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Just finished reading A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts by Therese Anne Fowler. My friend Ann, from Idaho, brought it with her as we spent a week in Palm Desert. She handed it to me and said I’d really like it. Oh, did I! Loved the book. This book is a novel, but based on the life of Alva Smith Vanderbilt (Belmont). She was nearly destitute (and faking it) when a marriage was proposed for her with William Vanderbilt. There is lots of dialogue in the book, which is made  up, but I’m guessing the author probably read many diary entries of Alva (and the family) to create a very intriguing and readable story. A life of unbelievable privilege. Several children, including one who marries into a titled family in England. You see the inner life of Alva – her day to day busy work, charity work, visiting for afternoon tea, the undercurrent of society’s morals – men were nearly expected to have mistresses or affairs. This was the Victorian Age when sex between and man and a woman was not necessarily, and usually not, passionate. I loved this book from page one until the end.  She was a suffragette of the first order. Having read the book, I have a lot of admiration for her, even though she lived in the highest echelons of society.

Also read In Falling Snow: A Novel, by Mary-Rose McColl. From amazon: Iris, a young Australian nurse, travels to France during World War I to bring home her fifteen-year-old brother, who ran away to enlist. But in Paris she meets the charismatic Dr. Frances Ivens, who convinces Iris to help establish a field hospital in the old abbey at Royaumont, staffed entirely by women—a decision that will change her life. Seamlessly interwoven is the story of Grace, Iris’s granddaughter in 1970s Australia. Together their narratives paint a portrait of the changing role of women in medicine and the powerful legacy of love. The book  gives you a vivid picture of the state of nursing in WWI, but the story is quite mesmerizing. And there’s a twist almost at the end. Highly recommend.

Also couldn’t put down The Secret Wife by Gill Paul. A long story that begins in war-torn Russia. Cavalry officer Dmitri falls head over heels in love with one of the daughters of Tzar Nicholas. But events intervene, as history tells us. That was 1914. Cut to 2016 when a young woman inherits an ancient cabin in upper New York State and she discovers a jeweled pendant. The two times weave together to make a really riveting story. Lots of Russian history; well written; as I said, couldn’t put it down.

Uncommon Woman. A book about Colonial America, but really the western frontier at that time, which is in western Pennsylvania. The warring native Americans play large in this book. There is a romance, yes, but this book is not “a romance.” It’s more than that – about the hardships of living on the land, away from protection, Tessa and her family struggle to make a living and avoid the angered natives who take revenge when their people are murdered. Clay Tygart is a respected officer/soldier and commands a fort near where Tessa lives. Clay was captured by Lanape Indians when he was a young man, so he straddles both sides of the equation – first hand, he knows how the natives feel, but also his role in the lure of American exploration of the west. The natives wish to preserve their hunting grounds from the encroaching settlers. This book takes place in the mid-1700s I think. Loved it. Not only the history that is brilliantly detailed, even to the summer heat they experience. The crops they raise, the constant fear of attack. And the sweet love that weaves through it. Not a speck of sex in it.

Reading mysteries has never loomed large in my reading life. Occasionally, yes. And some espionage type books. But light mysteries have not intrigued me much. But one of my book clubs had us read Louise Penny’s novel, A Rule Against Murder (Chief Inspector Gamache Novel). The member actually handed out a cheat sheet of the characters in the book (many) and posed several questions of us as we read through it. The cheat sheet really helped. She asked us when (or if) we caught the foreshadowing of the murder culprit (I never did). The book takes place at a lovely inn in Canada and Chief Inspector Gamache (he is quite a character – along with his wife – are vacationing there) when a murder occurs. None of the characters escape the C.I.’s scrutiny. Lois, our book club member, led us through a very thorough and lively discussion of the book. Usually, my complaint about murder mysteries is that they don’t make for good discussion at a book club – but this book was an exception, for sure. Many of my learned book club friends rave about Louise Penny. One told me I should read Still Life next, and probably should have read it before I read this one.

