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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 aging 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, wealthy women) 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.

I’ve written up an entire blog post about this book. (It hasn’t been posted yet, but will soon.) It may be one of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s a memoir by Pat Conroy (an author I’ve long admired). He died a year or so ago – sad, that. In order to get the most out of My Reading Life, I recommend you BUY THE HARDBACK. I can’t say enough good things about this book. It’s an autobiography of sorts, but not really. He never wrote one, I don’t think, and I doubt he would ever have written one as he likely didn’t believe anyone would want to read about his (sad) life. In this memoir, he chronicles the books (and the people who recommended them) that influenced his life. Starting at his mother’s knees and continuing through influential teachers and mentors and friends. One of my book clubs read it, and I devoured it, cover to cover, with little plastic flags inserted all the way through to re-read some of the prose. Pat Conroy was a fabulous writer – he studied words from a young age and used them widely and wisely throughout his writing, but better than most authors would. He adored his mother, and hated (with venom) his aviator military father who physically abused everyone in the family, including his mother. They all took it like stoic Buddhas. I’m going to have to read Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel because of reading this book. I’ve never read it. Conroy says that book’s first page is the best first page of any book he ever read in his life. Wow. And maybe my book group is going to re-read Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Vintage Classics) too because of the chapter on that book. We might have to assign that to a 2-month or longer read. If you have friends or family who are avid readers, this would make a great gift, this book, My Reading Life. If YOU are a reader, it needs to be on your bookshelf, but in hardback, so you can go back to it and re-read his stories. It’s a series of essays, each one about a sub-section of his life. A must-have and a must-read.

Also read The Towers of Tuscany by Carol Cram. It was a bargain book through amazon or bookbub (e-book). Back in the Middle Ages women were forbidden to be artists. Their only place was in the home, caring for children and sewing and cooking. But the heroine in this book was taught to paint by her widowed artist-father (in secret, of course). When her father suddenly dies, all hell breaks loose and she must fend for herself. Much of the book takes place in Siena (and also San Gimignano) as she disguises herself as a boy in order to continue her life’s passion – painting. Very interesting story and worth reading.

 

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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