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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 21st, 2013.

rum_pound_cake

Do you remember when I mentioned, after being on our recent trip to the Pacific Northwest, eating a fantastic piece of cake when we visited The Willows Inn, on Lummi Island. Tender slices of this cake (I thought it was a pound cake) were sitting next to the urns of coffee in the lobby, and as we checked out, our last morning there, having not had any breakfast yet, I took a slice. And thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

After we got back home, I emailed my friend Jerianne about our trip – and about the cake (because she loves to bake too) she just took the bull by the horns – she has a lot more gutsiness than I do – and picked up the phone, called the Inn and asked for the recipe. And they SENT IT to her! Oh my gosh. This was a couple of months ago now, and at the time I had just made a pound cake (in my feeble attempt to make some kind of a tender one from an online recipe) I thought I’d wait awhile before making this.

WELL! First thing is the chef called this a rum cake. Remember, I thought it was a pound cake. But having made it, I really think it has the texture of a chiffon cake, but those are made with oil, not butter. Since my head just tries to understand the chemistry, I dug out several of my baking cookbooks, and found the answers  (mostly) in the Sur la Table cookbook, The Art & Soul of Baking by Cindy Mushet. This type of cake is called an egg-separated sponge cake. However, this one differs from the standard because it has quite a bit of butter in the egg  yolk batter. Most sponge cakes have little to no fat in them and their rising relies on the air incorporated in the egg yolks and whites. They derive their fat from the egg yolks themselves. But if it were truly a sponge cake it would have NO added fat. So that’s why it’s a kind of a combination of a standard butter cake and the egg-separated sponge cake.

Good, we have that settled now! (Maybe I should have been a chemist?) In the process of getting ready to make this I did rearrange the writing of the recipe, and clarified some of the instructions a bit, and added in my suggestions here and there too. The recipe was sent with ingredient weights rather than volume, and I’ve left it that way (and added in suggestions on approximate volume). I do think this is one of those kinds of recipes that will help if you use your scale. As elaborate as this is – well maybe elaborate isn’t the right word – it’s time consuming for sure – you don’t want to mess up on the weights and measures!

The batter has 3 parts – (1) the dry part (cake flour, and sifted at that!); (2) the egg yolk part; and (3) the meringue (egg white) part. Once all of those parts are prepared, it’s combined into a billowy, frothy batter and baked.

The recipe, in one area mentioned loaf pans. In another sentence it mentioned a tube pan, so I’m surmising that you could use either. I included instructions for both, although I only made it in a tube pan. Based on my recollection of the slice I ate at the Inn, I think theirs was made in loaf pans. The recipe indicated 45 minutes in the oven. Well, when I checked at 45 minutes in, the batter was still very jiggly and wet. My heart sank – I thought I’d most likely messed it up somehow, and even went back to the recipe to make sure I’d not forgotten something. No, it looked okay. I set the timer for another 15 minutes. I tested it with an instant read thermometer, my Thermapen, and it was only about 180°F. Another 10 minutes and it got to about 195°F. Each time, of course, the oven loses heat, so I have no idea exactly how many minutes it would take in one straight bake – but certainly a lot more than 45 minutes. Perhaps in loaf pans? I don’t know. Eventually it reached 200°F and I removed it from the oven.

What I learned was that the cake is very fragile – and in making a tender kind of cake – it would be very easy to break or crack it. I was fortunate that mine stayed together. Unintentionally, I did leave a bit of the cake on the tube-pan bottom, but not enough to make any difference. The cake must be left to cool to room temp, then you remove it from the pan(s). The recipe was specific – the cake needs to sit for a day (overnight) before slicing. The cake, right out of the pan, is very VERY moist and with the meringue batter as part of it, the outside edges were a bit sticky, so if you tried to slice it at that point, I think it would tear or rip. That must be why it needs to rest overnight – by enclosing it in foil the outside edges all softened.

I used a knife and an offset spatula to make sure the cake was separated from the pan. The physical act of removing it from the pan – well that was a bit of a juggling act – I used my outstretched and splayed fingers and my forearm to gently tip the cake out, then righted it very quickly and let it sit. Meanwhile I had a huge piece of foil ready, and some additional rum. Some is spread on the bottom of the foil (otherwise it would stick, I suppose), then you place the cake on top, then brush the top and edges with more rum (maybe about 2-3 T.). It’s all sealed up in the foil and left to sit.

