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Just finished reading 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 because 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 a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine, Margaret of York, later titled Countess of Salisbury, but 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, too!

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.

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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