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Just finished reading The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes. What a WONDERFUL book. It opens up a shameful part of America’s past, but one you might not have heard about before this. In the late 1800s thousands of Chinese workers were brought to the West Coast to help with a variety of construction projects and a myriad of other things where laborers were needed. Many settled, married and made a new life for themselves. But suddenly the white population didn’t want them here anymore and they summarily ordered them ALL out of our country. This book chronicles a young Chinese girl, who was on a ship that was supposed to take her family to China, but the ship’s captain decided en route to dump them all overboard, to drown. The girl’s father knew it was going to happen and in order to save her, he threw his daughter off the ship as they were passing Orcas Island (in the San Juan Islands west of Seattle). She was saved. The book switches from that time to current time as a woman is rebuilding her family’s home on Orcas and finds a beautifully embroidered silk Chinese robe sleeve hidden under a stair step. The book is about that sordid past and the young girl’s descendents, and about the woman who is rebuilding. Stunner of a novel. Good for a book club read, I think. It has a reader’s guide at the back with good questions for book groups.

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 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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