Sunday, December 11, 2011

Lecia Cornwall's Best Christmas cookies EVER!


I make these cookies at Christmas every year. It started out as a treat to make for my children when they were too young to appreciate fruitcake or eat my boozy rum balls, and grew from there. First, there were several years of tweaking the recipe in The Joy of Cooking (see stained and rumpled page 705 in my battered copy), trying new chocolate, better ingredients, and hunting down superior chips— and just when I had cooking times perfect in Ottawa, we moved to Calgary, where baking at altitude offered a whole new learning curve.

I used to take my cookies to potluck pre-school Christmas parties, mail them to family far away, and give them to neighbors, teachers and dear friends, since it was difficult with two little kids to afford any other gift. The cookie list has grown every year as more and more special people have come into our lives.

Since these are haute cuisine indeed, and have been called more complicated than chef Heston Blumenthal’s recipe instructions, I’ll offer a few suggestions for beverage pairings. These cookies go well with red wine, according to my cousin Martin, who is on the cookie list every year. My son likes them with egg nog, my daughter with cold milk or hot tea. I can tell you that after baking, wrapping, shopping, decorating, and general Christmas mayhem, they also go very well indeed with a wee dram of Glenmorangie Scotch.

Since I can’t mail these everywhere to everyone who deserves them (does customs even have a tick box for Superior Cookies on the declaration form?), and people tell me this recipe can be trickier than Heston Blumenthal’s turkey instructions, if you try it and have questions, e-mail me at, and I will give you advice and help to make them perfect.

The nice thing about this recipe is that you can play with it even further than I have and make it your own. Add different kinds of nuts, or try a new kind of chocolate (white, hazelnut, or Toblerone. perhaps?) This is an exercise in Christmas joy and creativity, and like decking the Christmas tree, there’s just no wrong way to do it.

Wouldn’t the world be a happier place right now if everyone had a warm melting cookie, fresh from the oven, clutched in our mittens? Try one, and you’ll see what I mean! And please pass them on to the ones you love.

This recipe makes a double batch, about 40 cookies(ish)

Cream 1 cup soft butter
Add and beat until creamy:
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
a dollop of liquid honey—about a tablespoon
beat in:
2 large eggs
1 generous tsp. good vanilla
Stir in:
1 cup plus two heaping tablespoons all purpose flour
1 cup cake and pastry flour
¾ tsp salt
1 tsp. baking soda
(You may need more flour. Add extra tablespoons of flour one at a time until the dough is stiff. It keeps them from spreading too much when you bake them, so they’re as lovely as they are delicious (hey, I’m a romance writer—pretty and delicious are important plot points!) Bake one or two as a test batch, and add more flour if they spread.

Stir in (this is the good part):
A generous amount of a mixture of best quality chocolate chips, dark and milk (I use Ghirardelli or Callebaut)
Throw in a handful of chopped chunks of good quality bar chocolate, dark and milk (I use those big 300g bars of Lindt Swiss Classic Milk and Lindt Swiss Dark Chocolate. Two of those bars make about three double batches of cookies. This year, I’m adding some 85% cocoa Lindt dark chocolate to the mix.

NOTE (this is important): Chop up the chocolate in advance and FREEZE it! It melts instead of burning.

Drop the cookies onto baking sheets, and—this is what makes them look like The Belles of The Ball—stud the top of the raw cookies with extra frozen chocolate chunks and chips. Lots of it. Now add a few more…

In Calgary, I bake the cookies in the top of my convection oven at 330 degrees F for 7 minutes.
In Ottawa, I baked them at 325 degrees F for 6 minutes on convection.
The Joy of Cooking calls for 10 minutes at 375 degrees, but the extra sugar and all that chocolate will definitely make that too long. Play with the position of your oven rack as well. I find the cookies bake best in my oven near the top.

Bake test batches of one or two cookies each first, to determine the best temperature and time. They should come out slightly golden, set in the middle, with the chocolate melting and lovely. They should be lumpy and thick, not flat. If they’re flat, add a little more flour to the dough. 

