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Just finished 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 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 parents were 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 a old 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.

Winter Journey by Diane Armstrong. Have you ever read about forensic dentistry? I sure had not, so I found it fascinating reading. It’s a debut novel for the author, and what a story. Halina, an Australian, with Polish roots, specializes in this obscure profession as a forensic dentist, and is asked to go to Poland, to help identify bone (and tooth) fragments, to put to rest a sad event in the story of this small town, when many, many people (Jews) were murdered. Was it the Nazis? Or was it the local townspeople who disliked the Jews. What a tangled web of intrigue, including Halina’s own mysterious past. I really enjoyed the read. The author does a great job of developing the characters (which I always like). This is no light read if you consider the subject matter, although it IS a novel (but based on fact). Nor is it a spy thriller – it’s more just an historical novel with lots of interesting people throughout. There’s a romance thrown in too, and a whole lot of angst about the discoveries found in the mass grave. But, the subject expanded my knowledge about forensics.

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr. I just LOVED this book. I’ve never been much of a fan of Caravaggio’s paintings, although I’ve seen plenty of them (many are extremely large) in museums around the world. His paintings were dark, often with dark subjects. But as with many of the old masters, occasionally some obscure work surfaces, perhaps credited to another artist, even, that turns out to be one done by “the” master. In this case, Caravaggio. Although this book is written as a novel (with dialogue, etc.) it’s historical through and through. It begins with two young women art scholars, in Italy, who are asked to do a research project. One thing leads to another, and to another. All true.  If you enjoy books about art – I learned some things about the paint and the canvases of the time – you’ll be intrigued as I was.

Eye On the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, by James, McGrath Morris. Each year my AAUW book club reads something related to Black History Month. This is a biography of a woman you’ve probably never heard of, Ethel Payne, and about her life-long journey in journalism, struggling to keep her head above water financially, but staying true to her purposes of telling the truth about the black stories and black racism of the day. Sometimes biographies aren’t all that riveting, but I found this one to be so, and I savored each new chapter. We had a really good discussion of the book, and the ups and downs of Payne’s life, especially during her years as a Washington reporter. You’ll not be sorry to have spent the time reading this book. It’s well-written, as well. I was thrilled when the author, Morris, left a message here on my blog, thanking me (and my group) for reading his book.

H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. This one has been on the best seller list. It’s a memoir about a woman who takes on a personal challenge of taming a wild hawk. Prior to reading this book, I knew next to nothing about the entire subject of hawking, or taming any of the big, wild birds. The book is equally about the writer’s inner journey. She’s a consummate writer, and every page was a joy of words, for me. My only problem is my own – I found it hard, the more time that went by, and the more time the writer spent trying to tame this bird, to scream out “let the bird go.” Perhaps it’s because I spent time in Africa in 2015, seeing animals in the wild, that I felt more for the bird than I did with the writer’s discontent with herself and the taming process. Little did I know what a hard job it is to tame a hawk. I actually didn’t finish the book. It was a book club read, and highly recommended by several of our members. And I ended up not being able to attend the meeting as I had a cold. So perhaps there is some great ending to it that would have made me feel better. I haven’t gone to the end to find out. I just had to stop reading it. But I’m not NOT recommending it. If nothing else, read it for Macdonald’s sublime proficiency with words.

Also read George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution, by Brian Kilmeade and Dan Yaeger. Here’s what it says on amazon: When George Washington beat a hasty retreat from New York City in August 1776, many thought the American Revolution might soon be over. Instead, Washington rallied—thanks in large part to a little-known, top-secret group called the Culper Spy Ring. He realized that he couldn’t defeat the British with military might, so he recruited a sophisticated and deeply secretive intelligence network to infiltrate New York. I won’t exactly call this book a riveting read, but it was interesting. Relating facts that few people knew about, this Culper Spy Ring. It’s a little chunk of American history researched in depth by the authors. An interesting read.

Also read The Little Paris Bookshop: A Novel by Nina George. If you’re an avid reader, you probably have the same kind of longing as I do for a quaint, independently owned bookstore right around the corner. So few exist anymore. This novel is about a very unusual book store, and book store owner. In Paris. On a boat/barge. It’s not a typical book store, and the writer takes you on a journey of discovery about (likely) her own lifetime of book reading. You’ll learn all about a variety of existing books and why they’re a good read. But it’s all cloaked in a story about this book store and the owner. And the customers. Very fun. I’m reviewing it for one of my book clubs next month.

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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