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Just finished a stunning book, The Girl with Seven Names by Hyanseo Lee. If you, like me, know little about North Korea and how it came to be what it is today, you’ve got to read this book. It’s a memoir written by a young woman who escaped from North Korea about 9 years ago. Her journey – and I mean JOURNEY – is harrowing, frightening, amazing, heart-rendering all at the same time. She chronicles the lives of the Kims (Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il to current Kim Jong Un), shares the strict propaganda that surrounds every North Korean citizen, the poverty and hunger, as well as the underground black market for food and goods. It took her awhile to get from North Korea, to China and eventually to South Korea, where she currently lives. She’s well educated and speaks English quite well. She was invited to be a speaker at a TED talk – you know about those, right? TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a media organization which posts talks online for free distribution, under the slogan “ideas worth spreading.” I listen to them as  podcasts now and then. Always very educational, if sometimes over my head when it gets very technical. She works diligently for human rights now, doing her best to help other North Koreans escape. You owe it to yourself to read this book.

Also just finished reading The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian. Another WOW book. I’ve always liked the author – many years ago I read his book, Midwives (don’t confuse this book with the one I recently read and is reviewed below) and really liked it. I think we read it in one of my book groups. He’s a brilliant writer, and this one has a lot of characters and twists. It’s a novel, but based on a lot of truth regarding the Armenian genocide. Most of the book takes place in Aleppo, Syria with some good Samaritan folk trying to help rescue people (mostly children) following the forced long marches the Turks made prodding the Turkish Armenians to exit their country. But it also jumps to near present day as a family member is trying to piece together obscure parts of her grandparents’ former lives there. She uncovers some hidden truths (many survivors of the genocide never-ever wanted to talk about it) and a bit more about her Armenian heritage. A riveting book – I could hardly put it down. Lots to discuss for a book club read. I simply must read more of Bohjalian’s books (he’s written many).

The Good Widow: A Novel by Lisa Steinke. All I can say is “wow.” In a general sense, this book is based on the premise of The Pilot’s Wife. But this one has some totally different twists and turns. A young wife is met at the door by police, informing her that her husband has died in an auto accident. Then she finds out he died in Hawaii – not Kansas, where she thought he was, on business. Then she finds out there was a woman in the car. Then she meets the fiance of the woman passenger and the two of them embark on a fact-finding mission in Hawaii to discover the truth. Well, I’m just sayin’ . . . the plot thickens. And thickens. And thickens clear up to the last few pages. Hang onto your seat. A really, really good, suspenseful read.

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 Novel by 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. 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 angry father is a wealthy and influential man in the area. 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.

 

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 Cookies, on February 24th, 2016.

safari_seeded_cookiesOkay, listen up my friends. If you’ve learned to trust me when I tell you – these cookies are beyond wonderful. Not to be confused with the previous recipe I gave you  for “safari anzac cookies” (the one provided by the African safari camp chef and posted here in November). These are mostly ordinary cookie ingredients, but an altogether different method and a tweak or two.

When I made the last iteration of these cookies (I’ve now made 3) I was less than pleased, although all my friends raved about them, and I agreed they were “good” but they weren’t perfect. I suppose if I were the more professional kind of blogger I wouldn’t have even posted the last recipe – since I wasn’t satisfied with them. But I did because everybody loved them, yet I wasn’t sure what in the world I could do with them to make them better or “right” in my book.

So, I do what I tend to do best – I researched. I went on the web and looked up things about the CHEMISTRY of cookie baking. The myriad of sites I went to had varying opinions about why one ingredient resulted in this type, or that method made the cookies a different way. But before I even did that, I went to my cookie recipe file (in my MasterCook program) and looked at each and every recipe I have in there (a couple hundred) and examined my photos, and analyzed the ingredients. And as I got down to the R’s in my list I came across my old recipe for Ranger Cookies. They’re a crispy cookie that contains oatmeal and corn flakes and other various things. But I was really looking more at the cookie dough ingredients than anything else – not the add-ins. And I remembered how good those cookies are. Don’t know why I don’t make them more often because I really like them.

Then I went on the web and researched. What I learned was this:

(1) using all butter makes for a very crispy cookie that may spread;

(2) adding shortening will help cookies to be more firm in height (less spreading) because shortening melts at a higher temp;

(3) eggs add tenderness (well, of course) and they’re a binder as well, something to hold the batter together;

(4) molasses makes cookies darker, sweeter, and since it’s a liquid, cookies tend to spread some because of it which causes quicker browning;

(5) melting the butter/shortening and molasses before baking also encourages spreading, creating a thin, flat cookie; and then

(6) cake flour tends to give cookies a more cake-like texture – duh, that’s why it’s called cake flour!