Next day I just couldn’t wait until our dinner to see if the cake tasted like I remember. We were having guests and this was dessert. What if it was a completely bust? I might have to fix some other kind of dessert on short notice. I needn’t have worried – the cake was absolutely just as I remembered. (Later note: I made this a couple of weeks ago and put part of it in the freezer. I was trying to find something else, pulled out a little package of these, defrosted it. Oh my. So delicious!) This leads directly into my ranking system . . .

What’s GOOD: there is absolutely nothing about this cake that isn’t good (fabulous is more like it), IMHO. It has texture (oh so very tender) and moisture (it almost drips with it) and sugar and mellowness. Everything about this cake makes it a winner. I served it with whipped cream and some fresh plums that I’d simmered in port wine. If you want to get the full impact of the cake, serve it plain, or maybe with just a little bit of whipped cream. A definite five-star winner in my book.

What’s NOT: the only thing I can say is that it does take a bit of time to make – there are numerous steps and you’ll dirty up a lot of dishes in the process. But it’s worth the effort and the elbow grease (you can ask my DH about that – he did have to wash everything). If you’ve never made a sponge cake before, it might seem a bit intimidating. Just make sure you have the butter and eggs at room temp and follow the directions. Don’t over mix anything.

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Rum Cake (aka Egg-Separated Rum Sponge Cake with Butter)

Recipe By: The Willows Inn, Lummi Island, Washington
Serving Size: 24

300 grams cake flour — (approx 2 3/4 cups)
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
EGG YOLK MIXTURE:
300 grams unsalted butter — (about 1 1/3 cups = 2 cubes + 5 1/2 T) room temperature
285 grams superfine sugar — (for the yolk mixture) (about 1 3/8 cups)
9 large egg yolks — at room temperature
3 tablespoons milk
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons rum
EGG WHITE MIXTURE (MERINGUE):
6 large egg whites — at room temperature
285 grams superfine sugar — (for egg whites) (about 1 3/8 cups)
Extra rum for brushing the cake (about 2-3 T.)

Notes: the recipe indicated using either 2 loaf pans or 1 tube pan. If using loaf pans, check the baking time – might be less time – or perhaps the 45 minutes. The rum is barely distinguishable in this cake – i.e. there is no flashy rum flavor.
1. Preheat oven to 325°F. Butter and flour tube pan. If using two loaf pans, butter and flour and (I suggest you) add a parchment sling. Sift dry ingredients; set aside.
2. EGG YOLK MIXTURE: With a mixer, cream butter and sugar together using the paddle blade. Add sugar, a little at a time. (If you don’t have a mixer with paddle attachment, whisk by hand the butter and sugar in a mixing bowl until light and fluffy.)
3. Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating after each addition.
4. Add milk, rum and lemon juice into the egg yolk mixture.
5. EGG WHITE/MERINGUE MIXTURE: Whip egg whites until foamy using an electric mixer. Add sugar a little at a time, while continuing to whip at medium speed until the mixture is stiff and satiny. Don’t over mix.
6. Add 1/3 of the meringue into egg yolk mixture, alternately with flour, starting with the meringue and ending with the meringue – add in this order: meringue – flour – meringue – flour – meringue. Mixture will seem stiff during the flour addition, but will soften and smooth out when you add the next amount of meringue. At the end, just mix until you can’t see any streaks of meringue or egg yolk mixture.
7. Pour into the prepared tube pan and bake for approximately 45-60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. (When I baked it in a tube pan it took 1 hour 15 minutes.) Or, use an instant thermometer and bake until it reaches 200°F. Set cake in its pan(s) on a rack to cool completely. The cake is VERY fragile at this point. Only after it has rested overnight does it settle down and will allow slicing. The cake is very moist and wet – and because of the meringue in it, it has a sticky consistency on the edges, so if you try to slice it, the cake will tear. That’s why you must let it cool and rest.
8. Run a knife around the inside edge of the pan (and for the tube pan use an offset spatula to separate the cake from the center tube flat bottom). Gently turn the pan over onto your oustretched hand and forearm and set right side up on the rack. Prepare a large piece of aluminum foil large enough to seat up the cake. Using a pastry brush, brush the surface of the sheet with rum. Place the cake on top of the sheet, on top of the rum. Brush the cake with additional rum. Wrap the cake with the foil sheet. Serve next day. Use a serrated knife to cut slices and do it very gently.
Per Serving: 259 Calories; 12g Fat (42.7% calories from fat); 3g Protein; 34g Carbohydrate; trace Dietary Fiber; 107mg Cholesterol; 24mg Sodium.

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