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Just finished The Letter by Kathyrn Hughes. It’s a very intricate tale. At first it’s about Tina, a battered wife [at which point I paused and wondered if I wanted to read any further, but I’m glad I did]. She tries to get the courage to leave her husband. Then enters the letter she finds in a suit pocket in the thrift shop where she volunteers. It’s old – sealed and stamped, but never mailed. Then you learn about Crissie, decades earlier, a young pregnant girl who is sent off to Ireland to a distant relative by her father, then to a rigid (meaning horrible) convent [the book takes place mostly in Manchester, England and in rural Ireland]. The letter is addressed to her. Jump forward decades and William, the adopted child Crissie gave up, tries to find his birth mother. William meets Tina in Ireland [a serendipitous moment] as she’s trying to find the woman to whom the letter is addressed. This book is the #2 best seller on Amazon at the moment. It’s a riveting tale and I really enjoyed it.

Read Grace Unshakled, by Irene Huising. From Amazon’s page, it says: “In the year 2025, 17-year-old Grace Duncan finds herself in shackles because of her faith in Christ. An obedient daughter and stellar student, doing time in jail was never on her mental radar, despite the changes in religious laws [this takes place here in the United States] over the past few years. Through twists and turns in circumstances, Grace and a small band of Christians in Newport Beach, California begin a journey to discover what it means to follow Christ with unwavering faith in the midst of increasing persecution. Facing the potential loss of all her hopes and dreams, would Christ be enough?” We read this for one of my book clubs, and it’s a scary thought about what it could mean if we take God out of our country. The author is a friend of a friend and she attended our book club meeting to share about how she came to write this book. I don’t often share my faith here on my website, but this book made me stop and think about the direction our government is going, removing more and more our ability to worship God. Or to worship in any religion. Will this book ever make waves in the book world? Probably not. My copy may be a pre-edited version, as it contained numerous typos and formatting errors. But they didn’t detract from the subject, just the cosmetics. The book doesn’t come to a resolution; in fact it leaves you hanging, as some books do. It was intentional (obviously), but left me wondering about the “end of the story.”

Also just finished reading The Muralist: A Novel by Shapiro. It tells the story of a young woman, an artist, who was part of the U.S.’s WPA mural project from the 1930s-40s (she is fiction, the WPA is not). As with so many artists, even today, they live in abject poverty through much of their lives. This woman, though, had family in France, desperately trying to escape before Hitler’s henchmen rousted them into concentration camps. The story, a bit of a mystery but not of the mystery-genre, is about Alizée Benoit, this young painter, who slightly captivates Eleanor Roosevelt’s help. It also skips into current time when the painter’s great-niece uncovers paintings she believes were painted by her aunt. The painter had disappeared into thin air in 1940, and her relative tries desperately to find out what happened to her. It’s a really good story including such Abstract Expressionist painters as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner well-woven into the narrative. It keeps you guessing right up to the end. A good read. The author also wrote The Art Forger: A Novel a few years ago.

Read The German Girl: A Novel by Correa. It chronicles the story of a wealthy German Jewish family in Berlin, as the Nazis arrive and make life a living hell. The family is lucky (I guess you could say this) to be allowed to purchase passage on the M.S. St. Louis, a passenger liner, to take them to “the Americas.” The destination is actually Cuba. The story is told from two voices – the teenage daughter in this story, and from a current-day distant family member who is trying to learn about her ancestry. Of the 900+ passengers on the ship, only a few were allowed to disembark since the Cuban President decided he needed more money to accept them. Most families had no money left, as the Reich had taken nearly all of their assets. The daughter and her very eccentric mother were allowed to stay in Cuba.  The remaining passengers are rejected by the U.S. too, and eventually return to Europe, where most of the Jews end up dying in concentration camps. The story goes back and forth from the 1939 journey to current day as the link between the two women is slowly revealed. I had a tough time sometimes, tracking the people in this book, but the story was very riveting. It’s based on facts about the ship (see Wikipedia link above if you’re interested). A shameful chapter in history.