Rachel Hauck is an author I’ve enjoyed reading over the years. Just finished reading The Memory House. It’s about relationships. Love. About family. About secrets. Doesn’t that just describe about 90% of every novel out there these days? Beck is a cop in NYC; a series of events occur and she is forced to take leave. Just then she inherits a house in Florida. She barely remembers the woman who bequeathed the house to her. Then you meet Bruno, a sports agent who will figure large in Beck’s life. Then the book jumps back in time to Everleigh, the woman who owned the house and you learn her story. Really stories of her two husbands. And how do those stories connect to present day. Very sweet book. Not a speck of sex in this one, either.

The Parrot Who Owns Me: The Story of a Relationship by Joanna Burger. Such an interesting book – nonfiction. The author is an ornithologist by profession (and a PhD) and this memoir of sorts is about her Red-Lored Amazon parrot she and her husband own. But no, it’s the parrot who owns her/them.

My Name Is Resolute by Nancy Turner. She’s the author of another book of some renown, These is my Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901 (P.S.). Resolute is what I’m discussing here. A book club friend recommended this book, I immediately bought it on my Kindle. I could NOT put the book down. I devoured it. Any other “work” I should have been doing was swept aside as I read and read of Resolute’s adventures. It’s fiction, but based some on a true story. Resolute, as a young girl from a privileged life on a plantation in Jamaica, was taken captive by slavers, eventually ended up in Colonial America. This book is the story of her life. The people she met, the men in her life, her children, and always about her indefatigable energy for life. Always hoping to return to Jamaica.

Finished The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek: A Novel by Kim Richardson.  It’s a novel about the first mobile library in Kentucky (this is the 1930s) and the fierce, brave packhorse librarians who wove their way from shack to shack dispensing literacy, hope, and, just as importantly, a compassionate human connection.

The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks. This book was offered as a bargain book from Bookbub, and something about the description resonated with me – maybe because of my Old Testament readings regarding the lives of shepherds back in ancient days. I utterly loved this book. It might not suit everyone – it’s a memoir, so a true story, of a young man growing up in the Lake District of Northern England, the son of a farming family, who sabotages everything in his being regarding going to school and leaves as soon as he is able (probably about 8th grade, I’d guess). And becomes a shepherd. And at night, he read literature that he accumulated from his grandfather. He bickers with his father, eventually moves out. One night in a pub with his blokes (friends) he enters some kind of a contest in the pub and realizes he has a lot more knowledge than he thought he did. In time he applies to get what I’d call here in the U.S. a G.E.D (high school diploma), which he does, and then he applies to Oxford, on a whim. And gets in. He graduates. He applies his knowledge to his rural life. He marries, has children, but still, his day to day life is all about his Herdwick sheep, although he does have a day job too working for UNESCO. You’ll learn more about sheep than you might have wanted to know. I absolutely loved, LOVED this book. If you are interested, James Rebanks has a Twitter feed, called @herdyshepherd1, and you can sign up to get updates from him about his farm and his sheep. I don’t do Twitter or I would.

Moloka’i: A Novel by Alan Brennert. A riveting book about the early days of Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) in Hawaii, and the stigma attached to the victims AND their families. It chronicles the story of a young woman, diagnosed almost as a child, and ostracized from her family, subsequently learning to live alone and remote.

House by the Fjord by Rosalind Laker. What a darling story. From amazon: A touching and atmospheric love story – When Anna Harvik travels to Norway in 1946 in order to visit the family of her late husband, the country is only just recovering from five cruel years of Nazi occupation. So it is with surprise that she finds in this cold and bitter country the capacity for new love and perhaps even a new home. I just loved this book – could hardly put it down; yet it’s not a mystery. You’ll come away with a desire to find that house by the fjord. I want to go there and have some coffee with the Anna, who was a Brit, yet fell head over heels in love with Norway.

Running Blind (Jack Reacher) by Lee Child. A Jack Reacher mystery. From amazon: Across the country, women are being murdered, victims of a disciplined and clever killer who leaves no trace evidence, no fatal wounds, no signs of struggle, and no clues to an apparent motive. They are, truly, perfect crimes. Until Jack Reacher gets in the middle of it. A page turner, as are all of the Jack Reacher stories.

Say Goodbye for Now by Catherine Ryan Hyde. This story, which takes place in a kind of Texas backwater, sets a town into an angry mess when two young boys, one white, one black, become friends, something most folks don’t like. At all. There’s a dog involved, the father of the black boy, the father of the white boy plus a woman who lives in the town and does her best to avoid people altogether. But they all get fused. Wonderful story.

