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Just finished The Letter by Kathyrn Hughes. It’s a very intricate tale. At first it’s about Tina, a battered wife [at which point I paused and wondered if I wanted to read any further, but I’m glad I did]. She tries to get the courage to leave her husband. Then enters the letter she finds in a suit pocket in the thrift shop where she volunteers. It’s old – sealed and stamped, but never mailed. Then you learn about Crissie, decades earlier, a young pregnant girl who is sent off to Ireland to a distant relative by her father, then to a rigid (meaning horrible) convent [the book takes place mostly in Manchester, England and in rural Ireland]. The letter is addressed to her. Jump forward decades and William, the adopted child Crissie gave up, tries to find his birth mother. William meets Tina in Ireland [a serendipitous moment] as she’s trying to find the woman to whom the letter is addressed. This book is the #2 best seller on Amazon at the moment. It’s a riveting tale and I really enjoyed it.

Read Grace Unshakled, by Irene Huising. From Amazon’s page, it says: “In the year 2025, 17-year-old Grace Duncan finds herself in shackles because of her faith in Christ. An obedient daughter and stellar student, doing time in jail was never on her mental radar, despite the changes in religious laws [this takes place here in the United States] over the past few years. Through twists and turns in circumstances, Grace and a small band of Christians in Newport Beach, California begin a journey to discover what it means to follow Christ with unwavering faith in the midst of increasing persecution. Facing the potential loss of all her hopes and dreams, would Christ be enough?” We read this for one of my book clubs, and it’s a scary thought about what it could mean if we take God out of our country. The author is a friend of a friend and she attended our book club meeting to share about how she came to write this book. I don’t often share my faith here on my website, but this book made me stop and think about the direction our government is going, removing more and more our ability to worship God. Or to worship in any religion. Will this book ever make waves in the book world? Probably not. My copy may be a pre-edited version, as it contained numerous typos and formatting errors. But they didn’t detract from the subject, just the cosmetics. The book doesn’t come to a resolution; in fact it leaves you hanging, as some books do. It was intentional (obviously), but left me wondering about the “end of the story.”

Also just finished reading The Muralist: A Novel by Shapiro. It tells the story of a young woman, an artist, who was part of the U.S.’s WPA mural project from the 1930s-40s (she is fiction, the WPA is not). As with so many artists, even today, they live in abject poverty through much of their lives. This woman, though, had family in France, desperately trying to escape before Hitler’s henchmen rousted them into concentration camps. The story, a bit of a mystery but not of the mystery-genre, is about Alizée Benoit, this young painter, who slightly captivates Eleanor Roosevelt’s help. It also skips into current time when the painter’s great-niece uncovers paintings she believes were painted by her aunt. The painter had disappeared into thin air in 1940, and her relative tries desperately to find out what happened to her. It’s a really good story including such Abstract Expressionist painters as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner well-woven into the narrative. It keeps you guessing right up to the end. A good read. The author also wrote The Art Forger: A Novel a few years ago.

Read 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) – 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 Margaret of York (a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine),  who was 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 first!

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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