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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 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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