Like romance, there's a certain mystery and magic about baking. Even Eileen Goudge, author of numerous romance novels and, now, a baking cookbook, admits she doesn't understand how things like baking soda and baking powder work.
"I don't understand the chemistry of it," she says. "I just know it works. It's just like falling in love. You know it when you see it -- or, in this case, when you taste it."
And really, who couldn't fall in love with birthday banana cake with buttercream frosting? Or apple brown betty with lemon sauce? Or applesauce cake, spiced with cinnamon and cloves, covered with maple cream-cheese frosting?
Trying to understand the chemistry of such things as pecan sandies is useless, as is looking for the particular gland responsible for that feeling in your chest when you first feel that certain something for that certain person.
Luckily, in the case of baking, it's possible to re-create that magic on demand, and that's what Goudge is up to with her cookbook, Something Warm From the Oven (Morrow Cookbooks, $24.95). On Thursday, she will discuss that book and tell stories of baking and romance at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.
The cookbook grew out of Goudge's romance novels, like Otherwise Engaged, One Last Dance, and the Sweet Valley High series.
"I love to bake," she said in an interview from her home in New York City. "It's my other passion in addition to writing. I've been baking since I was tall enough to reach the counter -- even before. All my characters love to bake too, and my readers were always writing in for the recipes, so I decided to do a cookbook."
The recipes come from family, friends, and readers, and she insists they are all within reach of the average person.
"I'm trying to convert people who are interested in baking but intimidated by it," she says. "The main problem people have, judging from the questions I get, is they don't have the right equipment. I just tell them, 'Go to a store and buy the basic equipment, then take a shot and don't be afraid to make mistakes.' My recipes aren't that complicated."
Of course, you do have to get it just right for the magic to happen. And like love, sometimes it takes some work. So does writing.
"Writing a cookbook is different from a novel," Goudge says. "In fiction, I can make things up. But some of these recipes I had never tried before, and I had to make them three or four times to get it right. I actually lost weight, though. I made a rule that I wouldn't gnosh on batter, and my office is three flights up from the kitchen. I also chewed a lot of sugarless gum."
In fact, on the day of our interview, Goudge had just made a crust for a chicken pie. She keeps "baker's hours," getting up around 3 a.m. with her husband, who's a TV and radio reporter. She bakes (sometimes working out plot points for her novels while kneading dough), goes to the gym, and tries to be at her desk, writing, by 9 a.m. During the day she'll get reviews on her morning's kitchen work from her husband's newsroom.
"One of the new recipes in the book is this amazing espresso cheesecake with cream-soaked coffee grounds," she says. "If you make it with regular coffee, you can actually get a buzz off it. That was a big hit in the newsroom. My husband called and said it went in less than five minutes. I'm like a celebrity in that newsroom."
Another new-to-her recipe that's in the book is "the best coconut cake I ever tasted." She says other people, even the ones who don't like coconut, agree. And she admits that, just like finding the perfect soulmate, she has no idea how she did it.
"It was a combination of recipes," she says. "I experimented, kept trying things, and the magic took over. I don't know what I did, but people go into raptures about this cake. We even put it on the cover of the book."
Raptures, mystery, magic, chemistry -- Goudge says that's why chocolate is such a big part of Valentine's Day. Chemists will tell you that its molecular structure is similar to opiates, but that's not the point.
"Chocolate is very sexy," she says. "I wrote one novel, Such Devoted Sisters, where the heroine was a chocolatier, and I had a lot of fun with that. Baking is sexy -- not in the slather-yourself-with-whipped-cream sense, but because it excites your senses. It brings up warm memories."
And a cookbook filled with things like peaches and cream cake, banana streusel coffee cake, and chilled mango pudding with pineapple rum sauce is sure to help create some more of those warm memories.