- Suzanne Podhaizer
- Denobulan Sausages and other space foods
After a long day in the forest gathering blue mountain flowers and butterfly wings and fighting thieves, you return home weary, wounded and hungry. Your battle-ax goes on a rack in the front hall, but you don't bother to remove your armor before heading to the kitchen. In a barrel, you find exactly what you're looking for: a salt pile, a jug of milk, a sack of flour, butter and a chicken's egg. Soon you're feasting on a just-baked "sweetroll" and feeling your health return.
This is Skyrim, a fantasy game in The Elder Scrolls series by Bethesda Game Studios. Although its main story line involves attaining grandeur as a "Dragonborn" hero, the game also offers a selection of homely activities for players who are so inclined: You can craft your own armor, cut lumber using a water-powered mill or build a house with an enviable kitchen.
If you want to make Skyrim recipes in real life, that's when you turn to Chelsea Monroe-Cassel: cookbook author, beekeeper, medieval reenactor and West Windsor resident.
Monroe-Cassel, 37, is the author of 2019's The Elder Scrolls: The Official Cookbook and numerous other cookbooks based on fantasy and science-fiction sagas such as "Star Trek," Star Wars, George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire book series (known to TV fans as "Game of Thrones"), online game World of Warcraft and TV cult fave "Firefly." She recently finished her second "Game of Thrones" book, featuring dishes such as Stargazy Pie, a Cornish specialty topped with honest-to-goodness fish heads.
Monroe-Cassel creates and tests recipes in the farmhouse she shares with her husband, high school English and philosophy teacher Brent Concilio, and their 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son. There's also a pair of cats: a grumpy elder who doesn't deign to meet guests and a tiny orange tabby named Peanut who hangs out in sunny spots and watches Monroe-Cassel cook.
When I visited on a snowy, sparkly day in December, Monroe-Cassel was making a snack from The Star Trek Cookbook: Denobulan Sausages, a delicacy enjoyed by a humanoid species in the franchise.
She scored hot dogs most of the way through, using wooden skewers to avoid cutting too far, and glazed the meat with a combination of raspberry jam, red curry paste and soy sauce. As the sausages cooked, they curled into near-perfect circles. They emerged from the oven almost black on top, resembling sea or space creatures or some sort of fleshy bracelet.
- Suzanne Podhaizer
- Chelsea Monroe-Cassel
When a novel, movie or show becomes a sensation, media companies often scurry to put out "official" books in an attempt to increase profits on the franchise. Monroe-Cassel is no hired gun, though. She made her first foray into fantasy cooking as a passionate fan, after having finished a classics degree at Boston University. She and a friend, Sariann Lehrer, loved the descriptions of food in A Song of Ice and Fire, so they started cooking dishes from the books for extravagant dinner parties that served as "a sort of escapism," Monroe-Cassel said.
In March 2011, the friends began posting their recipes on a blog called the Inn at the Crossroads. Using medieval cookbooks as inspiration, they produced lemon cakes, honey-glazed roast chickens, marinated goat and cold fruit soup, pairing their recipes with photos and quotes from Martin's books. Some of their images were dimly lit by beeswax candles; other, brighter images conveyed fantasy with metal and wooden dishware in the foreground and items such as red-skinned apples and tree branches in the background.
At the time, the duo was unpracticed at food photography, Monroe-Cassel said, and didn't expect much of an audience. "We thought, Our moms will read this!" she recalled.
Their moms did, but after April 17, 2011 — when HBO's "Game of Thrones" premiered — everybody else seemed to start reading the blog, too. Before the show, a post might elicit a single comment from a historical cooking enthusiast. The days following the early episode airings saw dozens of visitors posting their own takes on "Game of Thrones" food and thanking the blog authors for helping them plan their preshow Sunday night meals.
Monroe-Cassel and Lehrer kept blogging, honing their skills and virtually meeting other fans. One day, "feeling cheeky," Monroe-Cassel remembered, she messaged George R.R. Martin to suggest that he might be in need of a "Game of Thrones" cookbook. He wrote back to say he would mention the idea to his publisher. His response, Monroe-Cassel recalled, elicited "a lot of screaming."
Martin was as good as his word, and before long, the newly minted authors had a deal. They spent the following year testing recipes "all day, every day" in her tiny urban apartment kitchen, Monroe-Cassel said. "It was a good time to be our friend."
When they encountered a meal in the books that was unpalatable or illegal, the authors found a creative way around it. In the case of an important scene involving the consumption of a horse heart, for instance, they used fondant to create a model of the organ.
The 2012 publication of A Feast of Ice and Fire: The Official Game of Thrones Companion Cookbook was followed by a whirlwind publicity tour, including a visit to San Diego Comic-Con International, where Martin was also in attendance. "We had drinks with George!" Monroe-Cassel exclaimed, recalling the event.
After the success of her first, coauthored cookbook, Monroe-Cassel thought it might be easy to get her next gig — "I was a published cookbook author!" she said. But it took several years to sell the idea for a World of Warcraft cookbook to a new publisher, Insight Editions. In the meantime, she found her way to Vermont.