Wishing you a very Happy Holiday filled with sweet treats, lovely surprises, peace and joy, and All The Pleasures of The Season


Monday, October 3, 2011

Auntie's Borscht

I remember the parties my family used to have when I was a child. Every New Year’s Day, cousins, aunts and uncles would gather at my Auntie Helen’s house to celebrate the season.

My aunts were warm, generous women, and the Ukrainian culture is one of good food, hospitality, generosity, and love. The food in their homes was always incredible—homemade holubtsi (cabbage rolls), perogies, bread hot from the oven, and so many other delicacies.

Like most families with members that grew up during the depression, nothing was ever wasted. My aunts knew the value of a vegetable garden, and grew their own beets and cabbage and tomatoes. They visited each other’s kitchens and shared the work and the bounty by making huge batches of everything. What did Ukrainian aunties do before freezers were invented?

One of my favorite stories is about my aunts Vickie and Helen going for a walk in the woods. They found a patch of mushrooms that were simply too good to ignore. Not having a basket, they peeled off their slacks, tied the ankles shut, and used them to carry the mushrooms. As we ate the preserved mushrooms on the New Year’s Day that followed that summer outing, my uncle had everyone in stitches as he described the sight of two middle-aged ladies coming out of the woods under the weight of their mushroom-stuffed polyester slacks, racing for the car before anyone could see they were bottomless. Now that’s dedication to good cuisine!

One of the dishes we did not have at New Year’s was borscht, or beet soup. It was for every day, an ordinary thing, rather than something fit for a party. I disagree—it’s rich, earthy, and wonderful, a treat on a cold day, but times have changed, haven’t they? Fortunately, I was visiting my Auntie Ollie when there was a particularly good crop of beets to be dealt with, and I learned to make borscht from her.

My aunts are gone now, and the annual family reunions have come to an end, but there was a wonderful display of beets at the farmer’s market on Saturday, and a Ukrainian auntie was stocking up. How could I resist? So I made borscht yesterday, and remembered all the wonderful things about family, and traditions, and how good food brings people together.

I want to share the recipe with you, but my aunts didn’t use a cookbook, and I learned to cook like that, from the heart. Sometimes I make things up (how my family dreads those dinners!) and I almost never measure ingredients exactly. It still turns out…mostly. I always measure when I bake, which is where it counts, right? Thankfully, borscht is one of those recipes that somehow turns out well with very little help, no matter what you do to it.

Next weekend is Thanksgiving here in Canada, and while we’ll be having turkey and all the traditional side dishes, the holidays are still a month away in the United States. You’ll need something to eat until then, and there’s always something to be thankful for, so in honor of Thanksgiving, good food, family, and my wonderful aunts, here’s my recipe for Auntie’s Borscht:


•Stew beef or sirloin, cut into cubes (about 2 cups)
• 3 tbsp oil
•1 large can diced tomatoes
•2 onions, chopped
• Beef stock (enough to cover the vegetables in the pot—about 4 cups)
•2-3 cloves of fresh garlic, roughly chopped
• Beets, cut into cubes (about 3 cups)
• Carrots, cut into cubes (about 3 cups)
• Potatoes (peeled, or skin on as preferred, about 3 cups. I use baby potatoes and leave the skin on)
• Fresh dill
• Sour cream
• Green onions, chopped

Here’s how:

Add the oil to the pot and sear the meat over high heat in small batches until browned on the outside, about 2 minutes.

Remove the meat and set aside. 

Turn the heat down to medium, add the onions to the pot and cook until golden and softened.

Put the meat back into the pot, add the canned tomatoes with juice, and beef stock.

Add the beets, carrots and potatoes. Throw in a few tablespoons of chopped dill. Simmer until the meat is tender.

Serve with a dollop of sour cream, and some dill and green onions sprinkled on top. Swirl the sour cream into the soup (the color is incredible!) and enjoy.

Let me know how it turns out!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Here's to the glorious 49th!

 Today is my birthday. I’m 49 (really! I was born in 1962).

Am I worried about getting older? Nope. Of course, I’d love to think when people meet me they’ll tell me I don’t look a day over 35, but I’m happy with the experiences, memories and the life I have at this moment.

