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Just finished reading How It All Began: A Novelby Penelope Lively. I find it hard to describe this book – it’s wonderful. I loved it. But describing it is perplexing. The title relates to one of the characters, a woman of a certain age, who is mugged, and has to go live with her daughter and son in law for awhile since she’s stuck with crutches and has mobility problems. That starts the cavalcade of events that spread around her, with the characters. And she knows nothing whatsoever about them, hardly. They’re all somewhat inter-related (not much family, but mostly by circumstance) and they all get into some rather logical and some peculiar relationships. You engage  with each and every one of them; at least I sure did; and was trying to tell some of them to back away from what they were about to do. Or “be careful;” or “don’t go there.” That kind of thing. There is nothing insidious, no mystery involved – it’s all about these people and what happens to them. I was sad when the book was finished. The author, Lively, does add a chapter at the end – I wonder if it wasn’t part of the master plan – that kind of tidies up everything, and you get to see all of the characters move on with their lives, happy or not, but mostly happy. Really enjoyed the book. Am not sure it would be a good book club read, as the only thing to discuss are the characters themselves. Lively paints these characters well; you can just picture them as they get themselves in and out of relationship mischief.

The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas. It’s a very, very good read. It tells the story of an older married woman who lives in a small mining town in the Colorado rockies (this is the mid-1800’s), and is well known by all because she’s the only midwife in the area. Often people can’t pay her anything, or very little for her days of service with little or no rest or food. Suddenly, a couple accuse her of strangling their infant (she arrived after the birth, actually). Hence the story is about how this small town rallies or rails for or against Gracy. She didn’t commit the crime, but not everyone can be convinced since the father is a wealthy man in the area who carries a lot of clout. There’s plenty of relationship issues here, which make really great fodder for a novel. And there are plenty of characters in the book that you’ll love or hate. Some secrets get dredged up too. Oh, such a good read.

On my recent road trip, I visited one of my local libraries and borrowed 5 books on tape. We listened to 3 of them. I’m a big fan of Craig Johnson, the author of a series of mysteries taking place in Wyoming, and a TV series on Netflix called Longmire. This book, A Serpent’s Tooth: A Longmire Mystery was really complex. Hard to explain, but it’s about graft and greed and oil. Worth reading, for sure. Also read Stone Kiss by Faye Kellerman, another complex mystery about Lt Decker, an LA cop who journeys to NYC to help out his family when a murder occurs. Lots of violence in this one.  Not particularly a fav book, I’d venture. Then read Leaving Time: A Novel by Jodi Picoult. I’ve read most of her books – always very riveting. In this book, you’ll learn a whole lot about elephants since the protagonist in it is a young girl whose mother disappeared when she was quite young. Her parents ran an elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire. In the ensuing years, Jenna has tried to find clues as to her mother’s whereabouts because she just cannot believe her mother would have up and abandoned her. There are a whole cast of characters (her mother, her father, employees at the sanctuary, a cop or two, and a psychic). All play fairly prominent roles. Fascinating book – I really liked it, almost as much for the education about the behavior of elephants as about the mystery. A great read.

Also on the trip, I read a book (on Kindle) for one of my book clubs, The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin. It’s about the relationship between Truman Capote and his “swans,” a group of middle-aged high society ladies, and specifically Beth Paley. I don’t know whether to recommend this book or not. Truman Capote was not a nice man, although the whole novel (vs. non-fiction, which this is not) is conjured from speculation about the years Truman was kind of adopted by the group of women. He cared about all of them (most were married/divorced, and wealthy) but in the end he betrays them all by writing a novella about their secrets, their marriages, their affairs (theirs or their spouses, information they’d all shared with him, thinking he could be trusted with their innermost secrets). It was scandalous, and yes, all that part is true. I finished the book, but almost felt like I’d read a “dirty book.” There is no graphic detail in this book – it’s just what Capote did to destroy these women, supposedly his dear, darling “swans.” He was the villain in the book, and in his old age . . . well, I won’t spoil the story if you’re interested in reading it.

