STEINBACH -- As she rolls out puff pastry on a friend's kitchen counter, Charlotte Penner reveals her secret ingredient for successful home cooking: don't be religious about sticking to the directions.
"Notice how I don't really follow a recipe," explains the only Winnipeg-based author of cookbook Mennonite Girls Can Cook and blog of the same name (www.mennonitegirlscancook.ca) as she sprinkles a handful of cheese before rolling up the dough and slicing it into pinwheels.
"None of these recipes have to be so exact."
While Penner employs a use-what-you-have attitude in cooking, she's much more precise when it comes to the recipe for hospitality, the underlying theme in the recently-released Celebrations, authored by the same 10 women who run the blog.
"For me, it's come as you are, and then you have to take me as I am," explains Penner, 51, of welcoming short notice guests to her East Kildonan home.
"I think it is more about simplicity and honesty and generosity."
After selling 33,000 copies of their first cookbook, which featured traditional recipes from their shared Russian Mennonite heritage, the 10 women turned their attention to developing a cookbook for the special events in life, including baby showers, weddings, summer barbecues and even funerals. The 118 recipes have not appeared previously on their daily cooking blog, which has had more than six million hits since 2008.
"It is more about our faith than it is our culture. In this book, this is very little about our culture," Penner says about the new collection, which features the special recipes the authors turn to for birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and family celebrations.
Five years ago, Lovella Schellenberg of Abbotsford, B.C. invited her friends and readers to contribute to a cooking blog celebrating their common culture and religious heritage. The virtual cookbook caught the eye of a publisher, and now the authors, most who live on the West Coast, have shared their favourite family recipes more widely than they ever dreamed.
"Some of them are definitely recipes our moms have made for many years," Schellenberg explains in a telephone interview, just days before embarking on a whirlwind of media appearances to promote the new book.
Along with the recipes, the women include meditations and reflections about entertaining, family life, and their Christian faith. Penner writes about how the tables were turned on her understanding of hospitality when health concerns curtailed her activities for more than a year. Fellow Manitoban Betty Reimer urges readers to consider being generous with their time by sharing a meal or some fresh baking.
The Steinbach resident recalls a time in southern Manitoba Mennonite culture when Sundays were reserved for visiting friends and families, and stopping by for coffee or afternoon faspa (light lunch) was the norm.
"The trend was people would just drop in," says Reimer, 65, now famous in her hometown for her work on the blog and the cookbooks.
"Everyone knew that's what you did. No one waited for an invitation. No one felt bad if they dropped by."
While cultural practices around guests may have changed, the spirit of generosity continues. The Mennonite Girls donated all their royalties from their first book to the Mennonite Central Committee for the construction of a greenhouse at the Good Shepherd Shelter in the Ukraine. Earnings from their new book will support safe water programs in Kenya.
"Right from the start we said we'd never take money for ourselves," explains Reimer, a grandmother of four.
"We have more than enough," says Penner, adding that the women cover all their own costs associated with the book, including an upcoming trip to B.C. for a series of launch events in early May.
Sharing -- whether an elaborate meal or just a cup of coffee and cookie -- is the always the best recipe for getting to know others, says Schellenberg.
"Food and conversation go hand in hand. It opens up so many doors for conversation," she says.
"It's a way to invite relationships and friendships and make people feel celebrated."
Mennonite girl cooks with Mennonite Girls
WHEN a Mennonite girl -- ah, woman -- interviews members of the Mennonite Girls Can Cook blog, it's a sure thing there will be more than just talk of food.
So I tucked my apron in my bag along with my notebook and pens before I head out to Betty Reimer's home in the southern edge of Steinbach, prepared to attempt whatever recipe Reimer and fellow Mennonite Girl Charlotte Penner have chosen for the day.
"There's no need to be intimidated," Penner assures me as I join them in the kitchen. "We're just regular people and we don't have all the answers."
Both admit the fame of collaborating on a best-selling cookbook has elevated their status slightly among friends and strangers, and some longtime friends might be slightly reluctant to cook for them, says Reimer.
"It's almost like they don't want to invite you over for a meal," she says.
As the pair prepares two dishes from their hot-off-the-press Celebrations cookbook, they assign this Mennonite girl to shaking together oil, vinegar, maple syrup and seasonings for a salad dressing.
When we sit down at Reimer's dining table to eat a late lunch of puff pastry pinwheels and pear salad, she invokes the memory of her father as she pauses to speak a blessing on the meal.
"My dad always said if it was worth more than 25 cents, it was worth saying grace," Reimer quips.
"It's worth far more than 25 cents," adds Penner.
What is invaluable about this meal is the easy conversation that follows, ranging from cameras to pet projects and passions, interspersed with compliments to the cooks and talk of even more recipes.
Yes, these Mennonite women are really great cooks, but they're even more skilled at putting their guests at ease around the dinner table. That's a menu worth serving up again and again.