05/15/2013 12:47 EDT | Updated 07/15/2013 05:12 EDT

Mennonite women's new cookbook geared to celebrating life's milestones

TORONTO - When Lovella Schellenberg started a blog to record family memories and heritage recipes, she didn't expect it would generate so much attention and spawn two cookbooks.

Or that she would be part of a group of 10 women who are now great friends.

When interest in the recipes on the blog she started in 2006 began growing exponentially, Schellenberg decided to ask if anyone was interested in joining her. She volunteered to teach newcomers how to post recipes and photos.

The result was the blog "Mennonite Girls Can Cook," launched in 2008, which now receives 7,000 hits a day. In 2011, the women published a cookbook by the same name that focused on their Russian Mennonite heritage recipes.

Now, two years later, the 10 Mennonite women, who range in age from 51 to 65, have published their second cookbook, "Mennonite Girls Can Cook Celebrations" (Herald Press). In it, they share recipes to mark milestones in life.

"It's been a really amazing challenge and a great opportunity to learn something new for our age group, so it's just been a lot of fun," Schellenberg said in an interview from Abbotsford, B.C. "We've gotten to be such great friends in the meantime."

Seven of the women live in British Columbia, two are in Manitoba and one lives in the Seattle area.

When conceiving the second cookbook, they bandied around the idea of what would be the one dish they could not do without for holiday meals. Each woman contributed recipes that invoked memories.

"This book celebrates baby showers, what to take to a potluck supper when going out into your community, what are the things you've always enjoyed cooking or doing, camping out, what are the things you always made with your kids, family favourites but on a broader scale," she said.

"What do you make for that special dinner when your child has graduated and you're having a special dinner for that. The things we have for holidays."

One recipe is common to the two books.

"The recipe that really got us all together — it was the recipe I put on my own blog — and the one that people look for most often is our Mennonite Easter bread, which is called paska," Schellenberg explained.

"Every Easter we are just astounded by how our (blog) readership is so much higher, like 1,000 more per day — so instead of having 7,000 visitors a day we'll have 8,000 — and so many of them are coming in to see how to make that Easter bread."

In the second book, there is a gluten-free version of the paska created by Julie Klassen, who has celiac disease. Klassen has developed many other recipes and tips for the book and the blog for people who are gluten intolerant. The group decided to reprint Schellenberg's original recipe alongside Klassen's gluten-free version.

The "Celebrations" book, with its pretty colour scheme of lilac and green, features gorgeous photos of the recipes as well as pictures of the authors and their families at various events. All food photos in the book and on the blog are taken by the recipe developer, Schellenberg said. The exception is the cover and group photos, which were done professionally.

A theme running through the book is the enjoyment of hospitality and cooking for their families and the community.

"I think what we all feel is that hospitality is essentially welcoming people into your home and not really expecting a lot in return. We don't necessarily expect to be invited back....

"We just realized maybe in our economy and in the busyness of life that we all have, I think we've sort of stopped having people in. We are more likely often to maybe suggest meeting somewhere for dinner or going out for coffee, but to actually have someone in your home, you're allowing them into your life," Schellenberg said.

Through their church she and her husband mentor couples who are engaged. "We always have them into our home and just very casually visit with them, get to know them and just make them feel special. Anytime you do anything for somebody, if you're just making some muffins or coffee or whatever, they will feel special to actually be invited in."

Faith is a common denominator among the women and the book is rich with inspirational sayings and stories.

It wasn't something stipulated at the outset, Schellenberg explained, "but since we all feel the same way about our faith we thought it was important to include inspirational thoughts in the book because we do that on our blog. Sundays we always view an inspirational moment instead of a recipe. It goes over very well. We get lots of great responses on that as well."

When setting up the group blog, Schellenberg expressed a wish that if any opportunity arose to raise money from anything they would ever do, it should go to charity.

All proceeds from this book will be dispersed through the Mennonite Central Committee to provide clean drinking water for people living in Africa. The royalties from their first book have contributed to building a greenhouse at the Good Shepherd Shelter in Makivka, Ukraine.

"It's been great to actually feel that there's a side purpose to our blog besides just sharing recipes," Schellenberg said.