One my literary guilty pleasures is checking out cookbooks from the library (or browsing through the cookbook aisle in a bookstore) just to look at the pictures. I certainly save recipes from various sources and I love to cook and bake at home, but I also love to just flip through the pages of a cookbook and admire the photos of the food and ingredients. I also love it when my favorite characters in a novel eat or cook. There’s something very comforting and satisfying to me about reading about food.
Naturally, I was extremely excited (giddy even) when cookbook author and Ohio native, Judith Fertig, reached out to me earlier this summer to see if I would like to read her debut novel, The Cake Therapist and her latest cookbook, Bake Happy. After thoroughly enjoying both books and baking the amazing Chocolate Truffle Cake with Venezuelan Spiced Chocolate Ganache on page 215, I invited her to be interviewed on This Ohio Life.
The Cake Therapist is set in a fictionalized Cincinnati suburb, based on Fertig’s own hometown. The novel focuses on a baker, Claire O’Neal (Neely), who returns home from New York to open her own bakery. Neely has a special extrasensory perception, she can “taste” emotions in the same way a clairvoyant can sense memories and hidden information. She uses her unique ability not only to craft amazing desserts, but also to solve a local mystery.
Bake Happy is beautifully photographed and includes several gluten-free recipes (either for desserts that don’t contain flour or specifically call for gluten-free flour). I’ve enjoyed baking from it as much as I’ve enjoyed pursing it’s pages for scrumptious photos of delicious treats.
This Ohio Life: My favorite part of The Cake Therapist (after the delicious descriptions of Neely’s creations) was Neely’s ability to “taste” emotions. How did you decide which flavors are connected to which emotions? Do you look at this connection in a similar way to how colors are tied to emotion (green is supposed to have a calming and relaxing effect, orange can create feelings of excitement, enthusiasm, and warmth, etc)?
Judith Fertig: I had acupuncture for a while and got interested in Chinese medicine, in which the basic 5 tastes are associated with basic emotions. Beyond sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami, scent plus taste creates the impression of flavor which touches deep inside the mouth and stimulates that deepest part of our brain, the limbic system. Either by their chemical properties (cinnamon helps lower blood sugar, so is a calming spice) or their vivid flavor (orange does signify “fresh” and a brand new day), I arrived at the other flavor readings. When I wondered if strawberries, sugar, and rosewater really evoked a sunny, summer day and could take two sisters back to their childhood, I went in the kitchen and tried it out. And, YES. The resulting cake is on the cover of Bake Happy.
This Ohio Life: I’m curious about the names you gave to certain towns and areas in the novel. Since I live near the book’s setting, I recognize certain areas based on descriptions rather than by name, but I am not sure that non-Ohioans would make these connections. What was your motivation behind referring to Cincinnati as Queen City?
Judith Fertig: The real names were not as evocative as I wanted, plus I also wanted the freedom to play around with details. If I anchored the book to real places, I’d be more limited in what I could do with the setting.
This Ohio Life: I loved the House of Chili restaurant in the book and Neely’s description of feeding Cincinnati chili to her friends in New York! Chili is a pretty big deal in Cincinnati and lots of folks are very loyal to specific restaurants and styles of chili. What is your favorite way to eat chili?
Judith Fertig: I’m a two chili-dog person, like Neely, with a mound of shredded cheese and chopped onion. I’ve had Kansas City friends try Cincinnati chili and they were underwhelmed. It’s an acquired but addictive taste.
This Ohio Life: Is the writing process for you when developing recipes similar to character development when writing a novel?
Judith Fertig: It’s somewhat similar. There is the initial idea for a book, the research, and then the outline. But there it ends. In writing scenes for the novel, you have to let your mind open and wander and sometimes characters (Jett) come in and make themselves at home. For a cookbook, you test a recipe, then write it up as interestingly as you can, but you don’t let rhubarb take over, so to speak.
This Ohio Life: Did you intend Bake Happy, a dessert cookbook which was released on the same day as The Cake Therapist (June 2, 2015), to function as a companion cookbook for your first novel? When I saw the rainbow cake in Bake Happy I secretly hoped it was Claire O’Neil’s recipe!
Judith Fertig: I worked on both books at the same time, so there was crossover of Bake Happy with The Cake Therapist and also with the next novel, The Memory of Lemon. They’re complementary but not companion books.
This Ohio Life: What’s next for Neely and Rainbow Cake? The end of The Cake Therapist includes the first chapter of your next book, The Memory of Lemon; can we expect a trilogy or an even longer series? Were you initially planning on creating a series or did it evolve as you wrote?
Judith Fertig: I’d love this to turn into a series, which is how I envisioned it. Every few months–and several signature flavors later–Neely has further adventures. There will definitely be two books, and fingers crossed for more!
A fiction debut that will leave you wanting seconds, from an award-winning cookbook author. Claire “Neely” O’Neil is a pastry chef of extraordinary talent. Every great chef can taste shimmering, elusive flavors that most of us miss, but Neely can “taste” feelings—cinnamon makes you remember; plum is pleased with itself; orange is a wake-up call. When flavor and feeling give Neely a glimpse of someone’s inner self, she can customize her creations to help that person celebrate love, overcome fear, even mourn a devastating loss.
Maybe that’s why she feels the need to go home to Millcreek Valley at a time when her life seems about to fall apart. The bakery she opens in her hometown is perfect, intimate, just what she’s always dreamed of—and yet, as she meets her new customers, Neely has a sense of secrets, some dark, some perhaps with tempting possibilities. A recurring flavor of alarming intensity signals to her perfect palate a long-ago story that must be told.
Neely has always been able to help everyone else. Getting to the end of this story may be just what she needs to help herself.
Colorful, flavorful home-baked treats just say “happy,” and Bake Happy is all about adding a bit of joy back into your kitchen. A sweet baking book that will bring a smile to the dessert table, Bake Happy includes 100 recipes for cheerful cupcakes and cookies, bars and brownies, tarts and turnovers, and delicious cakes that are speckled, marbled, and striped.
This cookbook can be used year-round and will satisfy your sweet tooth and your soul. Whether you’re in the mood for creamy chocolate, colorful cake layers, tasty cake batter, or special occasion desserts, you’ll find recipes for Citrus Glazed Sunset Cake, Rustic Cherry Pudding, Secret Filling Devil’s Food Cupcakes, and more. There are also various options for color and flavor combinations, and 30+ full-color photos throughout.
Novelist. Award-Winning Cookbook Author. Foodista. Food & Lifestyle Writer.