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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 Desserts, on August 17th, 2007.

germ_choc_chip_cake_walnuts
Probably most of you have heard and/or made a German Chocolate Cake. You know the kind – two layers with a coconut brown sugar filling and frosting. A very popular cake back in the 70’s, as I recall. This ISN’T one of those cakes. And I don’t know the origin of this. I’ve never seen it in any of the cookbooks that come from the cake mix craze, either years ago and recently.

germ_choc_chip_cake_walnut_bakedsA family friend gave me this recipe way back then, but bears no resemblance either in taste or appearance to the typical layer cake. Although it IS made with a cake mix. This is baked in a 9×13 pan and requires little more than mixing up the cake mix box. Cake mixes were introduced to the world in the 1960’s or 70’s. What a boon they were to the home cook. And my recollection is that nearly every homemaker was baking all varieties of cakes from the mixes. Back then it was just the standard white, chocolate, German chocolate, and marble. Later came lemon and other mixes for brownies, angel food, etc. And later yet, the ones with pudding inside. So if you can find it, use a German Chocolate mix without any additions to it. Just the plain, regular stuff. But actually, the pudding inside works just fine too.

Back then, it took a year or two before cooks began to come up with variations on cake mixes – not even mixing them up like a cake, but using them as streusel on top of fruit, or combining different ones. And it was a year or two before they introduced the frosting in a can. I never liked that stuff – way too sweet for me and cloying.

So, when my mother’s friend Mary served the cake that day (there were four of us who had a Mah Jong group back then and each time we met, the hostess served lunch and dessert), I just went crazy for this cake. It was light and flavorful, but not overly rich. No frosting. But then I’m a nut when it comes to chocolate anyway. There were some chocolate chips in it and nuts. And this elusive sprinkle on the top. It was so simple – just some cinnamon and sugar.

In years following that, my former husband and I used to go camping in the Colorado mountains (we lived in Denver then) during the summer months. This cake was a staple in the camping or picnic category for me. My daughter Dana has always loved this cake, and she makes it herself now, but for many, many years, growing up, this was her most requested cake for her birthday.

This recipe came to the forefront of my mind this week because my friend Cherrie phoned me a couple of days ago and asked, since they’re going cabin camping this weekend, if I had a different recipe for garlic bread (I do, will post at a later date) and when she mentioned needing something for dessert my mind leaped to this cake. This cake is so EASY, and I’ve yet to have anyone not like it. You can serve it with vanilla ice cream, but it’s not necessary, really.
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German Chocolate Chip Cake (from a cake mix)

Recipe: From Mary Wilfert, a friend of my mother’s, about 1970.
Servings: 12
COOK’S NOTES: Cake mixes were new in the 1970’s, so almost every dessert was made with them. Once I had this cake, it became one of our family’s favorites. In fact, my daughter Dana usually requests this cake on her birthday. I have used regular chocolate cake mix if I didn’t have the German chocolate variety.

1 pkg German chocolate cake mix
12 oz chocolate chips
1/2 c walnuts — chopped, or pecans
4 tsp sugar
1 tsp cinnamon (and a dash or two of nutmeg too, if you’d like)

1. Heat oven to temperature indicated on package.
2. Prepare cake mix as specified on the box. Pour into a greased & floured 9 x 12 inch cake pan. Sprinkle the chocolate chips and nuts over the top of the batter. Then sprinkle cinnamon and sugar on top of that. Bake as directed on cake box and set on a wire rack to cool.
3. Cake will keep in a sealed cake tin for several days, if it lasts that long.
Per Serving: 289 Calories; 14g Fat (40.4% calories from fat); 4g Protein; 43g Carbohydrate; 3g Dietary Fiber; 0mg Cholesterol; 189mg Sodium.

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  1. Kristen

    said on August 20th, 2007:

    This is making my mouth water. I love cake. I love chocolate. I think I’ll have to make this very soon!

  2. Anonymous

    said on August 20th, 2007:

    This is the best cake EVER!!!! Thanks mom, for putting some of the oldies but goodies on your blog. Hope you all enjoy this cake as much as I did, (DO!)

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