I’m happy to have Ann Myers, author of the Santa Fe Café Mysteries, as my guest today.
AF: Where did the inspiration for this story begin?
AM: Bread! I love baking and trying new recipes. I was baking up pan de muerto around the time I was brainstorming a culinary cozy and thought it would make a great title. Plus, it’s a marvelous bread, like a brioche but even better with anise and orange flavors and you can shape it like a skull and crossbones. What other bread has all that?
AF: Your book shows your love for the City Different. What’s your history with Santa Fe?
AM: This is where my main character Rita and I share a bit of similarity (along with our inability to dance). I’m originally from Pennsylvania and have lived in Louisiana, Japan, Ohio, and Florida and now Colorado. All great places, but like Rita I was instantly enamored with New Mexico and Santa Fe. Lucky for me, I get to go there a lot since moving to Colorado ten years ago. My husband researches water issues in New Mexico. It’s a never-ending project, and one I heartily encourage since it means summers and holidays in Santa Fe.
AF: Rita’s appreciation of food, kitchens, kitchen gadgets, and the art and meaning of cooking makes me think you must be a great cook yourself. Have you ever done it professionally or are you an enthusiastic amateur?
AM: Just an amateur cook and a very enthusiastic eater. Perhaps a little too enthusiastic? And, yeah, kitchen gadgets…I have a bit of a problem there too. Do I really need that raclette griddle that’s been languishing in my basement for years? Or the heavy cast-iron ebelskiver pan I was sure I’d use all the time, or the ice cream maker? Surely I’ll be making ice cream and round pancakes any moment now, so of course I’m hanging onto them. Lately, however, I’ve gotten better about sticking to small items, like cute old cookie cutters and cookbooks. You can never have too many cookbooks…
AF: What’s your favorite Santa Fe restaurant and why? You mention a few real ones in the books. Is that your tribute to them? And is Tres Amigas based on a real place?
AM: Oh, what a hard question. Santa Fe has so many great restaurants. My husband and I have a long list of places we have to visit when we’re in town, and the list keeps getting longer. One of my favorites is Tune-Up Café, which I couldn’t resist mentioning in the book. They make the best breakfast chiles rellenos with fried eggs and refried beans. So good! I also love Clafoutis for their fabulous French pastries, and I can always go for sopapillas, something I’d never make at home. I draw the culinary line at deep frying.
Tres Amigas is all fiction, or perhaps a mashup of some of my favorite cafés. I wanted someplace warm and cozy, serving up comfort-food favorites. The place I dream of having down the street from my house.
AF: I found details like Cass’s process making jewelry of fascinating. What was the most fun part of researching the book? What was the hardest part?
AM: Thanks! At the time I was writing Bread of the Dead, a friend and I were trying our hands at soldering and jewelry making. “Trying” is the key word for me. Whereas my friend was merrily wielding a giant flame, I was terrified by my tiny kitchen torch (which can melt metal, by the way). I did manage to master crème brûlée, and I learned a lot of about jewelry making, which I added to the book with Cass’s character.
Researching the food was also fun—and tasty! I’ve acquired a big stack of New Mexican cookbooks, including some great older ones with recipes from home cooks. Some of the recipes are simple in terms of ingredients but turn out so delicious. Like green chile stew, a basic stew but with loads of roasted green chiles. I’ve also enjoyed learning about Pueblo culinary traditions, both through reading and—better yet—attending Pueblo feast days, when residents invite family, friends, and strangers into their homes to eat. Such generosity and an amazing culinary feat to keep up a buffet for unknown numbers of guests. I always think of my family and how we’d stress out seeing hungry people lined up on the sofa, waiting to rotate in for a place at the table.
One of the research challenges I hadn’t anticipated was fitting my fictional places into the real landscape. Rita’s casita, for instance, is on a well-known street, although I didn’t have a particular address in mind. For Tres Amigas Café, I had a general idea of the location, but after my husband read the book, he thought it was somewhere else. In Feliz Navidead, I added an entire fictional hotel to the historic downtown since I wouldn’t want to be staging murders in real places. That took a lot of walking around and scoping out empty lots and worrying about how to make the fictional setting mesh with the actual one.
AF: Who are your favorite authors—mystery or other?
AM: I’m a huge mystery fan. It’s hard to pick favorites, although I adore British mysteries, such as those of Martha Grimes and Elly Griffiths. I’m also always reading cozy mysteries of all sorts. I love the everywoman heroines of cozies, as well as the craft/culinary/DIY themes. I’ve also recently discovered audiobooks, which I listen to at the gym or when working around the house. My local library has all the Hamish Macbeth mysteries on audio, and I went through at least a half-dozen while painting our house this fall. Fun to hear the Scottish accent read aloud and to imagine the bleak moors.
AF: Tell me about your work in progress.
AM: Two more Santa Fe Café Mysteries are with my publisher right now! Cinco de Mayhem will be out in March 2016, just in time for Cinco de Mayo. In this book, Rita takes on a bully French chef, a corrupt food inspector, and a killer to help her friend Linda. She also has to come up with a perfect dinner date menu, a Southwest-French feast featuring a green chile and cheese soufflé.
The third book, Feliz Navidead, let me think of Christmas all last summer. So much fun, but also a little difficult to conjure images of snow and farolitos when sitting in front of a swamp cooler in our broiler Santa Fe rental casita. I won’t give away too much, but there is a devil involved and pie. I’m still trying to settle on the perfect pie recipe. So far I’ve tried a green chile, apple, cheddar (wow!) and a pumpkin brûlée. I’m thinking chocolate and red chile with a cookie crust should be next. Or maybe I’m delaying to have an excuse to make and eat more pie…
AF: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to share?
AM: How about a recipe for New Mexico’s official state cookie, the bizcochito? It’s a yummy, anise-flavored shortbread cookie, perfect for any special occasion and the upcoming holidays.
Bizcochito traditionalists swear by lard for the proper flavor and texture. If you can’t find good lard, or prefer not to use it, shortening or butter can be substituted. You can also spice up your cookies by adding some chile powder to the cinnamon sugar. Delicious!
Makes three to four dozen cookies, depending on cookie cutter size
1 c lard (or butter or shortening)
1 c sugar
2 T anise seeds
1 t vanilla extract
½ t salt
¼ c brandy, sweet wine, or an anise-flavored liqueur, OR apple or orange juice
4 c all-purpose flour
1½ t baking powder
¼ c sugar
1 t ground cinnamon
¼ t (or more) red chile powder (optional)
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Using a stand or hand mixer, in a large bowl, cream the lard or butter until it is light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, sugar, vanilla, and anise seed.
In separate bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Stir the lard mixture into the dry ingredients, along with the brandy (or juice). Mix until you have a dough that is soft but not sticky. If you’re baking in a dry region like the Southwest, add a little more orange juice or brandy if the dough seems too shaggy or stiff. Form the dough into a ball.
Place on a lightly floured surface and roll out to about ¼ inch thick. Cut the cookies out, using your favorite cutter. Small round or rosette shapes are popular. You can also forgo a cookie cutter and simply cut the dough diagonally to form diamonds. After cutting, dip the front face of each cookie in the cinnamon sugar mixture (you might have to press the sugar in and/or sprinkle a little extra sugar on top). Place the cookies on the baking sheet, leaving a little space in between.
Bake until lightly golden and puffed, about 11 to 13 minutes. Cool on a rack. Bizcochitos store well in containers, if you can resist eating them all.
Thank you, Ann. This has been delightful.
For more about the Santa Fe Café series and more recipes, go to http://www.annmyersbooks.com/