Local Cookbook Authors Offer Recipes That Draw Us Together 

Cucumber pomegranate salad. 

And the Timing Couldn’t Be Better!

By Wendy Greenberg

The food couldn’t be more different. But meals as a means to gather, to celebrate, and to connect with friends and family is the underlying theme of three newly published cookbooks by local authors.

Mary Abitanto of Mercer County, Jen Carson of Princeton, and Joy E. Stocke of Stockton take the power of shared meals a step further by giving us their advice and recipes. They are passionate about their food, and the aromas practically permeate the print. For them, preparation can be as significant as the meal itself.

The cookbooks from home cook and prolific author Abitanto; baker Carson at LiLLiPiES; and from travel and food writer Stocke extend the boundaries of the region’s reputation as a mecca for flavorsome and meaningful meals.

As we all emerge from different degrees of isolation, the timing is ripe for food that inspires us to gather together. Meet three authors who encourage us to do so.

Mary Abitanto

Mary Abitanto is preparing to launch her third cookbook which, like her first two, promises to reflect her bountiful home kitchen that connects her family and friends.

Her most recent book, Food From My Heart & Home, published in November, is a cornucopia of entertaining and styling tips, and creative spins on recipes like coffee cake with blueberries made with sweet potatoes; smoked Gouda butternut squash macaroni and cheese; and lavender-infused cheesecake. 

She launched her cooking journey for her family and didn’t stop. Her first book, Food That Will Gather Your Family, published in 2017, includes “go-to meals” including Italian classics like meatballs, eggplant parmesan, and homemade pastas.

Growing up, she was spectator in a loving Italian kitchen. “When I was little, my grandma made ravioli, pasta, and seven fishes Christmas Eve dinner. I didn’t actually get involved in the cooking,” she said.

Lavender-infused cheesecake. (Photo by Nicole Gugliemo)

When her mother died right before she got married, Abitanto had to jump into cooking, while working full-time. “When I got married, I got out the Betty Crocker cookbook and made a lot of things from scratch,” she said. It was then that she discovered a passion and a talent.

Among her three children — now ages 21, 19, and 15 — the youngest, Jack, had food allergies, most of which he has since outgrown. “Having to accommodate Jack’s allergies is what started me on a journey of adapting recipes, but I was also compelled to make amazing foods,” said Abitanto. “I was on a quest. I did that full throttle for years.”

The first book is not an allergy-free cookbook, but contains notes, like ‘no egg,’ or suggests substitutions. “Me having to accommodate Jack’s allergies was the catalyst that started the journey,” she said.

But, as she wrote in her introduction, “I had developed a knack for inventiveness which carried over into all my recipes – it was a gift. But what good is a gift if you don’t share it?”

She is now sharing her knowledge in a third book, Gather For The Holidays, scheduled for publication this fall. This book includes make-ahead dishes and time-saving tips to plan for holiday menus, as well as charcuterie and other food boards, and traditional celebratory holiday meals.

Charred Asian inspired pulled pork tacos. (Photo by Mary Abitanto)

Gathering Recipes and Blogging

Before the cookbooks there was a blog she started in 2015. The blog and website, marioochskitchen.com, was a way to document Italian recipes from her dad’s side of the family. (Her mom was Irish and Swiss).

“This was the beginning of the cookbook process, which included a lot of experimentation and soon the launching of my first book, Food That Will Gather Your Family. I wanted to document the classics: lasagna, eggplant parm, and of course meatballs. It’s to honor the Italian heritage. My aunt wrote down what she had. Some of the recipes were lost and forgotten,” said Abitanto.

Seeing a cookbook through to its publication was a challenge in itself. Abitanto decided to become her own publisher and creative director. She had some familiarity with the process from writing a children’s book, Rebecca’s Secret, launched last June, and knew that self-published books can be of high quality. She suggests writing a complete manuscript; finding a niche or specialty; and approaching literary agents, but “move on if you get turned down.”

She also advises testing each recipe three times or more, and recommends Amazon for sales. All her books are self-published, but she calls it “a community effort.” Abitanto herself took many of the food photos, did the food styling, and handled all the creative marketing.

Abitanto’s very active Instagram @marioochcooks (with more than 20,000 followers and mouth-watering photos) has captured the attention of followers like Giadzy (a website from Food Network star Giada de Laurentis).

She has received endorsements from Princeton food expert Raoul Momo; author and nutritionist Dr. Michelle Braud; award-winning celebrity chef David Burke; model and entrepreneur Christie Brinkley; women’s fitness expert Denise Austin; and chef and author of The Chef of Greenwich Village, Joanne Mosconi.

Abitanto has taken her talents beyond writing. She has opened for celebrity chefs and cookbook authors Graham Elliot, Anne Burrell, Daphne Oz, and Sasha Pieterse at Great Food Expo, “where I talk about cooking and share recipes, do giveaways, and have audience participation. This is something that I love doing. I always say I love a good crowd,” she said.

Throughout, her faith has been important. She writes about volunteering at the area nonprofit organization HomeFront for a year and a half (her last day was in March 2020, the day before its teaching kitchen closed for the pandemic). Apprehensive of driving near big trucks on the highway, she decided to go, to share her talents, and did not encounter one truck. She called being at HomeFront “a wonderful experience. You want to make cooking accessible to everyone and affordable.”

