Cooking Up Stories: Little Eliot, Big Fun Plus a Recipe and a Prompt

Jan 3, 2020 | Food & Friends

Food and Friends: Cooking Up Stories with Padma Venkatraman and Chef Amanda

Every month, our Chef Amanda and author Padma Venkatraman pair up to share a recipe and writing prompt for our Highlights Foundation family. Padma creates the prompts based on a book from one of our Highlights Foundation faculty, and Chef Amanda shares a recipe from the kitchen at the Barn. You can always look at past prompts and recipes here.)

January 2020

Book: LITTLE ELLIOT, BIG FUN Written and illustrated by Mike Curato
Little Elliot loves fun, and in this installment of the five-book collection, BIG FUN is everywhere. The fun-loving polka-dotted elephant and Mouse head to an amusement park with fun in mind, but Little Elliot ends up finding it all to be a bit too BIG, until Mouse helps him discover how to make fun feel just right for elephants, mice, and more!

Little Eliot

Little Elliot loves special treats. As does the book’s creator, Mike Curato. Along with his popular Little Elliot series, Mike is the illustrator of many books for children. When asked if he loves cupcakes as much as Little Elliot, Mike says, “Oh, I DO!” To learn more about Mike, and his views on other treats, visit him at

Mike will join our faculty for Gather: A Community Retreat for Published Authors and Illustrators in June of 2020.

Little Eliot Big Fun by Mike CuratoWriting Prompt by author Padma Venkatraman
This month’s First Friday is Foodie Friday recipe is inspired by Curato’s love of cupcakes, but my writing prompt is inspired by this picture book which is about friendship but also about fear.

One of the most important things we need to discover about our protagonists is what they deeply fear, and why – because often, protagonists need to face (and overcome) this fear in order to grow and change. Even if the plot isn’t about fear, it’s important to understand your protagonist’s innermost anxieties (even horrors), if you want to create a three-dimensional character. So:

1. First write a list of all the things your protagonist fears.
2. Second, look at your list and decide what your protagonist fears the most (or maybe there are two equally large fears).
3. Why does your protagonist fear these things? Dig deep to discover what happened to instill these fears in your protagonist.
4. Finally, brainstorm situations in which your protagonist’s fears could be tested and decide how your protagonist would react in each situation. These situations may or may not lead to full-fledged scenes in your book – but they will help you gain a deeper understanding of character.

Recipe from Chef Amanda: Boyds Mills Best Vanilla Cupcakes
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
2 tsps. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 cup sour cream
2 tbl. pure vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350. Line cupcake pans with wrappers. Batter should make 20 standard cupcakes filling each about 2/3 full.

Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, blending well after each addition. Mix the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt together, and add this to the butter mixture, mixing well. Add the sour cream and mix well; then mix in the vanilla. (The batter will be thick.)

After filing each cupcake wrapper about 2/3 of the way full bake for 15-20 minutes or until just golden brown and a toothpick inserted comes out clean.

Allow to cool fully and frost with your favorite frosting and enjoy.
Amanda Richards is the executive chef at the Highlights Foundation. Although her scholastic background is in elementary education, she has always had a love of cooking and apprenticed under chef Marcia Dunsmore here at our Retreat Center. She’s also a Food Network devotee and grew up watching Julia Child and others on PBS.

Padma Venkatraman is the author of THE BRIDGE HOME which was released this February, has since garnered 8 stars, and has been honored as one of the best books of 2019 by Kirkus, NYPL, Chicago Library and others. Visit her at or follow her on twitter @padmatv or ig venkatraman.padma.

Thank you to our faculty for this Guest Post!

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