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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 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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