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Just finished 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 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 parents were 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 a old 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.

Winter Journey by Diane Armstrong. Have you ever read about forensic dentistry? I sure had not, so I found it fascinating reading. It’s a debut novel for the author, and what a story. Halina, an Australian, with Polish roots, specializes in this obscure profession as a forensic dentist, and is asked to go to Poland, to help identify bone (and tooth) fragments, to put to rest a sad event in the story of this small town, when many, many people (Jews) were murdered. Was it the Nazis? Or was it the local townspeople who disliked the Jews. What a tangled web of intrigue, including Halina’s own mysterious past. I really enjoyed the read. The author does a great job of developing the characters (which I always like). This is no light read if you consider the subject matter, although it IS a novel (but based on fact). Nor is it a spy thriller – it’s more just an historical novel with lots of interesting people throughout. There’s a romance thrown in too, and a whole lot of angst about the discoveries found in the mass grave. But, the subject expanded my knowledge about forensics.

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr. I just LOVED this book. I’ve never been much of a fan of Caravaggio’s paintings, although I’ve seen plenty of them (many are extremely large) in museums around the world. His paintings were dark, often with dark subjects. But as with many of the old masters, occasionally some obscure work surfaces, perhaps credited to another artist, even, that turns out to be one done by “the” master. In this case, Caravaggio. Although this book is written as a novel (with dialogue, etc.) it’s historical through and through. It begins with two young women art scholars, in Italy, who are asked to do a research project. One thing leads to another, and to another. All true.  If you enjoy books about art – I learned some things about the paint and the canvases of the time – you’ll be intrigued as I was.

Eye On the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, by James, McGrath Morris. Each year my AAUW book club reads something related to Black History Month. This is a biography of a woman you’ve probably never heard of, Ethel Payne, and about her life-long journey in journalism, struggling to keep her head above water financially, but staying true to her purposes of telling the truth about the black stories and black racism of the day. Sometimes biographies aren’t all that riveting, but I found this one to be so, and I savored each new chapter. We had a really good discussion of the book, and the ups and downs of Payne’s life, especially during her years as a Washington reporter. You’ll not be sorry to have spent the time reading this book. It’s well-written, as well. I was thrilled when the author, Morris, left a message here on my blog, thanking me (and my group) for reading his book.

H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. This one has been on the best seller list. It’s a memoir about a woman who takes on a personal challenge of taming a wild hawk. Prior to reading this book, I knew next to nothing about the entire subject of hawking, or taming any of the big, wild birds. The book is equally about the writer’s inner journey. She’s a consummate writer, and every page was a joy of words, for me. My only problem is my own – I found it hard, the more time that went by, and the more time the writer spent trying to tame this bird, to scream out “let the bird go.” Perhaps it’s because I spent time in Africa in 2015, seeing animals in the wild, that I felt more for the bird than I did with the writer’s discontent with herself and the taming process. Little did I know what a hard job it is to tame a hawk. I actually didn’t finish the book. It was a book club read, and highly recommended by several of our members. And I ended up not being able to attend the meeting as I had a cold. So perhaps there is some great ending to it that would have made me feel better. I haven’t gone to the end to find out. I just had to stop reading it. But I’m not NOT recommending it. If nothing else, read it for Macdonald’s sublime proficiency with words.

Also read George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution, by Brian Kilmeade and Dan Yaeger. Here’s what it says on amazon: When George Washington beat a hasty retreat from New York City in August 1776, many thought the American Revolution might soon be over. Instead, Washington rallied—thanks in large part to a little-known, top-secret group called the Culper Spy Ring. He realized that he couldn’t defeat the British with military might, so he recruited a sophisticated and deeply secretive intelligence network to infiltrate New York. I won’t exactly call this book a riveting read, but it was interesting. Relating facts that few people knew about, this Culper Spy Ring. It’s a little chunk of American history researched in depth by the authors. An interesting read.

Also read The Little Paris Bookshop: A Novel by Nina George. If you’re an avid reader, you probably have the same kind of longing as I do for a quaint, independently owned bookstore right around the corner. So few exist anymore. This novel is about a very unusual book store, and book store owner. In Paris. On a boat/barge. It’s not a typical book store, and the writer takes you on a journey of discovery about (likely) her own lifetime of book reading. You’ll learn all about a variety of existing books and why they’re a good read. But it’s all cloaked in a story about this book store and the owner. And the customers. Very fun. I’m reviewing it for one of my book clubs next month.

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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