As am aside, I don’t use Crisco anymore because it’s hydrogenated (medical researchers tell us that’s not such a good thing to eat) so I seek out Spectrum brand non-hydrogenated shortening. It’s carried at some of my local grocery stores, but not all – it’s in a blue and white round plastic tub next to the Crisco. If they carry it. If you can’t find a non-hydrogenated shortening, you can use margarine, but I don’t know how it would work because it’s basically an oil and when it gets warm it melts. The whole idea behind the shortening is that it doesn’t melt easily – except at high temp, higher than the melting (flash) point of butter.

SO, keeping all those do’s and don’t’s in mind, I swapped out some of the butter and added the non-hydrogenated shortening. There were no eggs, but liquid was needed, so I added a little swig of milk. I took out the molasses altogether and used a combo of white and brown sugar. I used all-purpose flour and left the leaveners the same. When I started out making these, I had no idea whether they would turn out – I took one thing from one recipe, another from a different recipe, added a couple of things and removed some. And I changed the method of mixing too. I’m not usually as adventuresome about creating cookies because there truly IS a chemistry to baking, but perhaps not as critical as in baking a cake with specific ratios needed.

Here’s what I did: first I creamed the softened butter and shortening together and mixed it until there weren’t any streaks of shortening. Then I added the sugars and vanilla. Meanwhile, I’d made a mixture of the flour (all-purpose) and baking powder, soda and salt. Into the cookie batter I added oatmeal and unsweetened coconut and mixed that well enough, then I added in the flour and milk until the batter was pulling together, then I added the seeds (sesame, flax and pumpkin). It looked good. The batter tasted right too. I baked just one sheet of them and let them rest a few minutes after baking to see if they were okay. More than okay!

I’ve given away most of these cookies already and can’t wait to make another batch. These cookies aren’t exactly like the ones we had on safari (those were much thicker and almost jaw-breakers to bite through) but I’m so happy with the results of my experimentation that I don’t want to try yet again. I’d thought about making yet another (4th) iteration with adding more cookie part and less add-ins, but have concluded these cookies are just perfect. I mean it. They are.

What’s GOOD: these are just magnificent cookies, if I do say so myself. Love the seeds. Love the texture and the crispness. Love everything about them. Try them and you’ll see what I mean.

What’s NOT: absolutely nothing. These are a winner!

printer-friendly PDF and MasterCook 14/15 file (click link to open recipe)

* Exported from MasterCook *

Safari Seeded Cookies

Recipe By: My very own cookie invention, 2016
Serving Size: 40

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
10 ounces unsalted butter
1/2 cup shortening — (preferably not hydrogenated) or Crisco (which is hydrogenated)
1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup oatmeal
1 cup unsweetened coconut meat
3 tablespoons milk
1/2 cup sesame seeds
1/2 cup flax seeds
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds, roasted

NOTES: You can substitute other kinds of seeds for the ones used in this recipe, and you can use more of one than another – just use 1 1/2 cups of a combo of seeds of your choice. You can use regular Baker’s sweetened coconut, but reduce the sugar in the cookie batter by about 1/4 cup.
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. In a bowl combine the flour, soda, baking powder and salt. Stir to combine and set aside.
2. In a stand mixer combine the butter (softened in the microwave for about 10 seconds if the cubes are refrigerator-chilled) and shortening. Mix until both fats are completely combined and no streaks of shortening are visible. Add the brown and white sugars and vanilla and continue mixing until light and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes.
3. Add oatmeal and coconut and continue mixing until combined.
4. Slowly add the flour, along with the milk, until all are mixed into the dough.
5. Add the sesame seeds, flax seeds and pumpkin seeds, and mix just until combined.
6. Scoop heaping tablespoons of the dough onto a Silpat-lined cookie sheet. Slightly flatten tops of each cookie with your fingertips, then bake for about 13-16 minutes, until the cookies are golden and the edges are even darker. (If, by some chance, your cookies spread too much, add in about a tablespoon of flour and mix the dough well.) They can be baked longer so they reach a very dark brown with no real differences except the cookie will be much more crispy. Remove from the oven and set the cookie sheet on a rack to cool for 3-5 minutes, then gently remove cookies from the pan to a rack to cool completely. Continue baking until all cookies are made. Seal in plastic bags and freeze, or they will keep at room temp for about 2 weeks.
Per Serving: 139 Calories; 12g Fat (73.0% calories from fat); 2g Protein; 8g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 16mg Cholesterol; 63mg Sodium.

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  1. hddonna

    said on March 3rd, 2016:

    Am temporarily off seeds because of oral surgery, but these look delightful! Will put this on my to-try list.

    Sorry about the surgery, but yes, when you can, you should try these. I’ve not served them to anyone who hasn’t raved about them. . . carolyn t

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