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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 Breads, Brunch, easy, on February 12th, 2014.

apricot_jam_pastry

Oh my goodness, is this ever fantastic. The problems with this are: (1) finding good, tender and rich brioche bread; and (2) keeping your fingers out of the finished pastry. They are just so delicious. The base is a thick slice of brioche bread (the one above is about 1/2 inch thick, maybe just slightly thicker), spread with a ground almond and butter mixture (an almond cream, it’s called), spread with a little bit of apricot jam, some almonds sprinkled on top and baked briefly, then generously sprinkled with powdered sugar.

The other morning we were at one of my book group meetings, at our friend Peggy’s establishment, (Peggy & Gary own it along with their son) Mead’s Green Door Café in old-town Orange. Every other month we meet at their little café and enjoy a latte or cappucino and some lovely treat Peggy has baked while we discuss our current book selection. Peggy and her husband used to own a restaurant in Orange, but sold it a few years ago and bought a derelict building and spent over a year renovating it to the Café it is now. Cute as a bug, Old-world style, country-ish, eclectic, offbeat, catering a lot to the young Chapman University crowd nearby. They serve vegetarian and vegan food only, with usually at least one GF item too. They specialize in breakfast and lunch. Peggy does 90% of the baking. Peggy’s #1 seller (of her pastries) is her sweet potato scone, which is delish also, I can attest!

This little number, which blew me away, is so easy to make. Disclaimer here – I didn’t make the one you see above – Peggy did. But it’s so very easy, I was fairly certain you wouldn’t mind me showing you hers. If I made this now, I’d be gobbling it down. The recipe came from Sunset Magazine (earlier last year). First you must start with good brioche. Maybe one of our local bakeries (like Panera or Corner Bakery) will have it – I’ll have to look. You slice it thick (the recipe said 1-inch; I think Peggy sliced hers closer to 1/2 inch. Anyway, thick brioche. Then you spread the top with a little apricot jam, then a mixture of butter, granulated sugar, salt, egg, and half-and-half that’s been whizzed  up in the food processor. Then the top is sprinkled with almonds and sugar. Baked for 20 minutes or so, sprinkled with powdered sugar. Done. Very easy. Very special.

What’s GOOD: certainly the taste is first and foremost! These things are just delish. Worth making. You can make the almond cream ahead and it will keep for several days. The almond cream makes more than what you’ll use to make 8 – so perhaps cut down on the quantity first time.

What’s NOT: really nothing.

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Files: MasterCook 5+ and MasterCook 14 (click link to open in MC)

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Almond and Jam Pastries

Recipe By: Sunset Magazine, March, 2013
Serving Size: 8

ALMOND CREAM: (you’ll have more than is needed)
1 cup sliced almonds
1/2 cup granulated sugar — divided
2/3 cup unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 large egg
2 tablespoons half and half — or milk
TOASTS:
8 slices brioche — or challah bread, 1/2 in. thick or thicker
1/2 cup apricot jam — or other flavor
2 cups sliced almonds — about 2 T per toast
Powdered sugar

1. Preheat oven to 350°. Whirl 1 cup almonds with 1/4 cup granulated sugar in a food processor until finely ground. Transfer mixture to a bowl.
2. Blend butter and remaining 1/4 cup granulated sugar in a food processor until smooth. Add salt, egg, and half-and-half and pulse just to blend. Add reserved ground almonds and blend until mixture is smooth.
3. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Spread about 1 tbsp. jam, then 2 tbsp. almond cream, on each slice of bread (you’ll have almond cream left over). Sprinkle each with about 2 tbsp. sliced almonds.
4. Bake until almond cream is golden brown and almonds are toasted, about 20 minutes. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.
5. Make ahead: Chill extra almond cream airtight up to 2 weeks and use for making more pastries.
Per Serving (not accurate because you make more almond cream than you’ll use): 831 Calories; 55g Fat (57.6% calories from fat); 20g Protein; 71g Carbohydrate; 5g Dietary Fiber; 141mg Cholesterol; 371mg Sodium.

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