I remember turning 25, and feeling a sense of panic that I hadn’t done anything with my life yet, that the years were slipping past too quickly. I can smile at that now, but it was a crisis then.

At 39, I remember thinking I was at the perfect age. My kids were still young, but everyone was toilet trained, in school, and I was extremely happy being a stay at home mom. I did a lot of volunteering at the school and as a Cub Scout leader, and I loved every minute. I had time to garden, bake, paint, and it was then that I began to write fiction.

I’d always wanted to write a novel. Composition, English and History were my favorite subjects in school. My highest marks were for anything creative or written. Good thing, since math was baffling to me. I eventually made my career in advertising copywriting, and then in direct marketing. I started my own freelance business, so I could stay at home and raise my children.

But through all this, I dreamed of writing novels, making up stories, carrying readers away to the fantasy places that filled my head, making the historical time periods I love come alive. Every other kind of writing just felt like preparation for that.

Of course, carrying anyone anywhere requires bravery and determination. It took a while (as I suspect it does for most writers) to develop a thick-enough skin and the courage to show anyone my fiction. I had no problem with changes—as a business writer you learn not to fall in love with your own words, because the client is going to want to change them. I once did a project for a government department where thirty people reviewed one document I’d written, and they all had suggestions! My first tentative fiction submission to an agent met with rejection. I was too inexperienced to see that it was a ‘good’ rejection, and said the work had merit, and wished me the best. I only saw the rejection, sadly, and went back to writing in secret.

When we moved from Ottawa to Calgary in 2004, I was responsible for driving my children back and forth to school in the city, which amounted to several hours a day in the car. A full-time job was out of the question, and I decided the time had come to get serious about writing a book.

I joined the wonderfully supportive Calgary chapter of the Romance Writers of America. Our members take writing and submitting seriously. They actively work on their careers and the goal of becoming published authors. They share their rejections, their triumphs and their ideas. I began entering contests and sending things to publishers, and pitching when the opportunity arose. There were more rejections, but I learned to take the positive from each one, and move forward.

I was also fortunate enough to find three wonderful critique partners to work with, too. They helped me fix what was wrong and improve enough to get published. There are times when you can’t see the flaws in your own work, no matter how often you re-read and edit it, but a good critique partner can see it at once.

I made a rule that whenever a manuscript was rejected, it must be submitted somewhere else within a week, whether to a contest or the next agent on the list. I read craft books, attended workshops, listened to lectures, honed query letters and learned the technique of writing a decent synopsis.

I was in Edinburgh in 2009 when I got an e-mail from agent Kevan Lyon saying she was interested in working with me.

Kevan sent the manuscript was sent to ten publishers. After a flurry of interest, I received two offers, and chose Avon.

And so, just nine days after my 49th birthday, my first book, SECRETS OF A PROPER
COUNTESS will be in stores.

Through the whole process I’ve come to believe that things happen when they do for a reason. With two very busy kids in multiple school bands, advanced level classes, and a dozen other activities, I couldn’t have managed a writing career and a busy family a few years ago.

Now my eldest is in university, and my youngest is entering her last year of high school, and I have time to devote to my career. Part of my desire to be published stems from wanting to make them proud, to show them dreams can come true if you do the work, keep learning, and don’t give up.

That’s the secret to luck and the fountain of youth, all in one, and it’s only taken me 49 years to find it.

So I’m not worrying about getting old today. I’m looking forward to the future, wrinkles and all.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Writer's Block

February 15, 2011
(42 days ‘till the release of SECRETS OF A PROPER COUNTESS on March 29)
Writer’s Block

In the past few months, busy with activities for my second book and the promotion of my first, SECRETS OF A PROPER COUNTESS, I’ve been suffering from a bit of writer’s block. One thing I’ve discovered is that writer’s black is seldom about the writing. It’s usually about other things in our lives that keep us from getting the words on the page.

I never have trouble thinking of things to write about, and if I don’t write for a week or two, or even a few days, the stories start downloading themselves into my dreams at night. I’m crabby and out-of-sorts until I get back to work.

But right now, my son is at university in Russia for six months. I worry if I don’t hear from him for a few days, and that affects my ability to concentrate on writing. I know he’s doing fine (thank heaven for Skype), and loving every moment of the experience, or I’d hear more often, but mothers always worry.

