The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark

Any book set in Venice is always moved to the top of my reading list. And of course, any book set in Venice about cooking and food is going to have the most special place in my heart. The Book of Unholy Mischief definitely takes the cake here! Luciano is the narrator, a young boy who is rescued from homelessness, poverty and theft on the streets of Venice. His rescuer is Chef Ferrero, who is chef to the Doge of Venice himself, and when he saves Luciano, he takes him back to the Doge’s Palace, cleans him up, and gives him a job as his apprentice. Ferrero is no ordinary chef, though. He is a rock star! In the late 1400s, not many chefs would be so adventurous as to try food from the New World such as potatoes, but Chef Ferrero does. He is also at the center of a conspiracy theory that encompasses Luciano as the book progresses……….think Chocolat meets The Da Vinci Code……though that is oversimplifying it somewhat.

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Luciano continues his education in the Doge’s kitchen under Ferrero’s tutelage, learning more about food than he ever dreamed – a typical bildungsroman, but set among the wealthy and learned of Venice. Of course, the plot is not all about food though – a mystical book purporting to give immortality to those who can decipher its secrets is said to be in Venice, and with his native intelligence, Luciano starts to suspect that Chef Ferrero (who he has come to see as a father figure) might well possess this book and be using it in his innovative and magical cooking techniques.

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Well, hell. A book about food, about cooking, about mystical books, about Venice………of course I had to read it! All my favorite things all in one place! The food descriptions, in particular, are enough to make any foodie weep with joy as the sensual and beautiful pleasure of cheese, wine, meat, olives, cakes, spices and herbs, seafood, are detailed in amazingly graphic and drool-inciting images and words. Even humble foods like onions, which we all tend to overlook, are given a power when glorified and honored by the Chef himself as he talks about the effect of food upon the human psyche.

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My eyes watered from the onion fumes, and the stinging tears diverted my curiosity. I aked, “Why do onions make us cry?” Chef Ferrero shrugged as a tear slid down his cheek. “You may as well ask why one cries in the presence of great art, or at the birth of a child. Tears of awe, Luciano. Let them flow.” I wiped my eyes but the chef let tears roll freely down his face. A tear dripped from his chin as he scooped up the diced onion for the stockpot. His awe would season the soup.

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I just love that passage. It exemplifies the joys of the most simple foods in cooking, and also reminds me that it’s the most simple and humble of foods that create the most awesome flavors. How boring and tasteless most savory dishes would be without the addition of onion? I shudder to think. And with that in mind, I was inspired to make onions the star of a dish instead of an ingredient, so here we go with roasted onions with fennel, red wine vinegar, and basil, taken from my idol Nigella Lawson’s fabulous book Nigellissima. I made this amazing dish as part of a birthday meal for my dear friend Jade and her two sons, including a fantastic white cake with white vanilla buttercream frosting. It was only my third time ever making a white cake from scratch, and I was quite pleased with how everything turned out.


4 medium red onions
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
3 tablespoons olive oil
Fresh cracked pepper
4 cups of fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
Sea salt to taste

Heat the oven to 425F. Slice the onions lengthwise, keeping the stems. Like this.

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Arrange on a baking tray and pour over the olive oil.

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Sprinkle with the fennel seeds and black pepper.

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Bake for an hour, then remove and add sea salt. The onions will have darkened and crisped up outside, with the insides softened. Let cool, then sprinkle over the red wine vinegar.

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Add the basil leaves like you would a salad, and add more vinegar and salt if it needs it.

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It’s delicious, light and a perfect side accompaniment to a heavier meat or pasta dish. The fennel seed echoes the slight licorice flavor of the basil, and the red wine vinegar offsets it beautifully. So good and easy!

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17 thoughts on “The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark

  1. Oh my, Vanessa. Most of your posts make me hungry, but this one especially. Everything looks delicious and your review and descriptions are beautiful as usual. I’m going to have to check this book out! ❤

    I can say that white cake in general has never been a favorite for me, meaning it doesn’t come out as scrumptious as I’d like it to. It’s my oldest favorite, but chocolate seems to work the best for me. Yours looks amazing! 😁

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I got about halfway through the post and ordered the book! And I love that you made onions the star of the show! How marvelous!

    Now i’m going to have to make this salad and read the book! Can’t wait!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a wonderful review! My daughter’s favorite soup is French onion soup so we try different versions at every restaurant when it is on the menu. I’ve always loved the mellow flavor of onions when they are cooked properly. Thanks for yet another great onion recipe with a wonderful quote to go with it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so very much! I love french onion soup as well. I don’t know what we would do without the underappreciated onion, which is partly why I focused on it for this blog post. I’m so glad you enjoyed it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Your review and focus on how a “simple” ingredient can add depth of flavor to many dishes is great. I feel like I’ll need to have snacks on hand before attempting to read “The Book of Unholy Mischief.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words! I definitely would recommend having something to nosh on if you’re going to read this book. The food descriptions are just amazing. Its overall a really great book and I definitely recommend it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Love the sound of this book, Will try and get hold of it. Love the onion dish too, would never have thought of this combination. Good old Nigella. Have you read Miss Gardner’s Angels, also set in Venice? Another stormer! Keep well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Helen! It’s really a marvelous book, and in fact, I enjoyed it more the second time I read it. Anything in Venice is always a joy. I haven’t read Miss Gardner’s Angels, but I’m off to look for it on Amazon, which incidentally, is where I found my used copy of this book if you’re looking for it too.


  6. …. They wrote a book about me?? 😂😂😂
    This sounds AMAZING! (the food and the book), I need to get this book for my father! He loves anything with cooking in it. Of course, I’ll have to read it first… I always quality control all of the books that I purchase for him. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I actually had that same thought about me the first time I saw this title. LOL! It’s really an amazing book. If you love food and cooking descriptions as much as I do, you’ll love this book. If your dad reads it, I’d be interested in his take on it.

      Liked by 2 people

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