Summer at Tiffany by Marjorie Hart. A sweet book, true story, of the author and her friend, during one summer in the midst of their college years, going by train to NYC and ultimately getting a job of Tiffany’s.  Cute read.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann. You might think what a stretch – what does an Indian (Native American) tribe have to do with the FBI. Read and you’ll find out. This is back in time, 50s I think, and a number of murders have taken place on the Osage Reservation. A wake up call, even for today.

Oh wow. Just finished reading David Guterson’s book, East of the Mountains. You know this author from his most well known book, Snow Falling on Cedars. I loved the Cedars book when I read it years ago, and assumed I’d like this other book (not new) as well. Have you learned to trust my judgment when I tell you, you HAVE to read a book? When I tell you the story line, I can already hear you thinking . . . oh no, I don’t want to read this kind of a book. Please trust me. You’ll come away from it being glad you did.

A fabulous read – Catherine Ryan Hyde’s newest book, Have You Seen Luis Velez? I marvel sometimes about how authors ever come up with the ideas they do, to create the premise for a novel. And this one is right up there at the top of the list. Raymond, a youngster, an older teenager, who has a big lack of self-confidence and feels like an odd duck sometimes, reluctantly (at first) befriends an elderly woman in the apartment building where he lives with his mother and step-father. He discovers she’s blind and needs some help, which he gives her.

Magic Hour: A Novel

Excellent Women

Pachinko (National Book Award Finalist) by Min Jin Lee

An American Marriage (Oprah’s Book Club): A Novel by Tayari Jones.

Recently finished Sally Field’s memoir (autobiography) called In Pieces.

If you want grit, well, read Kristen Hannah’s newest book, The Great Alone: A Novel.

You’ve got to read Catherine Ryan Hyde’s book – Take Me With You. What a story.  From Amazon’s description: August Shroeder, a burned-out teacher, has been sober since his nineteen-year-old son died. Every year he’s spent the summer on the road, but making it to Yellowstone this year means everything. The plan had been to travel there with his son, but now August is making the trip with Philip’s ashes instead. An unexpected twist of fate lands August with two extra passengers for his journey, two half-orphans with nowhere else to go. What none of them could have known was how transformative both the trip—and the bonds that develop between them—would prove, driving each to create a new destiny together. Have a tissue handy at the end. It’s such a charming, sweet story. You’ll fall in love with the young boys, and fall in love with them again 10 years later.

The Last Letter from Your Lover: A Novel by JoJo Moyes.

Mark of the Lion : A Voice in the Wind, An Echo in the Darkness, As Sure As the Dawn (Vol 1-3)by Francine Rivers.

Flight of the Sparrow: A Novel of Early America

Answer As a Man

Celeste Ng Little Fires Everywhere.

The Rent Collector by Camron Wright.

C.J. Box’s book The Disappeared (A Joe Pickett Novel).

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.

The Boston Girl: A Novel by Anita Diamant.

Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers.

The Tuscan Child by Rhys Bowen.

Leaving Blythe River: A Novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde. A

The Girl with Seven Names by Hyanseo Lee.

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian.

The Good Widow: A Novel by Lisa Steinke.

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes. W

How It All Began: A Novel by Penelope Lively.

 

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 February 14th, 2014.

darios_olive_oil_cake

So far this year I haven’t urged you, fervently, to cook or bake anything I’ve written up. This recipe is my first fervent call! Oh my goodness, this cake is so darned good. No wonder it was featured in the 2013 L.A. Times top recipe round-up. Read on . . .

The Los Angeles Times may be the only daily newspaper that still has a working test kitchen. As an institution, newspaper test kitchens have kind of slid into oblivion with the cost-cutting going on at nearly every major daily in the country. It’s so sad. I used to look forward to reading the big – really big – food section back a couple of decades ago. The Times still has a food section, but oh, it’s so small. I do read it online occasionally. Most newspapers rely on a bevy of written offerings from a variety of free lance food writers who prepare short stories and provide pictures. So the food editors need only pick and choose, within budget, to include this article, that article, decide which one to “feature,” which ones to discard.

