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Fiction Culinary

Baking Spirits Bright

by (author) Sarah Fox

Penguin Publishing Group
Initial publish date
Oct 2023
Culinary, Amateur Sleuth, Women Sleuths
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2023
    List Price

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In a cute new culinary cozy from USA Today bestselling author Sarah Fox, budding chocolatier Becca Ransom must solve a murder before she meets a sticky end.

Winter has arrived in Larch Haven, Vermont, bringing with it holiday cheer, lots of snow, and freezing temperatures. Becca Ransom is squeezing in time to skate on the frozen canals and drink hot chocolate by a roaring fire while also whipping up new creations for her family’s chocolate shop and experimenting with holiday flavors like eggnog, gingerbread, and peppermint. At the same time, Becca is preparing for the Baking Spirits Bright holiday baking competition, a popular annual event. She’s planning to enter an edible model of Larch Haven, with a mountain backdrop made of cake, gingerbread cottages, and chocolate gondolas on sugar-glass canals.

Professional bakers and a local food blogger are also participating in the event and they aren’t about to go down without a fight. The competition quickly heats to a boiling point, with flaring tempers and mysterious happenings. When one of the entrants is found dead, stabbed with Becca’s chocolate chipper, Becca tries to salvage the season by finding the killer. But the heat is on, and Becca is in danger of getting burned.

About the author

Contributor Notes

Sarah Fox is the bestselling author of several cozy mystery series. She lives in British Columbia with her two cats and her adorable English Springer Spaniel.

Excerpt: Baking Spirits Bright (by (author) Sarah Fox)

Chapter One

There was no place more magical than Larch Haven, Vermont, in wintertime. The canals that wound their way through the small town had frozen solid, providing a network of skating trails, and a thick layer of snow covered the cute cottages and the timber-frame buildings. With Christmas approaching, the postcard-perfect town had become even more magical, with twinkle lights strung along the main cobblestone walkways and all of the old-fashioned lampposts wrapped with red and white ribbons so they looked like peppermint sticks.

I loved my adorable stone cottage at all times of the year, but with snow on the roof, multicolored lights lining the windows, and a wreath on the front door, it looked like it belonged in the middle of a snow globe. Every time I arrived home to my cottage and my two cats, a warm glow lit up inside of me. I felt the same way whenever I entered my family's chocolate shop, True Confections. Moving back to my hometown in Vermont after living in Los Angeles for several years had definitely been a good decision.

"Ready?" my best friend Dizzy Bautista asked.

I finished tying up my skates. "Ready."

We left our snow boots in the shelter of my small boathouse and took our first strokes along the ice. The wind swirled around us, carrying the occasional snowflake with it and stinging my cheeks, but I didn't mind. We were on our way to get hot chocolate.

"There's something I want to show you," Dizzy said as we skated along the curving canal.

We glided beneath a stone bridge and then out into full daylight again.

Dizzy pulled a piece of paper from the pocket of her jacket. "A stack of these were dropped off at the library. I grabbed this one for you."

I accepted the slightly crumpled paper and unfolded it with my gloved hands. It was a black-and-white flyer.

While keeping one eye on the path ahead of us, I read the bold print at the top of the flyer. "'Third annual Baking Spirits Bright competition.'"

"Haven't you always wanted to take part?" Dizzy asked, almost brimming with excitement.

"Not exactly," I said. "I've never even heard of it before."

At this time last year I'd been in Florida, visiting my parents. For the two Christmases before that, I'd been in Los Angeles.

"Okay, but now that you have, you should definitely enter."

"I'm a chocolatier, not a baker," I reminded her.

After moving home, I'd trained as a chocolatier so I could work in my family's shop. Now I spent my days making bonbons, truffles, and chocolate versions of the gondolas that were always on the canals whenever the water wasn't frozen. Although I sometimes missed my first career as an actor, I loved working at True Confections.

"But you're a good baker too," Dizzy said. "And you can showcase your chocolate skills during the competition."

"Okay, but this would be baking with an audience. Do you remember what happened in tenth grade cooking class?" I almost shuddered at the memory.

Dizzy and I had been partners for a project where we had to do a cooking demonstration for the class. Somehow, I'd managed to set the ends of my hair on fire. If not for Dizzy dousing me with a pot of water, I probably would have lost more than the three inches of hair that I'd had to have trimmed off.

"That was fifteen years ago," Dizzy pointed out.

"And I can still smell my hair burning like it was yesterday."

She rolled her eyes. "Becca, you've cooked and baked eleventy billion times since then without incident."

