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The Secret Recipe of Ella Dove
Author: Karen Hawkins




Baking is love. Every carefully measured teaspoon, every delicious dash of spice, every tantalizing aroma, is a gift of pure sensory passion.

The Book of Cakes, p. 13

Written: 1792–2019


It’s a sad fact of life that in very large, very noisy families filled with big personalities, it’s possible for a quieter, more solitary child to get lost. During her seventh year, Ella Dove was that child. It was the year after her father died, and Ella was deeply, deeply unhappy. So unhappy that one day, she decided to run away from home.

Ella loved her momma and, yes, all six of her usually annoying sisters. But before she was born, her four older sisters had paired up—Madison and Alexandra, Taylor and Cara. They were each other’s closest, best friends. Then Ella was born. And as patterns had already formed, she became the leftover child.

A few years later, Ella had gotten super excited when Momma and Daddy announced there was another baby on the way. Ella had hoped that her new sister would become her best friend, but it didn’t happen. Ava hated being indoors and was flower-crazy from the time she could crawl. Meanwhile, Ella preferred the coziness of the kitchen, where she and Dad made the meals for their growing family.

Of all the Dove girls, Ella was closest to their father, who’d made her his “special assistant” in the kitchen. Ella knew that in some families, mothers did the cooking, but Dad used to say that Momma had her hands full raising so many children and that the least he could do was cook. He was really, really good at it too, and created the most amazing meals for them. The hours Ella spent with her dad in the kitchen were some of the happiest of her life.

Which was why, after he died, Ella was left with a void in her heart that was so big, she feared she might fall into it and be lost forever. Loneliness, by itself, is a horrible, wretched state of affairs. But loneliness in the middle of a crowd is a million times worse. And Ella felt every inch of its brutal weight. It was only made harder a few months later by the arrival of baby Sarah. Although Ella and the rest of the family doted on Sarah, her arrival made Ella all the more aware of their dad’s absence.

One day in late January, after a particularly difficult day at the end of an especially horrible week, Ella dumped her textbooks and school papers out of her bright orange backpack and refilled it with clothes, a toothbrush, her dad’s favorite cookbook, and what little allowance she’d managed to save.

She had a plan, of a sort. She’d walk to the bus stop at the edge of town and use the $12.50 she’d saved from her weekly allowance to buy a ticket to take her as far away as possible. She loved her family, but a new place would give her a fresh start.

So, with her book bag slung across her shoulders, she headed down Elm Street and then turned onto Main, her breath puffing white as the skies turned gray. To her irritation, her book bag seemed to grow heavier with every step. Worse, by the time she reached Pickens Bridge Road, it had started to snow, the icy wetness freezing her chin and nose.

Ella lowered her head and set her jaw. If I can just make it onto the bus, I can—

“Ella Dove! What are you doing?” Aunt Jo leaned out the window of her old Chevy. Snow fell inside, melting as it landed on her round black cheeks and bright red coat. “It’s snowing!”

Ella’s heart sank. “Aunt Jo” wasn’t Ella’s real aunt. That was just what everyone in town called her. Since Dad’s death, Aunt Jo and Momma—who’d always been close—had gotten even closer. Momma said Aunt Jo made an art out of being where she was most needed. “Momma sent you.”

“Of course she sent me! She can’t leave your sisters alone just to come looking for you, especially now that she has the baby. You know that.”

Ella fisted her hands around her backpack straps. “You can’t make me go back.”

Aunt Jo’s expression softened. “Ella girl, it’s been a tough year for you and your family. I know that. But running away won’t make things better.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I do know that.” When Ella didn’t move, Aunt Jo sighed. “At least do it when the weather’s better.”

Ella had to admit she was cold and tired, and her pack felt as if it were filled with rocks.

Aunt Jo hit the unlock button and jerked her head toward the passenger side. “Get in. Your poor momma has enough on her plate right now without this.”

Ella’s lips quivered. “She’ll be better off without me.”

“You don’t believe that, and neither do I. Come on, Ella. The Moonlight Café just called in an order, so I need to get home and start baking, and I’m not leaving until you come with me.”

Momma had always said that if Aunt Jo had enough bakery orders, she could get out of the housekeeping business that was so hard on her aging back and knees, so Ella knew how important this order was. Defeated, her eyes burning from both the snow and the weight of her own sadness, Ella trudged around to the other side of Aunt Jo’s car and got in. They were soon on their way, creeping along the slick streets.

“So.” Aunt Jo slanted Ella a direct look. “What’s going on? Did you have a fight with one of your sisters?”


Aunt Jo didn’t look convinced. “Did your momma say something that upset you? You know she hasn’t been herself of late.”

Ella knew Momma was having a rough time. Everyone in town was talking about how sad it was that now that Dad was gone, Momma’d had to have baby Sarah alone. But Momma hadn’t been alone. Ella and her sisters were there, and they were all helping with the new baby. “It wasn’t that.”

“Then what was it? What sent you out into this horrible weather?”

There were so many reasons. She felt alone and lost, which seemed easy enough to say, but whenever she tried to explain herself, her words seemed to tangle up.

Aunt Jo’s gaze flickered over Ella’s face. Ella didn’t know what Aunt Jo saw there, but she suddenly said, “You miss your daddy.”

Ella could handle anything but sympathy. Her eyes burned even more, and she feared that if she let herself cry, she might never stop.

Aunt Jo turned her attention back to the road, although it was obvious the older woman was thinking. Finally, she slowed the car to a stop, the wheels sliding a little in the snow. “Tell you what. If your mom says it’s okay, how about spending the night at my house?”

It was tempting. Outside, the snow pelted the car, the frosty ice flakes hitting the window. Why not go to Aunt Jo’s house? It was better than going home, where Ella would just feel miserable all over again. “I would like that.”

“Good. Let’s go before these roads get worse.” Aunt Jo put the car back into gear and slowly turned it around.

They reached Aunt Jo’s soon enough, a larger-than-it-seemed butter-yellow clapboard house, frosted with snow, that sat beside a huge oak tree at the edge of town. Aunt Jo pulled two shopping bags out of the back seat and then bumped the car door closed with one of her generous hips. Ella collected her book bag and followed Aunt Jo inside.

“Stay on that mat,” Aunt Jo ordered as she shrugged out of her red coat. “You’re wetter than a cat dunked in a pond. I’ll get you a towel.”

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