Recently finished reading a magnificent historical novel. Not new. Philippa Gregory has been a favorite author of mine for a couple of decades. You may remember her most famous book, The Other Boleyn Girl, published some years ago. I thought that was a really great book. I’ve read other books by Gregory, but most recently I read The King’s Curse (The Plantagenet and Tudor Novels). The time period is the 1450s to 1541, mostly under the rule of King Henry VIII, the infamous womanizer and wife/Queen-killer. The man who cursed Rome (the Pope) – he wanted his first marriage annulled because Queen Catherine couldn’t produce a living male heir. And subsequently made himself the head of the church in England in order to do so. It was a Catholic country at the time. This story (it’s fiction, but woven with intricate historical detail) is from the voice of Margaret of York (a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine),  who was a Plantagenet in her own right (which is key to the later events in the book). Certainly I’ve read other novels over the years that dealt with Henry VIII, but not with this much breadth of info. What a wicked, sinful man he was. And did I say tyrant. Wow.  I could hardly put it down, through its nearly 600 pages. In the author’s notes at the end, she shares relatively recent medical info that suggests Henry probably suffered from a rare problem, Kell positive blood type, which can cause miscarriages, stillbirths and infant deaths IF the mother has the more common Kell negative blood type. And that in his later years, he may have had McLeod syndrome, a disease only found in Kell positive individuals. Around the age of 40 it causes physical degeneration and personality changes resulting in paranoia, depression and irrational behavior. All of those King Henry VIII had in spades. If you read the book, you might read the author’s notes (at the end) before reading the book. If you like historical fiction (I love any book about English history) you’ll just love this one. It’s interesting, though, as I think about the many books I’ve read covering this era in English history, that each book presented its hero/heroine as the most innocent and worthy individual vying for the crown of England. I remember thinking Anne Boleyn was dealt with so badly during her life (and certainly her beheading), and yet reading this book, I completely reversed my opinion. Anne Boleyn was called a wh–e by most people during the years she shared Henry’s bed. The “curse” from the title pertains to Henry’s inability or the curse on the Tudors, that caused him to fail in producing a male heir. In any case, none of Henry’s wives should have died for it – likely it was all Henry’s fault anyway. Just read this one, okay?

Also recently read News of the World: A Novel by Paulette Jiles. One of my book-reading friends said this is one of the best books she’s ever read in her life. That kind of praise required me to read it and I just LOVED it. It’s about an old man (a widower), who was a former military captain, during the 1800s, who goes from town to town to read out loud the current news of the world (yes, there WAS such a free-lance job.) Newspapers didn’t make it to small towns back then. By chance he’s asked to take a 10-year old girl to East Texas to reunite with relatives. The child had been captured by an Indian tribe as a baby (her family was killed in the raid), raised by the Kiowa and as was often the case of such children, she wants nothing to do with leaving. So the “hero” in this story has his hands full. And yet, they learn to trust each other on the journey. Reaching the destination, there are lots of complications (of course!). This book is truly a wonderful read – I didn’t want it to end. The author has a gift of description and the severe dangers and difficulties of an old (wild) west horse and wagon journey. The relationship is tender. Now I’ve got to investigate the author’s other books, of which there are many. Just read this one first!

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 Desserts, on November 15th, 2013.

hazelnut_shortcakes

Can I just tell you – please make this. It is really extra-special in the taste department. But then, I love hazelnuts. And then I also love whipped cream (who doesn’t?). And the plum compote with the hazelnuts somehow is one of those magical pairings. Just make it.

Some of my friends – and my friend Cherrie’s friends – laugh at us – why do we need to go to cooking classes, since we both are pretty darned good home cooks? Neither of us has professional training. Neither of us really lacks for ideas. Neither of us lack cookbooks to get even more ideas. Neither of us dreads cooking. So why do we go? Well, sometimes it’s just to get us thinking outside of our own boxes.

We also go to classes because we’re close friends, and we enjoy spending time together, of course, but we always – and I mean always – learn something. You’d really think we would be past the stage where we could still learn, but yet, we do. And of course, the kitchen gadget inventors love to tweak us – about needing a new something to augment our already bulging kitchen utensil drawers.

kitchenThis class was in a private home in an area near us called Nellie Gale Ranch. Seeing this house, in itself would have been a reason to go to the cooking class – I think the home (kitchen pictured above) was THE most beautiful home I’ve ever visited in my life – it was decorated in my style and every step I took, ever hallway I entered, every turn I made I’d find some new pretty thing – a niche, a decorator item, an arch, a room just exquisitely appointed. The hostess, Karen, designed the house herself – I mean everything – the architecture of it, every wall, doorway, bathroom, and she paid attention to minute detail. She also designed all the interior décor and does all of it herself. I was mightily impressed. The granite in the kitchen was honed first, then “leathered.” I’d never seen that before. Note the lights under the toe kick area. Note the windows behind the 2 cupboards on the far wall – so natural light brightens the entire room. There were 3 sinks in the kitchen, 2 of them farmstyle fronts. She has indoor table seating for 32 people (I counted) although 8 of those are in an enclosed solarium back 20 feet or so behind where I was standing taking the above photo. She has 2 laundry rooms, 5 or 6 fireplaces. Oh my, I could go on and on and on.