 

Tasting Spoons

My blog's namesake - small, old and some very dented engraved silver plated tea spoons that belonged to my mother-in-law, and I use them to taste my food as I'm cooking.

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Posted in Breads, Vegetarian, on May 11th, 2013.

cucumber_sandiwiches

Well. There are tea sandwiches, and then there are THESE tea sandwiches. Oh gosh were they delicious. As I’m writing this – and it’s breakfast time this moment – I’d eat these for breakfast if I had any of them!

Our daughter Sara decided to throw a tea for a group of her girlfriends. Her rule: no children allowed – it was going to be a time for her friends, all busy moms – to sit and relax. Since we were driving there to visit them that evening, she asked if I’d come early. Of course! I’m always up for tea! At home, I made two kinds of cookies to help her – the Baked Cinnamon Toasts I’ve already raved about here and the Moravian Sugar Cookies, although my recipe calls them Almond Spice Wafers. I also made lemon curd, and couldn’t believe it when we got all done and realized we’d forgotten to put it out! Oh, so sad. Sara made the middle cookies you can see below, rich chocolate shortbread kind of cookies pillowed with a chewy caramel layer. cookies_for_teaSara made 2 kinds of tea – a rooibos, which is her day to day favorite decaf tea, and a pot of Earl Grey. She also put out some gorgeous spring strawberries, sugar, milk, teacups and saucers, some crème fraiche that I sweetened with a little bit of sugar (this was in lieu of clotted cream), and napkins, of course.

The COOKIES: Baked Cinnamon Toasts are on the left, Sara’s chocolate caramel filled cookies in the middle and the Almond Spice Wafers on the right. Sara thought the Cinnamon  Toasts were the hit of the cookie category. I agree. I had about 5-6 of them I kept at home and within a day they were gone – even my DH, who rarely eats anything sweet – gobbled down 2-3 of them. Guess I’ll have to make them again.

I’ll write up a post in the next day or so with the two scones we made. One an apricot-orange and the star of the show, a lavender white chocolate chip.

The winner of the tea sandwich category at Sara’s tea was this cucumber one. I mean, what would a ladies’ tea be without some cucumber sandwiches? Sara found some tea sandwich suggestions at this website. For this sandwich it said:  Cucumber-Butter – Mix 4 tablespoons softened butter, 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest and 1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs. Spread on white bread and sandwich with sliced cucumber. Trim the crusts and cut into pieces.   We were making 5 whole sandwiches (which made 4 little quarters each), so we had 20 of each sandwich we made. I added minced chives, lemon zest, some salt and a teaspoon or so of fresh minced thyme leaves. I used 1 cube of butter for the 5 sandwiches and it was just enough.

Over the years, I’ve learned that you need to get just the right proportion of filling to bread.

Tea Sandwich Advice:

Make one tiny test sandwich with the filling and taste to see if it’s too bready, or too buttery or has too much filling. Adjust and taste again until you get it just right!

So in this case, with our first taste test, there wasn’t enough butter. The butter needed salt too. And the cucumber wasn’t quite thick enough. Obviously start with very soft butter, add the flavorings and taste. Cut off the crusts on the bread. We chose not to make round cutouts (too much trouble), so I generously buttered both sides of the bread and placed 4 cucumber rounds on each sandwich. We chose to cut just one slice rather than use many ultra-thin slices as I knew the multiple slices would slip and the sandwich would come apart from the moisture in the cucumbers. So one slice – in our case the cucumber was about 1/8 inch+ thick. The bread used was some very, very soft white sandwich bread we bought here in our local village at a Japanese bakery called Cream Pan. They make the softest and fluffiest white sandwich bread. Kind of like Weber’s bread, but a whole lot more tasty. With the cucumber in place the other bread slice was very carefully positioned, then I gently – oh so gently – cut the sandwich into 4 squares, trying not to cut into any of the cucumbers.