Learning how to promote my debut release (and myself, a very shy writer) has been fun, but stressful. There are so many ways to get the news of a new book out there, and I’ve had to learn things like Twitter, and blogging and how to use Facebook (a work still in progress, but coming soon! According to a recent survey by my publisher, Harper Collins/Avon, 70 percent of readers said they look for new book information on Facebook first, so look out, social media, here I come, and we’re going to find each other quite a challenge!)
 It’s always been hard for me to ask people for things, and setting up a blog tour was torture from that perspective, but it’s nice to get to know the reviewers and romance readers out there! I’m looking forward to my first set of reviews, positive or negative, though I hope readers will love reading SECRETS OF A PROPER COUNTESS as much as I loved writing it.

Ah, back to writing. I haven’t had a whole day to simply sit and write for several weeks. I squeeze in an hour or two here and there, but the luxury of knowing there’s no one looking for me but my characters has been absent. No wonder I’m grumpy, and grumpy is the polite word for it. 

 In addition to doing publicity for SECRETS, I also have a big volunteer commitment coming up. My husband says my arm is defective—when someone says the word ‘volunteer’, my trick arm shoots skyward. For me, volunteering is a complete commitment to the best of my ability. If I offer, I follow through. Unfortunately, I have an unusual ability— I can build almost anything out of cardboard or paper mache, which is only useful when it comes to things like decorating a cavernous high school gymnasium for a dinner dance. One year I built a 14-foot lighthouse for this event because someone said it couldn’t be done. This year the theme is New York, which is terrific, given that this year’s RWA National Conference, my first, is in New York this year. I’ve decided to build some ‘windows’ to hang on the gym walls. Each will be 3-D and lighted from behind. One will be a brownstone window, complete with a fire escape. The second will be a jazz club, complete with a neon sign made from glow sticks, though I won’t know if that will work until I try it. The third will be the front of an old fashioned cafe. All the how-to’s are percolating in my mind just like a story plot. Did I mention each decoration has to be collapsible so I can transport it in the back of my small station wagon? It has to go up fast, and come down easily.

So at this moment, more than anything else, it’s all these activities that are blocking me from writing. The story-telling part of me is growing impatient. The heroine is nagging me in my sleep to get on with it. It’s not you, I tell her, it’s getting past the housekeeping activities in a writer’s day and getting to do what I love, which is of course, writing stories.

It’s not that stories spring into my head fully formed and ready to fall on the page in graceful piles of elegant prose.  I usually haven’t got any idea exactly how the story is going to end when I start writing it. It’s like walking in the dark. Beyond the beam of the flashlight lies an unknown world. Yet with each step forward, more is revealed, until you finally reach your destination. That, by the way, is one of the most important lessons I ever learned as a writer. I have dozens of unfinished manuscripts in my basement from years ago. When the going got tough in each story, I flitted off to the next idea, instead of working through the darkness and getting to the next step. When I learned to persevere, to think it through and keep writing, I got books written, and eventually, published.

There’s no point in sitting at the computer and staring at an empty page. I do some of my best work while I’m walking my dog. Our favorite spot is down by the Bow River, a wild strip of land between a gravel pit, and the river itself. There’s pair of bald eagles that perch in the same tree every day and supervise the people and dogs that pass beneath them. There are crows, wild ducks, Canada geese, pelicans, and coyotes, and even a rumored cougar. It makes a perfect place to think, a bit of peace and fresh air away from the computer and cell phones. There’s nothing to do except walk and think. I’ve worked out some of my most tangled story problems on our walks. Kipper (my chocolate lab) doesn’t mind. He does his own reflecting and discovering.

As we go, I can imagine what if, and work on plotting. What if my hero had a secret he couldn’t share with his family? What if they secretly knew? What if they didn’t, but the heroine did? I can wander down each potential story path as we, well, wander down the path under our feet. Solutions always come, and some days it seems like magic.

So tell me how you handle writer’s block, because no two writers are the same. We’re like snowflakes, each of us unique. Can you tell it was snowing when Kipper and I went out today?