"But not with an audience."

Dizzy nudged my arm with her elbow. "You've acted on shows watched by millions of people."

"That's different. Give me a script and I'm fine."

"Then your recipes will be your script." Dizzy twirled on the ice. "You should enter. And you should make your candy cane bonbons. The judges will love them."

"I'll think about it," I promised.

We skated around a group of giggling and gossiping teenage girls. Then the way ahead of us was clear again.

"Well, while you think about it . . ." Dizzy tore off ahead of me. "Race you to the hot chocolate stand! Loser's buying!"

I stuffed the flyer into my pocket and chased after her.

Gingerbread and candy canes smelled like Christmas, and that meant the kitchen at my family’s chocolate shop did too. I had a batch of gingerbread baking in the oven, making my stomach grumble with anticipation, and I was in the midst of unwrapping a candy cane. Once I had it free of the plastic wrapper, I took an appreciative sniff of the peppermint candy before setting it aside. I loved working at True Confections all year round, but Christmas was my absolute favorite time to be in the shop and in the kitchen. Although this was my first Christmas as a professional chocolatier, I’d worked in the shop part-time while growing up and had often helped my grandmother in the kitchen. Now, the familiar holiday scents brought back fond memories of childhood Christmases, and there always seemed to be extra cheer and bustle these days as customers filled their shopping baskets with gifts for others and treats for themselves.

Adding to my buoyed spirits were the fluffy flakes of snow currently falling thickly from the sky. I didn't have a great view from the kitchen window, which looked out over the narrow alley behind the shop, but maybe that was for the best. If I could see the most beautiful parts of the town, I might not get much work done. Whenever I popped out to the front of the shop, I had a difficult time tearing my gaze away from the large window and the fairy tale-like scene beyond it.

For that very reason, I'd made sure to stay put in the kitchen for the past two hours. In that time, I'd made the dough for the gingerbread and had rolled it out and cut it into the shapes of gingerbread people and Christmas trees. I'd also made a batch of eggnog truffles, as well as several Santa Clauses and snowmen from both milk chocolate and dark chocolate. Now, while the gingerbread baked, I was busy making the ganache filling for my candy cane bonbons, the ones Dizzy wanted me to make for the Baking Spirits Bright competition.

I'd thought about the possibility of entering the competition several times since she'd suggested it the day before, but I still hadn't come to a decision. I enjoyed taking part in town events, but there were far better bakers in Larch Haven than me. Chocolates were my specialty. Everything else was an occasional hobby. Besides, the shop kept me busy, especially at this time of year.

I turned on one of the stove's gas burners and warmed up the cream in the top of a double boiler until it was just about to simmer. Then I removed it from the heat, dropped the candy cane into the pot, and left the cream to steep for several minutes. Once the cream was infused with the candy cane's flavor, I would heat it again before pouring it over a bowl full of chopped chocolate to make the ganache.

The oven timer dinged, so I grabbed a pot holder and removed the trays of gingerbread from the oven, quickly replacing them with two more trays of unbaked cookies. Once the gingerbread people had cooled completely, I would give them chocolate faces and buttons. For the Christmas trees, I would pipe on chocolate baubles and garlands. The gingerbread recipe was a family one, passed down from my great-grandmother, and the cookies were popular with the shop's customers as well as with my relatives.

I set the oven timer and checked on my steeping cream. It wasn't quite ready. I gave it a couple more minutes and tasted it again. The heavenly candy cane flavor was just right.

As I reheated the cream, my cousin Angela came into the kitchen. Our grandparents had started the family chocolate business decades ago, but they had finally retired-for the most part-and Angela had taken over the business side of things while I now filled the role of chocolatier.

"Becca, it smells amazing in here," Angie said as she eyed the baked gingerbread. "Let it be noted that I'm first in line for quality-control testing."

I grinned and turned off the heat under the cream. "You mean first in line after me."

"I guess that's fair, since you're the one who baked them." She held up a familiar-looking flyer. "And speaking of baking . . ."

"Dizzy told me about the competition." I poured the cream over the chopped chocolate and stirred. "Are you entering?"

"Me? No way. I can cook, but I don't bake much. There's no need when Lolly's always got something delicious to share. I was thinking you should enter," she said.

"That's what Dizzy said too, but the shop is crazy at this time of year. I don't think I'll have time for the competition." I gave the ganache a final stir and left it to cool and thicken.

"I bet Lolly would step in for you here for a couple of days. That's all you'd need, really."