Our more local newspaper, the Orange County Register, doesn’t have a test kitchen. The kitchen shown in occasional articles is the Food Editor’s home kitchen, with photos taken usually by one of the staff photographers. And my guess is that her budget doesn’t allow that very often.

But fortunately, the L.A. Times still tests recipes, still writes articles and has a small coterie of writers who write only for that paper. Like Russ Parsons. Who is likely reaching retirement age. I’ll be sad not to read his short stories when that happens. One of the food writing events at the Times is the annual best-recipe contest. The food section staff cook and bake the “best” recipes from the previous year and narrow them down and down and down. And the results are published in late January to great fanfare.

Anyway, back to this cake. The origin of it is Dario Cecchini’s butcher shop and restaurant deep in the heart of Tuscany – in Panzano in Chianti. It’s a cake his trusty baker Simonetta has been preparing daily for decades. Many people have written about it and there are a few recipes “out there” of a similar style. But this one – oh yes. This one that Nancy Silverton (of La Brea Bakery fame, and now Mozza restaurant) has revised and made possible for a home kitchen. Her recipe makes 2, so I tuned it down, dialed it back and made it for just ONE cake. Although – I’m telling you – maybe you should make TWO and freeze the other one. You’ll be glad . . . . .

Having made it and eaten it, I’ll just say there are very distinct things that are different about this cake: (1) naturally, that it’s made with olive oil as the fat, and GOOD extra virgin olive oil, at that; (2) that it contains 1 1/2 whole oranges, chopped up, peel, pith and all; and (3) the topping is different – sugar, pine nuts and fresh rosemary. And certainly this is a dessert cake, but somehow the pine nuts and fresh rosemary give it a savory tone. And it’s divine.

Raisins are in this cake – and you soak them in Vin Santo, if you have it. That’s an Italian dessert wine, and can vary a lot in sweetness from one winery to another. It’s a common little treat given to nearly everyone after dinner in restaurants in Italy. Well, I didn’t have any, so I scanned my liquor closet and finally settled on a very old bottle of tawny Port. It had faded to a light sherry color and had all kinds of lees in the bottle. I poured it through a sieve and had enough to soak the raisins for awhile. The raisins I have on hand right now are really large – jumbo size and from several varieties of grape, so they’re different colors – in the picture at top you can see one or two that had settled to the bottom of the batter. In the photo at top you can see the orange pith – but you absolutely don’t know you’re eating pith – it comes through clean and sweet.

oranges_choppedThe oranges are Navels, and I cut off the ends, cut them in half, then sliced into half-rounds and chopped to get a very nice mound of chopped orange stuff. I did that ahead. There at right was the plate full of oranges. It’s not necessary to do this in the food processor, although you can if you’d prefer. Just don’t pulverize them – it’s nice to bite into a little chunk of orange now and then in the finished cake.

The recipe calls for pastry flour. Since I didn’t have that on hand, I went online to read about it – all it means is flour that has lower protein, but not as low as cake flour, which is 7-8%. So, I mixed half all-purpose (10-12%) and half cake flour, to reach an approximate 9% protein, which is the level for pastry flour.

Mixing up the cake wasn’t difficult – eggs, the leavening and sugar were combined for several minutes in the stand mixer, then very slowly you pour the extra virgin olive oil down the side of the bowl and into the batter. If you go too fast it spatters anyway, and it might separate. Slow-slow. Then you add the soaked raisins and the flour mixture in 3 separate batches. Once that’s mixed, you turn off the mixer and use a spatula to fold in the oranges.

At this point you do something else a bit different – you let the batter rest for 10 minutes. Why, I don’t know. The only thing I can think of is that the batter is fairly thick, and in order to get the fruit (oranges and raisins) to not sink to the bottom of the tube pan (which they might do anyway) if they’re allowed to sink in the mixing bowl first, then when you pour it into the tube pan they’ll be at the top and perhaps not sink to the bottom before the lifting/leavening keeps them suspended. At any rate, the batter is poured into a buttered and floured tube pan.  You probably could use a olive_oil_cake_ready2_bakespringform pan, but the recipe indicates a tube pan – since the cake is dense (but not really heavy) it will cook more evenly in a tube pan. A Bundt pan will not work because those pans assume you’ll turn the cake upside down, and the top here IS the top in the finished cake. The cake top is sprinkled with granulated sugar (a really nice touch and you do taste it’s crunch in the finished cake), then toasted pine nuts and lastly you sprinkle on minced fresh rosemary, which sticks in the little crevices.

