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Just finished reading 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 Cookies, on December 18th, 2013.

mexican_wedding_cookiesEver made Mexican Wedding Cookies? Or Russian Tea Cakes. They’re one in the same. If you’re interested in the history of this powdered-sugar-puff cookie, read below.

jackie_cherrie_powdered_sugarMy friends Jackie and Cherrie were at my house a good part of the day recently. Baking cookies. We’ve been doing this for several Decembers – we each bring some stuff, and I often make the batter for one or two cookies before the big day. This year we made cardamom cookies, chocolate almond saltine bars, cranberry noels, and these, the Mexican Tea Cookies (or Cakes), a new recipe for our Christmas repertoire. Cherrie arrived with a printout in hand –from this recipe at TLC (Discovery Channel). These are SUCH a simple cookie to make. Here’s a bit of history about the cookie (from ehow.com):

The term “Mexican wedding cookie/cake” did not appear in the American vocabulary until the early 1950s, after which the term appeared in virtually every basic baking cookbook. At the same time, recipes for “Russian teacakes” began disappearing from the same books. Russian teacakes and Mexican wedding cookies are virtually the same thing in ingredients, method and final product. Many historians speculate that the term Mexican wedding cookie/cake was used to replace the term Russian teacake due to the strained U.S. relationship with Russia at the time (the Cold War).

Aside from Mexican wedding cookies, biscochitos and Russian teacake, the crunchy buttery ball also goes by the name polvorones in Spain, butterballs, Swedish teacakes, moldy mice, pecan sandies, Danish almond cookies, Finnish butter strips, Napoleon hats and melting moments. The same cookies (same ingredients and method but with different shapes) go by different names [in] various regions around the world, and it is impossible to state who was the first to pioneer the recipe.

mex_wedding_cookies_hotIn that write-up above, I particularly like that these cookies are called “moldy mice.” I read online at one website that many believe it was Russian nuns who went to Mexico and began making the cookies every Christmas season or for a special occasion like a wedding. Hence they were transformed into Mexican Wedding Cakes.

What they are, are easy to make. You mix up butter, powdered sugar, finely minced pecans and some flour, and that’s about it. The dough is chilled a bit to make it easier to roll into balls. With 2 of us working at it, that didn’t take all that long. The cookies are baked for 20 minutes, then rolled over and over and over and ever-so gently in powdered sugar.

In the photo above are the cookies right out of the oven. The pecans gives the cookies a little color plus the butter too. Some recipes call for shortening, but we wanted to use a butter one sincemex_wedding_cookies_in_sugar we think they taste better.

After baking, the hot little cookies are put into a bowl of powdered sugar and delicately – and I do mean gently –  rolled around in the sugar, lightly pressing the sugar into the cookies. They must be allowed to cool in the sugar, periodically rolling them. That’s why Jackie and Cherrie have sugar-coated hands in the photo at top.

After cooling completely they were gently laid onto sheets of foil. I put mine (since I was at home) in a sealing Tupperware container. They’ll keep that way for a couple of weeks, I think.

mex_wedding_cookies_closeupWhat’s GOOD: there’s nothing quite like the extra light and crumbly texture of Mexican Wedding Cookies, and I always try to eat them over a sink or a large napkin, as it’s so very hard to eat these without getting powdered sugar all over everything you’re wearing. These cookies are no different. Hence it’s a good idea to make SMALL cookies – that way the entire cookie can go into your mouth without biting it in half. Easy to make – the only tedious part is the gently rolling in the powdered sugar. That takes some patience.
What’s NOT: nothing at all – these are delicious. The only intrinsic problem is the fragile nature of these cookies – it’s hard not to crumble them in the sugar-rolling process. I broke 2 cookies while I was helping with the first batch of these (we made 2). Only solution was to eat them 🙂  !

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Mexican Wedding Cookies

Recipe By: From “How Stuff Works”
Serving Size: 48

1 cup pecans — pieces or halves (or almonds)
1 cup unsalted butter — (2 sticks) softened
2 cups powdered sugar — divided
2 cups all-purpose flour — divided
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/8 teaspoon salt

1. Place pecans in food processor. Process using on/off pulsing action until pecans are ground but not pasty.
2. Beat butter and half the powdered sugar in large bowl with electric mixer at medium speed until light and fluffy. Gradually add half of the flour, vanilla and salt. Beat at low speed until well blended. Stir in remaining flour and ground nuts. Shape dough into ball; wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate 1 hour or until firm.
3. Preheat oven to 350°F. Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Place 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheets.
4. Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until golden brown. Let cookies stand on cookie sheets 2 minutes. The cookies are extremely fragile at this point.
5. Place remaining half of the powdered sugar in 13X9-inch glass dish. Transfer hot cookies, one by one, very carefully, to powdered sugar. Roll cookies in powdered sugar, coating well. (Therefore, you can only make one or two pans at a time.) Let cookies cool in sugar.
6. If desired, sift any remaining powdered sugar over sugar-coated cookies before serving. Store tightly covered at room temperature or freeze up to 1 month.
Per Serving: 88 Calories; 5g Fat (54.5% calories from fat); 1g Protein; 9g Carbohydrate; trace Dietary Fiber; 10mg Cholesterol; 6mg Sodium.

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