In Food From My Heart & Home, Abitanto explores other cultures and hones in on her creative talents with eye-catching food boards.

“I enjoy exploring cuisines from other cultures and sharing healthy recipes developed in my home kitchen,” she said. “I am goal-oriented and wanted to document my cooking journey and parlay my talents into something tangible.”

Her favorite meal is eggplant. “I can eat it every day.” (One of her favorite eggplant recipes with basil is in the book.)

She likens her philosophy to the Zac Brown Band song, “Family Table”: “So won’t you come on in? Supper’s almost done … Let’s make some memories….”

“It’s the cornerstone,” she said of the family table. “I am a firm believer that you bring your kids to the table.  Guard, honor, and cherish the family dinner. If you want to open your world and mind, open your palate.”

All of Mary Abitanto’s books can be ordered on Amazon.com.

Jen Carson of LiLLiPiES

Jen Carson

Naturally, Jen Carson’s cookbook, LiLLiPiES, was launched on Pi Day, March 14, 2020. Then the pandemic shut down book celebrations and indoor dining at the namesake LiLLiPiES Bakery in the Princeton Shopping Center.

But the book took off because, as Carson surmised, people took a greater interest in baking at home. “During the pandemic, everyone wanted to bake,” she said. “Who would have guessed that everyone would want to learn to make sourdough bread in 2020? And a lot of people wanted to make cookies and gooey butter cake, too, and scones and muffins.”

It’s all in the cookbook, along with helpful tools, baking tips, and instructions on babka twisting and challah braiding, scone mixing, and pie crimping. The recipes go way beyond pie — from ham and cheese-filled pretzel buns to vegan chocolate donuts.

Carson started cooking in an Italian family where four generations lived in the same house. “I’m glad I had that experience,” she said.

As a child in Belleville she made ravioli with her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. “Food was an important part of every celebration. It was a way to show love, an excuse to come together and share,” she wrote in her book introduction. In fact, she dedicates the book to her mother, who gave her confidence in the kitchen, “and allowed me to use pie dough as Play-Doh when I was 4.”

But she was discouraged from owning her own business, especially a food business, because of the grueling lifestyle and the physical exhaustion that comes with it. Her grandfather and his brothers ran a butcher shop in Newark and her father had a travel agency. They warned against the rigors of food businesses and self-proprietorship.

As a drummer, Carson considered making a career in music, but she decided to instead attend Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where she studied elementary education and mathematics. To earn money she played in rock bands and babysat, but also worked in the college café and realized she loved it. She eventually earned a teaching degree and taught elementary school for six years before getting married and becoming a parent. 

Carson and her husband Ken (a bass-playing pharmaceutical chemist) are the parents of Sara, James, and Sean, now ages 16 through 22. When Sean wanted to bring birthday treats to kindergarten the rule was that treats should be single-servings. Most moms sent cupcakes, but Sean wanted pie, so Carson baked mini-apple pies in cupcake tins. They were a big hit. 

LiLLiPiES cookbook is available at LiLLiPiES Bakery at the Princeton Shopping Center, Labyrinth Books, Homestead Princeton, and through Amazon.com.

The “LiLLiPiES” cookbook.

What’s in the Name?

Around the same time, she was asked by a friend to bake treats for the friend’s  company. The pies again were a hit, and it was suggested she needed a name for them. She brainstormed. “What is another word for little? The word ‘lilli’ reminded me of Lilliputians and Lilliput (a nation of tiny subjects in the book Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift). The name stuck. I liked the way it sounded.  And the little pies were named lillipies.”

But she had not opened her own business yet. “I fought it, but my career seemed to fall into place on its own. It just felt right. The business evolved organically.”

Carson found a commercial baking space, and sold to local shops like Princeton’s Small World Coffee, where she said she “learned how to create a positive company culture, and how it feels to be part of a strong team.” She trained at the International Culinary Center (formerly the French Culinary Institute) in New York City to hone her baking and management skills.

In 2016 LiLLiPiES Bakery opened at the Princeton Shopping Center where Carson and her team bake small batches throughout the day for freshness. (The hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.) The shop bakes everything from scratch using organic flour, and sources local ingredients.

LiLLiPiES hosts community events like open mics and jazz brunches, and is looking forward to hosting baking classes again. “People are intimidated by baking,” she said. “It’s such a good feeling to guide students from intimidated to ‘Look — I can do this!’”

The shop, she said, “is like a member of the family that needs attention. That is a good thing. It’s nice to see my kids proud of it and working to make it succeed. They now know what it is like to serve other people in a service industry. They also saw me struggle and work really hard to build the business. I think it’s important that they saw that hard work can pay off.”

For the cookbook, Carson collaborated with two Princeton High School students. Sophia Schreiber did the illustrations and Chiara Goldenstern took the photos.  They self-published and “are very proud of the final product.”

When asked to choose, Carson said her favorite recipe is the Sourdough English Muffins. “It’s not a very difficult recipe, and it is surprising how good a fresh-baked English muffin tastes,” she said.

