadn’t been occupied with stuffing down chocolate cake. Instead I thought it was funny, because I knew those ladies loved me very much, even though they snubbed my cake recipe.

The cake is still our family’s favorite. We call it Cinnamon Chocolate Cake, because of that special ingredient, or Cookie Sheet Chocolate Cake, because it’s baked in a jelly roll pan or another flat pan with a rim. The cake is thin; the icing thick.

A few years ago I took this cake to a covered dish dinner at a family reunion in Michigan, where the Chocoholic books are set. I didn’t know all the people there well – they’re distant relatives of my husband’s grandparents – so I was horrified to see that someone else had brought the same cake.

Covered dish etiquette varies from locale to group to family. I was afraid this was someone’s special annual contribution. I might have inadvertently stepped on her toes.

But the other cake maker came over and smiled. “I see you brought a Texas Sheet Cake, too,” she said.

I did? It was the first I’d known about it. I’d never run into the cake under that name. After I got to a computer, I looked it up on-line, and, sure enough, there it was. “Texas Sheet Cake.” There’s a white version, too, but I never waste calories on white cake, so I haven’t tried that. Yes, I’m a genuine chocoholic. Anyway, here it is. Easy to make and awfully easy to eat.

Oh, one more story. When my older daughter was nine or ten, I was cutting a piece of the sheet cake for her and a friend. She watched me seriously, then she turned to her pal. “My aunt,” she said, “gives me a great, big piece of that cake.”

How’s that for a hint? Since then I’ve remembered that the cake is thin, so the it must be served in “great, big” pieces. At least to nine-year-olds.


Mix in large bowl: 2 cups sugar
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Bring to a boil: 1 stick margarine
4 tablespoons cocoa
1 cup water
½ cup shortening
Mix the two mixtures.
Add: ½ cup buttermilk
2 eggs, well-beaten
Pour into greased and floured cookie sheet or jelly-roll pan or other large cake pan. Bake 15 to 20 minutes in 400-degree oven.


6 tablespoons milk 4 tablespoons cocoa
1 stick margarine 1 teaspoon vanilla
1 box powdered sugar 1 cups nuts
Bring cocoa, margarine, milk, and vanilla to a boil. Add powdered sugar and nuts. Pour over warm cake.

JoAnna's most recent book, The Chocolate Cupid Killings, was just released!

Lee McKinney Woodyard and her aunt, chocolatier Nettie TenHuis Jones, are cautious helpers in that mysterious underground railway which assists abused women to escape to new lives. The appearance of a private detective looking for the woman they’re sheltering sends up alarms – especially after the private eye is found dead, with Aunt Nettie is standing over him brandishing an empty Amaretto bottle.

Thanks so much for joining us today, JoAnna!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Grilled Avocados

Is anyone going to Bouchercon in Indianapolis next month? If so, I hope you’ll consider coming to the “Criminal Consumables” panel at 9:00 AM on Saturday where Sandy Balzo (moderator), Joanna Carl, Ellen Crosby, Nadia Gordon, and I will be talking about Wine, dinner, coffee and murder—the craft and popularity of food and drink in mysteries. I hope to see some of you there!


Grilled Avocados

I love avocados. I love them smashed and cilantro-ed in guacamole, sliced in salads and on sandwiches, and as garnish at restaurants when a chef gets creative. But I had never had them grilled in their jackets before. Well, not until recently that is.

In my neverending quest to find yummy vegetarian snacks for my youngest daughter, I sampled a few items from a great little vegetarian cookbook, called Vegetarian Cooking & Vegetable Classics, by Roz Denny and Christine Ingram. What I love about this book is that the recipes are simple and there are pictures for every dish (that always helps!). Not only that but the authors have seen fit to include almost 150 pages of pictures and explanation of vegetables. There are several I’d never heard of before and it gets tough to find something new at the grocery store when you have no idea what it looks like. This book, which I bought at a local bookstore in the marked-down section, is a gem. Over 500 pages, and paperback, it’s great. I highly recommend it.

But before you rush out and buy it, I need to offer one caveat. This book appears to have been written by British authors and while most U.S. measurements and oven settings are included for us Yanks, there are occasional steps that threw me. Five ounces of flour? Um… okay. Can I use my measuring cup with ounces? But that’s volume. Did they mean weight? For the most part, I just used my best judgment. And so far no one in my family has suffered from my attempts.

On page 180 of this cookbook, they provide a recipe for Warm Avocados with Tangy Topping. I made these and served them and they were a hit. Unfortunately, I made 4 whole avocados—which translates to 8 servings—for three of us. A bit too much and although they’re not bad when reheated, I think these are best the first day.

My daughter and I loved the whole concept of grilling avocados, so we played around with ingredients and we came up with two new varieties. She and I both preferred the mushroom to the salsa version but it was very close.

