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Just finished Leaving Blythe River: A Novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde. Almost a page turner. When one uses the phrase “coming of age,” it usually means (I think) love and loss/boyfriend/girlfriend, and in this case it’s somewhat that way. When Ethan, a 17-year old boy and his mother come home unexpectedly to find dad and his young secretary in a compromising position, all hell breaks loose. Separation happens instantly and just as his father moves out, his mother has to go take care of her aging mother. Ethan’s too young to be left in the NYC apartment alone, so Mom sends son to the father who is escaping from the world in Wyoming, living in a primitive A-frame house, and continuing his daily 20+ mile running journeys. Ethan and his father are barely speaking. They live in the middle of nowhere. Ethan feels betrayed by his father in every possible way, and somewhat by his mother for forcing him to live with his father for a temporary period. Then his father doesn’t return one day from his run. The authorities do a cursory search, but they are under the impression the dad wants to “get lost” on purpose. Ethan, although he thinks he doesn’t care, really does. What happens next is best left to you reading this book. Very interesting people (kind of loners) enter the picture and off they go to search. So worth reading.

The Girl With No Name by Diney Costelhoe. What a good book. Perhaps you’ve read before about the huge numbers of German refugee children who were sent to England before Hitler closed down any exits. This is a novel about one particular young girl, who is devastated when her mother puts her on one of the boats. She ends up in London, in an orphanage kind of place, and is eventually placed with a childless couple. She speaks no English. They speak no German, but they manage soon enough. Lisa (who eventually becomes Charlotte) is so homesick. She’s bullied at school, because most people and children don’t want any Germans there. A boy steps up to protect her, and as she grows up, she’s attracted to him. She shouldn’t be – he’s also German and from her own home town. He’s not a good match for her. You live with her through the blitz during all those war years and during one attack, she’s badly injured and loses her memory (and no ID on her). Through a series of mishaps she ends up in a village far from London, with a spinster woman who does eventually come to love her very much – they name her Charlotte and Charlotte she becomes. She goes to school there, still longing, though, for her mother and brother and her London foster family too. Then when she’s 16 she returns to London to help at the orphanage where she was originally placed and tries to find her foster parents. The story goes on from there, with the boy/man who “wants” her, the bad boy, and a good boy/man she befriends in the village in the country. Eventually she regains her memory. SUCH a good read.

The Girl with Seven Names by Hyanseo Lee. If you, like me, know little about North Korea and how it came to be what it is today, you’ve got to read this book. It’s a memoir written by a young woman who escaped from North Korea about 9 years ago. Her journey – and I mean JOURNEY – is harrowing, frightening, amazing, heart-rendering all at the same time. She chronicles the lives of the Kims (Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il to current Kim Jong Un), shares the strict propaganda that surrounds every North Korean citizen, the poverty and hunger, as well as the underground black market for food and goods. It took her awhile to get from North Korea, to China and eventually to South Korea, where she currently lives. She’s well educated and speaks English quite well. She was invited to be a speaker at a TED talk – you know about those, right? TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a media organization which posts talks online for free distribution, under the slogan “ideas worth spreading.” I listen to them as  podcasts now and then. Always very educational, if sometimes over my head when it gets very technical. She works diligently for human rights now, doing her best to help other North Koreans escape. You owe it to yourself to read this book.

Also just finished reading The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian. Another WOW book. I’ve always liked the author – many years ago I read his book, Midwives and really liked it. Don’t confuse this book with the one I recently read, The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas that I reviewed recently. I think we read it in one of my book groups. He’s a brilliant writer, and this one has a lot of characters and twists. It’s a novel, but based on a lot of truth regarding the Armenian genocide. Most of the book takes place in Aleppo, Syria with some good Samaritan folk trying to help rescue people (mostly children) following the forced long marches the Turks made prodding the Turkish Armenians to exit their country. But it also jumps to near present day as a family member is trying to piece together obscure parts of her grandparents’ former lives there. She uncovers some hidden truths (many survivors of the genocide never-ever-ever wanted to talk about it) and a bit more about her Armenian heritage. A riveting book – I could hardly put it down. Lots to discuss for a book club read. I simply must read more of Bohjalian’s books (he’s written many).

The Good Widow: A Novel by Lisa Steinke. All I can say is “wow.” In a general sense, this book is based on the premise of The Pilot’s Wife. But this one has some totally different twists and turns. A young wife is met at the door by police, informing her that her husband has died in an auto accident. Then she finds out he died in Hawaii – not Kansas, where she thought he was, on business. Then she finds out there was a woman in the car. Then she meets the fiance of the woman passenger and the two of them embark on a fact-finding mission in Hawaii to discover the truth. Well, I’m just sayin’ . . . the plot thickens. And thickens. And thickens clear up to the last few pages. Hang onto your seat. A really, really good, suspenseful read.

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 Novel by 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.


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.


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
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
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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