She was probably right about that. Lolly-our grandmother-still enjoyed helping out at True Confections every now and then, even though she had plenty of other activities to keep her busy during her well-earned retirement. Still, I wasn't sure that I wanted to enter the competition. While I felt confident that I could wow the judges with my chocolates, I'd likely need more than that to do well overall.

"It's only two days?" I asked.

"Sounds like it. There's a preliminary round and then the top four move on to the finals. You have to make two items for the preliminary round. The finalists have to make a showpiece with several elements, but I'm sure it's nothing you can't handle."

I thought about it some more.

"It would be a great opportunity for True Confections," Angie pressed. "Especially since Bake It Right is covering the competition this year."

My eyes widened. "I didn't know about that."

Bake It Right was a popular New England magazine. Pretty much everyone had at least heard of it, and its social media posts always garnered plenty of attention and engagement.

Angie had a big smile on her face. "I heard that from Jaspreet Joshi, one of the event's organizers. Isn't it amazing? It would be free advertising for True Confections. You don't even have to win to get in the magazine. They're going to profile all four of the finalists."

"Even making the finals could be a real challenge," I said, not quite ready to fully embrace the idea.

"Give yourself some credit. You're a good baker, an excellent chocolatier, and you've got great imagination and creativity."

I checked on the ganache. "Now you're buttering me up."

"Maybe, but it's all true. So, what do you say?"

I considered the idea for another moment. I enjoyed a challenge, and I always wanted to do what was best for True Confections, so maybe it wasn't a difficult decision after all.

"Where do I sign up?" I asked.

Chapter Two

After I finished work in the middle of the afternoon, I stopped by the town hall to enter my name in the Baking Spirits Bright competition. Then I set off to meet up with Dizzy at the local library, where she worked. Snow still drifted down from the gray clouds overhead, but the flakes had grown smaller and fell less thickly. The town's employees had been out on their quads with snowplow attachments, clearing the cobblestone walkways that lined the canals.

Aside from golf carts and maintenance and emergency vehicles, cars and trucks weren't allowed in the downtown core of Larch Haven. When the canals weren't frozen, gondolas and whisper boats allowed for passage along the waterways. Otherwise, people mostly got around on foot or bicycle. That was one of the many things I loved about my hometown. It was so peaceful, and the pace of life was so much more relaxed than what I'd experienced while living in Los Angeles.

When I reached the library's front steps, Dizzy was on her way out the door, pulling a beanie down over her dark hair. She waved when she saw me, and hurried down the steps, tugging on a pair of gloves. We'd arranged to do some Christmas shopping together that afternoon, so we headed in the direction of Venice Avenue, where True Confections and many other shops were located.

"I'm so excited you're going to be in the competition!" Dizzy said after I told her about tossing my name in the hat. "You're going to do great!"

"I'm worried I might embarrass myself."

"You definitely won't do that. You're going to make the finals and get into that magazine."

I hoped she was right.

"What are you making for the first round of competition?" she asked.

"Candy cane bonbons, like you suggested, and mandelhörnchen."

"Oh, yum. Let me know if you need a taste tester while practicing."

I laughed. "I will."

We had almost made it to Venice Avenue when Dizzy drew to a stop outside Larch Haven's only art gallery.

"We should go in here," she said. "You need some artwork to put over your fireplace."

That was true. The cottage I'd purchased upon my return from Los Angeles was mostly furnished now, but some of the walls were still too bare for my liking.

"I'm supposed to be shopping for other people today," I reminded her.

"No reason why you can't do both."

I didn't resist when she tucked her arm through mine and tugged me toward the gallery.

A woman in a gray coat and gray hat stood outside the shop, facing the artwork displayed in the large front window. It wasn't until Dizzy and I reached the door that I got a look at the woman's face. She glared at the paintings in the window, as if they'd somehow insulted her. I might have thought she found the artwork distasteful if I didn't know that an expression of displeasure was typical for her.

"Hi, Irma," I said in greeting, and Dizzy added in a hello of her own.

Irma turned her glare on us. Even though she was shorter than me, she somehow managed to look down her nose at us as she strode off, never bothering to return our greetings.

"A bright ray of sunshine, as always," Dizzy said with a shake of her head.

"How can a woman who makes such delicious sweets and treats be so sour?" I asked as Dizzy opened the gallery door.

"I have no idea."

We stomped the snow off our boots and entered the gallery. Irma Jones owned the bakery situated a few doors down from True Confections. She always seemed to be in a bad mood, but I made a habit of letting her grumpiness roll right off my back. I did that now, forgetting about her almost as soon as Dizzy and I stepped inside the art gallery.

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