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Monday, April 22, 2013


Judy Alter is the author of Kelly O’Connell Mysteries—Skeleton in a Dead Space, No Neighborhood for Old Women, and Trouble in a Big Box. With Murder at the Blue Plate Café, she launches her second series: Blue Plate Café Mysteries. Learn more about Judy and her books at her website. -- AP

I’m going to begin with a confession: I don’t have a craft, unless you count the craft of writing. Heaven knows, I’ve tried. There was my macramé phase—how long ago was that? Thankfully no souvenirs survive from that period. And then there was pottery—I still serve from some bowls that I threw. They’re thick and crude but I’m not ashamed to admit their origin. And then there was knitting. My grandmother taught me to knit as a young child, and there was a period—high school?—when I knit sweaters for myself. But I gave it up until the grandchildren came along and I decided I should knit something for each, so the youngest five have blankets or sweaters from Juju, although the loving hands that made them are evident in their flaws.

But always there was cooking. My mom taught me to cook when I was quite young. She patiently tolerated a messy kitchen and frequent mistakes, like the time I put nine teaspoons of baking soda in a cake. That’s what the recipe called for—I just didn’t know any better. Cooking has been my avocation all my life.

To me, there are two kinds of cooking: daily food and gourmet. For years, I fed four children and often had fifteen or twenty around my Sunday evening dinner table. I called those years of single parenthood “the casserole years.” You don’t cook gourmet in those circumstances, though once I went too far with experimentation, causing my brother to ask, “Sis? Is the budget the problem?” But to this day I enjoy cooking “gourmet” meals for small groups of friends. Usually I try a recipe I haven’t tried before—that’s part of the fun.

The idea of writing a culinary mystery danced in my head for several years, and I read a lot of those on the market, back to the early The Cooking School Murders by Virginia Rich. Diane Mott Davidson and Cleo Coyle were my heroes, though their recipes, I thought, put mine to shame.

Then I invented the Blue Plate Café, named after the Blue Willow china my mom served on and I use today. Actually the café is a modification of my memories of a small café in East Texas where my children and I used to eat frequently when visiting friends at a nearby ranch. And when I created Kate Chambers, I found I had re-invented myself.

Kate, a paralegal in Dallas, inherits her grandmother’s café in the small town of Wheeler. She abandons her career and returns to Wheeler, where she grew up, to run the café. Every day she cooks daily food—pot roast, chicken-fried steak, chopped steak, fried catfish, and, don’t forget the sticky buns, but she adds her own touch with homemade tuna, chicken and potato salads. In her off time, she delights in cooking gourmet meals, everything from chicken piccata to beef Wellington and inventing a few dishes as she goes along. Here’s her recipe for sticky buns, for which the Blue Plate Café is famous:

Sticky Buns

2 pkg. granular yeast
½ c. warm water
Pinch of sugar
12-oz. can evaporated milk, plus enough water to make 4 cups
1 scant c. vegetable oil
1 c. sugar
1 c. flour
1 tsp. salt (or less)
1 heaping tsp. baking powder
1 level tsp. baking soda
brown sugar
Karo white syrup

Dissolve yeast in water (add just a pinch of sugar to help the yeast work) and let it rise about five minutes. Mix milk and water, oil, and sugar. Add dissolved yeast. Stir in enough flour to make a thin batter, the consistency of cake batter. Let this rise in a warm place until bubbles appear on the surface (probably 1 hour—check it at 30 minutes).

Mix together flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Sift flour mixture into first mixture. Keep adding flour until it is too stiff to stir with a spoon.

Roll the dough out to a flat rectangle. Sprinkle with cinnamon and brown sugar and dab with butter. Roll up into a tube and slice into pieces of about 2 inches.

Thoroughly grease the bottom of an 8”x8” pan, then cover it with Karo white syrup and pecan pieces. Place rounds of dough, cut side down, on the Karo/pecan mixture. Bake these at 350o until brown and center rolls appear cooked. Be sure to turn out of the pan immediately, while still warm. Cold cooked syrup turns to concrete. Rinse the pan immediately with very hot water.
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 café. 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 police, newly come from Dallas, doesn’t understand small-town ways. Kate is  suspicious of Gram’s sudden death, “keeling over in the mashed potatoes,” as Donna described it, and she learns that’s not at all what happened. When the mayor of Wheeler becomes seriously ill after eating food from the café, delivered by Donna’s husband, Kate is even more suspicious. 

Then Donna’s investor is shot, and Donna 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.


Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Can't wait to try this book Judy--and the buns!

Barbara Monajem said...

LOL. I sympathize re trying many crafts. I still knit sometimes, but have as yet to succeed at making a sock.

I love the idea of Gram guiding Kate! And thanks for the recipe-- usually I'm useless when yeast is involved, but I might be able to manage this one.

judyalter said...

Thanks, Lucy and Barbara. This yeast dough is easy to manage and can be used for so many things, from dinner rolls to Christmas coffee cakes. The directions are all in Cooking My Way Through life with Kids and Books--sorry for the BSP.

Cindy Sample said...

I love looking at recipe books and reading culinary mysteries so I can't wait to start on your new series. But I limit my cooking to recipes with 5 ingredients or less. My children say it's safer that way!

Unknown said...

So as a writer of culinary mysteries, the recipes you use in the book, are they yours or do you borrow from those who have the best recipe ever???

judyalter said...

Cindy, I love reading recipes books too but I branch out beyond five ingredients. So far, not too many complaints. To Unknown (gosh, I wish I knew who you were), the recipes are all from my "appalling collection," compiled over the years from my mom, my experiments, friends, and recipes I've found various places and usually modified.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this post greatly and appreciate the sticky buns recipe. The book sounds most interesting!


Mia Marlowe said...

I so relate to the lack of a craft. Put a glue gun in my hand and I'm a danger to myself & others!

However, fictional cooking, like in your Blue Plate Cafe, is probably something I could handle!

Ellen B. said...

Yum Judy. Am printing your sticky bun recipe! Sounds delish.