The baking was simple enough – but requires you to visit the oven every 10 minutes. It’s baked for 10 minutes at 400°, then you turn it down to 325° and bake another 10. Turn the pan around, and olive_oil_cake_slicedanother 10, and another 10, until it’s baked a total of about 40 minutes. I should have measured the internal temp, but didn’t. The cake is cooled in the pan, then you’ll want to run a knife around the inner tube, and a spatula slid around the bottom to make sure the cake releases completely. Then you very, ever-so carefully turn the cake out onto your outstretched hand and forearm and carefully place it on a platter or cake plate. You will lose some of the pine nuts and sugar. The cook gets to eat those flying pine nuts (I only had about 10-15 of them fly off). My cake did have a few indentations – I suspect it’s from the amount of fruit. It did not detract one iota from the flavor. You’ll not care a bit.

At Mozza, Nancy Silverton makes this and serves it with olive oil gelato she’s developed. I’ll be trying that. It’ll be posted here if it’s good. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, I’m going to go cut myself another sliver of this outstanding cake.

What’s GOOD: oh gosh. Every single, solitary thing about this cake is exceptional. The taste – the oranges, the texture of the cake, which is light, surprisingly, the rosemary I loved, the pine nuts, and the sprinkling of sugar on the top that becomes slightly crunchy. Divine. Next time I am going to make sure I use small raisins – or I’ll chop the raisins – they were heavy so I think they did sink.
What’s NOT: nothing except you do need to have fresh oranges, and if you can find Vin Santo, fine. Otherwise use white port or a light port. Don’t use sherry – it would come through in the flavor. Do use really good olive oil too – this isn’t exactly a cheapo cake!

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Dario’s Olive Oil Cake

Recipe By: Adapted slightly from a Nancy Silverton recipe, that she adapted from Dario Cecchini in Panzano, Chianti, Italy
Serving Size: 12

1/2 cup raisins
3 tablespoons Vin Santo wine — [I used tawny port]
1 1/2 whole oranges — (including the peel, etc.)
2 large eggs
1/2 cup granulated sugar — plus 2 tablespoons
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil — plus 1 tablespoon (use VERY good EVOO)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder — SCANT
14 ounces pastry flour — [I used half all-purpose and half cake flour]
TOPPING:
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup pine nuts — toasted
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary

1. Bring the raisins and the Vin Santo to a simmer in a small saucepan, then immediately remove from the heat. Let stand at least 30 minutes, up to overnight. If you are using very large raisins, chop them into smaller pieces before cooking and plumping them.
2. Heat the oven to 400° F. Prepare a (10-inch) angel food cake (tube) pan by generously spraying with cooking spray and dusting with flour.
3. Trim off the ends of the oranges. Halve them through the stem and slice into one-fourth-inch thick sections. Remove any seeds and coarsely chop.
4. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, mix the eggs, sugar and the leavening over medium high speed until thickened, 3 to 4 minutes.
5. With mixer on medium speed, slowly add olive oil in a slow, steady stream down the side of the bowl until emulsified. Turn the mixer to low and add the flour and soaked raisins (with any remaining liquid) alternately in 3 batches, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. The batter should be thick.
6. Remove the bowl from the mixer. Using a rubber spatula, fold chopped oranges into mixture. Set the batter aside for 10 minutes, then pour into the prepared pan.
7. Add topping: sprinkle the pinenuts and sugar over the cake, then add rosemary.
8. Bake the cakes for 10 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 325° F and continue to bake, rotating the cake every 10 to 15 minutes, until golden brown and a toothpick inserted comes out clean, an additional 30 to 35 minutes. Set pan on a rack and allow to cool to room temp.
9. Run a knife around the inside of the pan and carefully invert it over a large plate to release the cake. Carefully turn it over and transfer it to a large serving plate or cake stand.
Per Serving: 314 Calories; 12g Fat (33.8% calories from fat); 5g Protein; 47g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 35mg Cholesterol; 451mg Sodium.

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