The book  features a full page of “pie pointers” offering trouble-shooting tips as well as a chart of how to convert pie recipes to different types and sizes. “I was a teacher before I was a baker,” she said. “I just wanted people to have guidance in an easy-to-use format. I’m happy to give away all of our secrets to people who want to bake at home.”

As she writes in her introduction, “Bakers have an unquenchable need to share want we’ve imagined, developed, and prepared, and hope that it will give you a little bit of joy.”

“Tree of Life” cookbook authors Angie Benner and Joy E. Stocke.

Joy E. Stocke

In her own words, Joy E. Stocke traveled across Turkey “kitchen by kitchen.” As a result, Tree of Life: Turkish Home Cooking for the American Table invites us to join her in an immersive experience.

The book (written with co-author Angie Benner and published in 2017 by Burgess Lea Press, a member of Quanto Publishing, Minnesota) is a love letter to the food of Turkey, more significantly to the passion that goes into the preparation.

The reader might be surprised to learn that Stocke grew up in Wisconsin and attended the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she earned a degree in journalism and minored in food science, where she was taught the science behind recipe-testing. A food scholar and writer, she also has written poetry and fiction, an article in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink (second edition), and discovered the joys of living and eating in Turkey.

“I’m from Milwaukee,” she said. “Born into a German, Polish, and Czech family, who at the time were recent immigrants, who lived in immigrant neighborhoods. I was the first grandchild and cooked with my German grandma starting at age 2, on a footstool next to her in her sunny yellow kitchen.”

The book’s inscription, “For Grandma Grete and her daughter, Dorothea, my mother; generous cooks and loving teachers,” alludes to Stocke’s formative experiences as a child in the kitchen.

The cover is adorned with a tree of life symbol. It is explained that as a man and woman guarded the tree, they had everything they needed in the garden: fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers. The growing zones in Turkey, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet, are vast and fertile, Stocke said. The recipes make liberal use of cumin, pomegranate, molasses, dill, basil, mint, bulgur wheat, and especially the Aleppo pepper, a spicy, deep red-colored pepper that originates in Syria, but can be found in specialty stores or ordered online.

Stocke describes her discovery of Turkish cooking as “kismet” (the word comes from Arabic and describes the concept of fate). In 1997 she managed a guest house in a village called Kalkan, on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, with her daughter, and met, through a mutual friend, her co-author on a balcony. They bonded over their observation that when eating in Turkey, the ingredients and preparation are part of the conversation, and the preparation becomes the celebration. They were immediately captivated by the meze table tradition (which became popular in the Ottoman culture to prolong an enjoyable evening), an array of small plates with marinated olives, nuts, cheeses, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, and more. But the book delves into kofte and kabobs, manti, makarna and pilafs, soups, chicken, and seafood.

“I became fascinated with the country,” said Stocke. “Because the history is so complex.” The county spans both Europe and Asia. “If you are there, you are enveloped in layers of culture and myth.”

Stocke has been writing about food for 30 years and the intersections between food, religions, and culture.  Her first book, Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses and Saints, was published by Wild River Books. She is currently researching a book on the fusion of culture and cuisine of the Mexican Baja Peninsula culture, and has led cooking tours there.

Stocke co-founded Wild River Review, a Bucks County, Pennsylvania-based online literary magazine. She has gone on to found Tree of Life Books with a team of writers, editors, and designers with whom she has worked for 20 years. 

Publishing the Book

“We had something to say, it was original material,” she said, regarding finding a publisher for the cookbook. There were some serendipitous connections, like a person sitting next to her on a mini-bus in Jamaica who was a publisher specializing in cookbooks.

The book has had two printings. Quanto Publishing, based in London, hand-picked a designer who owns a house in Bodrum, Turkey, and has an understanding of the culture.

Photographer Jason Varney “has a beautiful studio in the Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philadelphia where the recipes were styled and photographed for the cookbook,” said Stocke. “It was thrilling and nerve-wracking in equal measure to watch the food stylists recreate the recipes from a draft of the cookbook and see them turn out as they were intended. Many of the serving pieces in the photo shoot are from my collection, and chosen by a prop stylist. It gave me a deeper appreciation of the steps that go into creating a cookbook.”

She writes in the book: “We set off in search of history, culture, and art, but the most tangible evidence of our great adventure is the recipes we learned along the way – the same ones we now cook every day at home.”

Her world, she admits, is food-centric, but she is interested in elevating and celebrating “humble” dishes.

Tucked among the recipes are travelogues. One of these nuggets tells of traveling on the Mediterranean coast, two women in shorts and hiking boots who run across another woman gathering olives. The olive gatherer leaves a handful of olives on a stone ledge, an offering for the hikers, Stocke and Benner.

“I have traveled to the borders, and I have never felt in danger,” she said.” I felt that the families take care of you. I love the culture for that. I have been in villages that have very little and they give you what they have.
I found nothing but generosity.”

The appreciation for the country, its people and its food, is found in the book, and in the recipes.

Tree of Life: Turkish Home Cooking for the American Table can be ordered from Amazon.com.