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Mennonite cookbook serves up much-loved recipes

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While searching for a new recipe for traditional Easter bread, Winnipegger Charlotte Penner found the ingredients for mixing up a batch of new friends and appreciating her religious heritage along the way.

"I didn't even know what a blog was when I Googled paska recipes," the 49-year-old mother of three recalls of looking online for the egg bread usually made by Mennonites at Easter. "I just wanted to see what was out there."

One of the things out there was an invitation from British Columbia resident Lovella Schellenberg to collaborate on a virtual cookbook of traditional Russian Mennonite dishes in the form of a daily recipe blog, http://mennonitegirlscancook.blogspot.com

Three years later, the blog's 10 contributors are also the proud authors of the recently released printed cookbook, Mennonite Girls Can Cook.

Next week, Schellenberg, Penner and fellow contributor Betty Reimer of Steinbach will sign copies of their bestselling coffee-table-style cookbook in Winnipeg.

Now in the third printing since it was released in May, the 208-page hardcover book features 108 recipes, illustrated with coloured photographs of both the preparation and the completed dishes. The recipes for breakfast foods, soups, supper dishes, desserts and breads were either family favourites of the writers or handed down through the generations.

Penner says the point of the book is to pass on much-loved family recipes to their children, along with a few stories from the cooks of their memories of traditional Russian Mennonite cooking.

"It's not that our recipes are any better than Mennonite Treasury," she explains, referring to a well-known cookbook published nearly 50 years ago.

"We wanted to give our kids a place to come find my recipe or Oma's recipe."

Most Mennonites in Manitoba emigrated from the Ukraine, where they learned to cook borscht, bake paska and prepare cabbage rolls and perogies, adding their own ingredients and touches to these traditional Ukrainian dishes.

The recipes in their book and on their blog provide detailed instructions, allowing even the most inexperienced cooks to replicate a much-loved traditional recipe for cookies, bread or soup, explains Schellenberg, recently returned from a book tour in Ontario, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

"We wanted it to be a book where anyone starting out in the kitchen could have some simple recipes to refer to," she says.

Along with the old, the authors also included some new recipes, such as Penner's famous maple twists, a sweet yeast bread that has been a hit in her family and beyond.

"I was eager to make something my mother didn't make," she says of the recipe, now a tradition in her own home. "This has probably been the most asked-for recipe ever."

Along with good home cooking, the book also promotes hospitality, whether over a meal, some freshly baked cookies or just a cup of coffee, says Schellenberg.

"We are called to share what we have," explains the grandmother of four, who runs a chicken farm with her husband in Abbotsford, B.C.

"If you have food to share, you are blessed."

Along with sharing food, the authors also share their personal stories in the book, as well as taking turns in writing a meditative or devotional Sunday blog posting, some of which are reprinted in the book.

"We've all had an opportunity to tell our stories and none of our stories would be complete without talking about our faith," says Schellenberg, referring to the one-page descriptions of all the authors, which explain their love of cooking and their commitment to their Christian faith.

Only four months since its release, the cookbook has already sold about 10,000 copies, a number that astounds and humbles Penner and her collaborators.

Because many of their recipes originate in the Ukraine, they are donating all the royalties from the first year of sales to the Mennonite Central Committee to support a shelter for street children in that country.

"We are 10 ordinary women given an opportunity to do something extraordinary and we want to do as much good as possible as we can," says Penner of the decision to help feed children.

"We are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus and we want to honour that in all that we do, and this book is the vessel in which we are serving."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 20, 2011 J13

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