Mushroom Version

1 whole avocado
About 4 or 5 mushrooms sliced
¼ small onion, chopped
1 T butter
2 slices of Mozzarella cheese

Heat butter in a small pan, then sauté onions and mushrooms until mushrooms are nicely cooked. Assemble according to directions below.

Salsa Version

1 whole avocado
1 small tomato, chopped
1 clove garlic chopped/crushed
¼ small onion, chopped
1 t chopped cilantro
1 T Italian salad dressing
2 slices of Pepperjack cheese

Combine tomato, garlic, onion, cilantro, and Italian dressing. Assemble according to directions below.

Assembly for both versions

Preheat your grill. I used a gas grill with the front and back burners on “high,” and the middle burners “off.”

For either version, slice the avocado in half length-wise. Remove pit, but do not remove the fruit from the skin. Score the fruit so that juices from the mixture can seep in during cooking. Divide your mixture in two and use half to fill each of your two “open” avocado halves. Cover each filled half with one cheese slice, ripped into pieces to fully overlap and cover.

Place filled avocados on a grill-proof plate or aluminum pan. Now that they no longer take them back, I used my old leftover Bakers’ Square pie tins with a protective base of aluminum foil.

Grill for about ten minutes. Grills vary, so keep any eye on them. Avocados are done when the cheese begins to bubble and brown.

Each avocado half is one serving. Using a knife and fork, they can be eaten right out of the skin. The ones to the left and back are the salsa version. To the right and front are the mushroom verson.

Hope you have fun with these!


My White House Chef Mystery series includes State of the Onion, Hail to the Chef, and Eggsecutive Orders (coming in January). All from Berkley Prime Crime.

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***Don't forget to leave a comment this week for a chance to win an autographed copy of one of Sally Goldenbaum's books!***

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


First of all, I want to send a shout-out to Robin Agnew of Aunt Agatha's Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Robin's also the president of the Kerrytown Bookfest (also in Ann Arbor) and invited me to participate in this year's event, which I did this past Sunday.

The day was beautiful, the readers friendly - I was thrilled to be a part of it. (I'll be blogging more about it on my "Julie Hyzy" blog later this week. But I just wanted to let everyone here know that it was a truly fun event and Aunt Agatha's is a wonderful store. If you ever have the chance to go to the Kerrytown Bookfest or visit Aunt Agatha's -- you should absolutely jump on it.

Pictured here are those of us on the Cooking with Mystery panel.

From left: Connie (Miranda Bliss), Eve (Joanna Carl), me, and our wonderful moderator Angelee whose last name escapes me at the moment.


Because this was such a busy week, and because I've been using way too much heavy cream and sugar in many of my recipes, I decided to go with a somewhat healthier alternative this week.

After watching Alton Brown once on the Food Channel, I attempted my first-ever frittata. At that time I didn't have all the ingredients in the house I needed to recreate his version, so I improvised, which is something I love to do.

This time I tried a different version, and even though I was certain I had all the necessary items, I found out at the last second that I did not.

No worries... There's a lot of room for creativity with fritattas!

Although I usually prefer a more low-carb option, the potatoes in this one don't add horribly to the carb count and they give the frittata a nice texture that allows this dish to be enjoyed at any meal. Just because it features eggs doesn't mean it's solely a breakfast item!

Ready for an easy recipe?


1 T butter
6 eggs**
**You can use egg substitute if you prefer. Measure out about 1.5 cups for equivalent to 6 eggs.
1/4 cup chopped onion
1 cup frozen broccoli florets
1/4 cup chopped green pepper
1/2 big bag of frozen hash browns - about 13 ounces
salt and pepper
1/2 cup shredded cheddar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees

In a large skillet (must be oven-proof) melt the butter and saute the onions, green pepper and broccoli until the onions are soft and the broccoli is al dente. If you want to add more butter (I did), you may.

Add frozen potatoes and cook until they're warmed and cooked through, though not necessarily brown. Mine stayed white.

Mix the eggs until well blended, add salt and pepper to taste. Add eggs to the skillet and cook, stirring slightly until the eggs start to set. Don't pull them to the center of the pan, like scrambled eggs. You want the mixture to take up the entire bottom of the pan.

Place pan in the preheated oven and bake for about 4 minutes. Add shredded cheddar (yikes! mine was gone, so I chopped up a block of cheddar) and return to oven until cheese is melted and the sides of the frittata begin to brown.

Remove from the oven and serve hot.

As I said, this can be a wonderful low-carb option if you omit the potatoes. I made this once with some leftover salsa and it was fabulous.

Hope you enjoy!


My White House Chef Mystery series includes State of the Onion, Hail to the Chef, and Eggsecutive Orders (coming in January). All from Berkley Prime Crime.

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