In 2013, while visiting family in Hartland, Monroe-Cassel and Concilio decided to drive around and look at real estate they couldn't afford. After checking out a fixer-upper in West Windsor, they placed a lowball bid on the house as "practice," Monroe-Cassel said. They were confident that their offer would never be accepted. Until it was.
"And that's how we accidentally bought a house," Monroe-Cassel said with a chuckle. "The whole thing was just sort of ludicrous."
- Suzanne Podhaizer
- A pile of Chelsea Monroe-Cassel's cookbooks
Now, a few cookbooks later and postrenovation, the farmhouse is gorgeous. The kitchen features a large island with a soapstone top, a brick-backed nook that holds a KitchenAid stand mixer and an Ilve Nostalgie double oven with golden fixtures.
Elsewhere in the house, glass-doored cabinets enclose piles of pale china, and an elegant, silver-plated tea set occupies a sideboard. A sitting room with dark green walls features deep leather chairs, antique hunting horns on the walls and an anachronistic copy of The Star Trek Cookbook on a side table. "That's us," Monroe-Cassel remarked. "We're all over the place."
Before the reno was completed, Monroe-Cassel said, things were pretty rough. The couple tore apart their kitchen while she was testing recipes for The Star Trek Cookbook. She watched her workplace shrink until she was left with the old electric oven and space for a single cutting board, as though the rest of the room had been assimilated by the Borg.
Perusing Monroe-Cassel's books, readers would never guess the challenges behind the scenes. Her photographs are simple and elegant, a far cry from those of the blog's early years, though they still occasionally include apples in the background. For The Star Trek Cookbook, Monroe-Cassel bought dozens of items from a potpourri shop and used the brightly colored bits to stand in for space foods.
The books treat the fantasy worlds as though they were real, and the headnote for each recipe offers a tidbit of imaginary lore. "Versions of this dish can be found all across Tamriel [the world of The Elder Scrolls]," reads a note in The Elder Scrolls: The Official Cookbook, "but using four types of Balmoran mushrooms can give this dish a special regional flavor." Monroe-Cassel also explains that traditional (fictional) ingredients such as "ash yams" can be "hard to find" and that it's fine to use regular old sweet potatoes instead.
Whipping up a batch of Elder Scrolls sweetrolls (see sidebar), Monroe-Cassel revealed that she planned to take a break from the cookbook game. Next, she might try graphic design, illustration or writing children's books.
Why the change? "I'm lucky enough to have gotten to do all of the heavy hitters on my list," she said, "except The Lord of the Rings." She's also made headway in convincing people of something she has strong feelings about: that "fictional food is not gross."
Monroe-Cassel's sweetrolls have a delicately yeasted dough and cream cheese icing that drips down their sides like wax on a burning candle. Nobody who tastes one would dare to disagree with her.
- Suzanne Podhaizer
- Elder Scrolls sweetrolls
From The Elder Scrolls: The Official Cookbook by Chelsea Monroe-Cassel
Sweetrolls are part of an inside joke for longtime players of The Elder Scrolls video games. In early games in the series, one of the character-building questions that new players had to answer was, in effect, "What you would do if bullies stole your sweetroll?"
In later games, players might wander past a guard talking with another nonplayer character about a sweetroll theft in town. In the game Skyrim, they can restore a smidgen of health by eating a sweetroll and even bake their own, provided they have the ingredients in their inventory.
Given this lengthy in-game history, it's no surprise to see a sweetroll featured on the cover of Chelsea Monroe-Cassel's The Elder Scrolls: The Official Cookbook, along with a bacon-wrapped Horker loaf studded with roasted garlic "tusks," a dish of chestnuts and mushrooms, and a drinking horn holding a candle.
During our visit, Monroe-Cassel, an expert sweetroll maker, confidently scooped her flour while chatting, without bothering to level it out. Your first time out, measuring might be a good idea.
She plated her finished rolls on a tray surrounded by a rabbit pelt, a piece of chain mail and the drinking horn seen on the cover of her book. However, any rustic plate will probably do.
This recipe makes four sweetrolls.
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- 1 cup warm whole milk
- 2 tablespoons honey
- Pinch of salt
- 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
- 1 egg
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons cream cheese, softened
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar
- 2 tablespoons heavy cream
To make the rolls
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine the butter, warm milk and honey, stirring until the honey has dissolved. Add the salt and yeast, followed by the egg and flour, and mix completely until you have a smooth batter. Spoon evenly into four five-inch miniature Bundt pans. Allow to rise for just 30 minutes, then bake for 15 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the rolls comes out clean.
To make the frosting:
- While the rolls bake, cream together the cream cheese, butter and powdered sugar in a small bowl. Gradually add just enough heavy cream to get a smooth, thick icing that barely runs off a spoon.
- When the rolls are finished baking, allow them to cool for five minutes in the pan, then tip out onto a cooling rack. When they're completely cooled, spoon the icing over the tops of the rolls, letting some of it run down the sides.
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