The sandwiches went onto a nice serving tray and Sara covered the platter with a dampened tea towel, which kept them very fresh for the hour prior to the start of the tea. We didn’t refrigerate them – but there wasn’t anything like mayo in anything, so that worked just fine.

prosciutto_pea_puree_sandwichesThe other tea sandwich was just okay. I probably wouldn’t make them again, but it was certainly different. Sara really wanted sandwiches containing some prosciutto, so the website suggestion said: Pea-Prosciutto: puree 1/2 cup thawed frozen peas with 1 tablespoon each olive oil and water in a blender; season with salt and pepper. Spread inside a split loaf of focaccia and fill with prosciutto and shaved parmesan. Cut into squares. 

My suggestion had been to use ham instead of prosciutto, but Sara really wanted the prosciutto, so I bought some imported less-salty prosciutto from our local Italian deli. Sara made the pea puree, which was cinchy easy. I spread the bread with the pea puree, then we took small strips of the prosciutto and layered about 3 ultra-thin slices on each sandwich, added some shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano (very thin). My other suggestion to Sara had been that we chop up the prosciutto instead of laying it in strips (ribbons, really) in the sandwich, but Sara wanted to SEE the prosciutto. Cutting this sandwich was more of a challenge because of the grain of the meat, cut the long way it was easy, but across the prosciutto grain was difficult. For sure use a serrated knife, like a bread knife and use a gentle repetitive sawing motion. Even she agreed later that it would have been easier to eat if we’d chopped it up. Prosciutto has a tendency to be kind of stringy – very do-able if you’re eating a slice out of hand, but not so easy when it pulls apart a dainty tea sandwich! But overall, we were unimpressed with this sandwich. It needed something moist in it – like a thin-thin slice of tomato maybe, or lettuce? And I think I would have added some mayo to the pea puree. I don’t think anybody went back for seconds on this sandwich, but that’s mostly because the cucumber one was SO delicious.

What’s GOOD: well, the herb butter just “made” the sandwich, I think. And the combo of the so very soft thin white bread [it was so perfect for this . . . too bad white bread isn’t all that healthy!] with the crispy cucumber slice, and the lemon zest. It was all just fantastic!
What’s NOT: nothing at all – just know you can’t make this very far in advance – an hour or so. Enlist someone’s help with it so if you’re the hostess you can be doing other things like stirring up scones and boiling water for the tea, setting the table, etc.

printer-friendly PDF – created using Cute PDF Writer, not Adobe
MasterCook 5+ import file – right click to save file (remember where), run MC, File|Import

* Exported from MasterCook *

Cucumber Herb-Butter Tea Sandwiches

Recipe By: foodnetwork.com
Serving Size: 10
Description: Makes 20 small quarter-sandwiches.

10 slices sandwich bread — (very fresh)
1/2 cup unsalted butter — softened to room temp
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh chives — finely minced
2 teaspoons fresh thyme — finely minced
1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
Salt to taste
20 slices cucumber — cut slightly more than 1/8″ thick

NOTES: Advice – make one small sandwich to get the proportion of butter- to bread – to cucumber, until it tastes right.
1. In a small bowl combine the butter, chives, thyme, lemon zest and salt. If time permits, allow this to sit for 2-3 hours (or overnight) to blend flavors.
2. Cut crusts off the bread. Working on one sandwich at a time (to keep the bread ultra fresh) spread a generous amount of the herb butter on one side of each piece of bread.
3. Place 4 cucumber slices on the sandwich, separated and not overlapping. Place second piece of bread over and very gently slice the sandwich into 4 small squares.
4. Place sandwiches on a serving platter and cover with a moderately damp tea towel for up to about an hour. Re-dampen the towel if it dries out too much.
Per Serving: 230 Calories; 11g Fat (40.1% calories from fat); 6g Protein; 31g Carbohydrate; 5g Dietary Fiber; 25mg Cholesterol; 163mg Sodium.

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  1. hddonna

    said on May 11th, 2013:

    I bet that lemon really adds some zest to this sandwich :). I do love cucumber sandwiches, and these sound so good, I’m not going to wait for my next tea party to make them. My daughter-in-law and baby granddaughter are coming for a visit this afternoon, and I think she and I will have our own little private tea party on Monday! Your daughter’s tea party sounds lovely–what a treat for everyone!
    Thanks for a super idea.

    You’re so welcome. Hope you enjoy this version as much as we did. . . carolyn t

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