The class was taught by Tarla Fallgatter, who regularly teaches classes to this group Cherrie and I are in. We get together 4 times a year. And had I looked at this recipe in a magazine or even a cookbook, I might not have given it much thought. Nothing in it would have generated any kind of “wow” thoughts. I do like hazelnuts, though. But oh, was this dessert ever delicious. After eating it I concluded that it must be that hazelnuts and plums have a natural affinity – a food chemistry when they’re paired.

hazelnut_shortcakes_coolingThe shortcakes are easy enough – the only caveat there is to NOT overwork the dough. If you do, the shortcakes will get tough. Tarla pressed the dough to about an inch thickness and made very short wedges. She cut them erratically in order to get a short triangle (see photo), not a long tapered one, as she says more often than not that thin, tapered end will fall off when you pick it up to plate it. To make it easier, cut rounds with a cutter instead. And really, it makes no-never-mind what shape it’s in anyway – cut squares if you want. If you make them thinner they’ll be more crispy. If you make them thicker than an inch, they’ll be more soft. The 1-inch one was absolutely perfect.

Plums happen to be in season right now, and they just were so perfect for this – different too. Don’t we first think strawberries? If the plums you buy are not ripe/soft, you may need to cook them awhile longer – you want them to be tender (not mush, though). Add the raspberries at the last minute – otherwise they’ll completely fall apart. You’ll not even know they’re in the fruit mixture.

When I looked at the nutrition/calorie count of this, I gasped. It must be the volume of whipped cream. Perhaps you could make do with 1 cup of heavy cream – that would cut down some. But the shortcakes do need an ample amount of whipped cream – it’s more than just decoration here.

What’s GOOD: there isn’t anything about this that ISN’T good in my opinion. The hazelnuts are different in a shortcake and you definitely can taste them. Toasting them enhances their flavor so much. The plums were piquant and sweet at the same time; mixed with the whipped cream the flavor mixture in my mouth just . . . well, it was sinfully good.
What’s NOT: absolutely nothing, except the calories!

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Hazelnut Shortcakes with Plum & Raspberry Compote

Recipe By: Tarla Fallgatter, cooking instructor
Serving Size: 6

SHORTCAKES:
3/4 cup hazelnuts — toasted and skinned
1/3 cup sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 cup heavy cream
4 ounces unsalted butter — cold, cut into pieces
PLUM COMPOTE:
7 whole plums — ripe, sliced 1/2 inch thick
3/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup fresh raspberries
TOPPING:
1 tablespoon heavy cream
2 teaspoons sugar
WHIPPED CREAM:
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 cup creme fraiche
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1. SHORTCAKES: Preheat oven to 350°F. Coarsely grind hazelnuts and sugar in a food processor and add with flour, salt and baking powder. Pulse in the butter and slowly pour in the cream until the dough comes together. Pulse ONLY until it holds together – stop before the dough wraps itself around the blade.
2. Roll or pat the dough 1-inch thick. Thicker will produce softer shortcakes; thinner will be more crisp. Cut into 2 1/2 inch circles, or roll into a circle and cut wedges. Circles will hold together better; because the shortcakes are so tender, the ones cut into wedges may fall apart at the tapered end. Place shortcakes on a baking sheet, brush the tops with the TOPPING mixture then sprinkle with sugar. Bake them until golden brown – about 35 minutes.
3. COMPOTE: Combine plums, sugar and lemon juice in a saute pan and cook over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. Stir in the butter and cook until the sauce thickens (and the plums are cooked through). Stir in the raspberries. Allow mixture to cool to room temp.
4. WHIPPED CREAM: Whip the cream with the sugar and vanilla until it reaches soft peaks. Add creme fraiche and continue to whip until the cream is thick enough (however you prefer it).
4. Split the shortcakes in half horizontally and place the bottom of each shortcake on a plate. Cover the shortcake with some whipped cream and then spoon some of the plum compote on top. Add the shortcake top half and serve.
Per Serving: 893 Calories; 59g Fat (57.6% calories from fat); 9g Protein; 88g Carbohydrate; 4g Dietary Fiber; 151mg Cholesterol; 454mg Sodium.

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