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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 Desserts, on March 25th, 2016.

best_almond_cake

A winner of a recipe. Should be, since it’s the culmination of kitchen magic by the chefs at America’s Test Kitchen. I’ve made almond cake before (there are two on my blog archives already) but no almond cake I’ve ever tasted has been so tender, and so full of almond flavor as this one. Does that get you interested?

Saying I’m a fan of America’s Test Kitchen is certainly a true statement. I don’t think there has ever been a recipe I’ve tried from their books or the TV show that hasn’t been wonderful.  It had been a week before that I watched the program for this cake and knew I’d be making it. I needed a dessert to serve to one of my bible study groups that was meeting here at my house. We happen to be studying Romans, Paul’s letter to the people of Rome, cautioning them about their behavior. Maybe if they’d had some of this cake, they might have listened better!

This cake was really very easy to make, although there are a few steps to it – it’s not a slap-dash kind of cake. You do have to toast the almonds and you make a couple of different bowls of things before it all comes together – but it all gets mixed in the food processor at the end, it’s poured into a greased (and parchment lined) round cake pan and it bakes. The topping (almonds, sugar and lemon zest) are added after pouring the batter into the pan and there’s nothing else to it. The cake has nearly 2 cups of almonds in it, so it’s not the cheapest cake to make these days, what with the cost of almonds rising by the day. The eggs (4 of them) certainly must help with the light texture – and you do whiz them up until they’re light before mixing up the rest of it.

best_almond_cake_sliceGetting the cake out of the pan was a bit of a challenge – I had buttered the pan (which was nonstick, by the way) AND used parchment, but it took a bit of doing to kind of un-stick the bottom corners from the pan – where the parchment met the sides – but it all came out beautifully once I gently pried all around the interior edges with my plastic spreader. It stayed together as I up-ended it onto my outstretched palm and arm and onto the cake plate it went (this, all when it was cooled).

They didn’t suggest serving it with anything, but I thought a bit of whipped cream with some almond extract in it was appropriate, and it certainly added to the intense almond flavor, but the cake, all by itself, is intensely almond-y already.

What’s GOOD: this will be the last almond cake recipe I’ll ever need to try. It’s THAT good. I loved the tender cake (texture) since many almond cakes are a bit on the firm side. Not this one – truly tender. And since I’m a big almond lover anyway, the amount of almond flavor (from the almonds themselves and from a little bit of almond extract added) it was just perfect. I highly recommend it. I also loved the addition of the whipped cream flavored with almond extract. Yummy.

What’s NOT: nothing other than the cost of almonds these days. This recipe is a keeper.

printer-friendly PDF and MasterCook 15/16 file (click link to open recipe

* Exported from MasterCook *

Best Almond Cake

Recipe By: Adapted slightly from America’s Test Kitchen, 2016
Serving Size: 8

CAKE:
1 1/2 cups sliced almonds — toasted (blanched if you have them)
3/4 cup all-purpose flour — (3 3/4 ounces)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
4 large eggs
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest — from about 2 lemons (save 1/2 tsp for the topping)
3/4 teaspoon almond extract
5 tablespoons unsalted butter — melted
1/3 cup vegetable oil
TOPPING:
1/3 cup sliced almonds — toasted (leave these sliced)
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
ALMOND CREAM:
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

NOTES: Even if you have a nonstick baking pan, do use the parchment, and do butter/grease the pan as well. Yes, really. I used all sliced almonds because that’s what I had on hand.
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 300 degrees. Grease a 9-inch round cake pan and line with parchment paper. Pulse 1½ cups almonds, flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in food processor until almonds are finely ground, 5 to 10 pulses. Transfer almond mixture to a bowl.
2. Process eggs, 1 1/4 cups sugar, 1 tablespoon lemon zest, and almond extract in now-empty processor until very pale yellow, about 2 minutes. With processor running, add melted butter and oil in steady stream, until incorporated. Add almond mixture and pulse to combine, 4 to 5 pulses – or just enough to incorporate all the dry mixture. Transfer batter to prepared pan.
3. TOPPING: Using your fingers, combine 2 tablespoons sugar and 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest in small bowl until fragrant, 5 to 10 seconds. Sprinkle top of cake evenly with remaining 1/3 cup almonds followed by sugar-zest mixture.
4. Bake until center of cake is set and bounces back when gently pressed and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 55 to 65 minutes, rotating pan after 40 minutes. (I removed it when my instant read thermometer registered 198°F.) Let cake cool in pan on wire rack for 15 minutes. Run paring knife or plastic spreader around sides of pan. Invert cake onto greased wire rack, discard parchment, and reinvert cake onto second wire rack. Let cake cool, about 2 hours. Cut into wedges and serve. (Store cake in plastic wrap at room temperature for up to 3 days.)
5. ALMOND CREAM: Whip cream to soft peaks, then add sugar and almond extract and continue whipping until firm peaks form. Dollop each slice of cake with the almond cream.
Per Serving: 611 Calories; 42g Fat (59.7% calories from fat); 12g Protein; 52g Carbohydrate; 3g Dietary Fiber; 146mg Cholesterol; 280mg Sodium.

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  1. bethier

    said on March 25th, 2016:

    Hi Carolyn–wow this definitely does look like a winner!! Beautiful– can’t wait to make it! I must
    confess the idea of the lemon with the almond surprises me a little–have not used that combo
    before in baking–but I’m sure it will be wonderful! You haven’t steered me wrong yet! 🙂
    Again, want to say how much I enjoy your blog. You do an amazing job and I love that it
    incorporates not just food, but books, travel and darn good writing! Thank you for sharing
    with us!

    Thank you so much. I assume your name is Bessie – my grandmother’s name. Thanks for your many compliments. I wonder some days why I continue with the blog, but it’s for comments like yours, today, that keep me writing. . . carolyn t

  2. Jean D

    said on March 28th, 2016:

    This sounds wonderful and definitely on my list to make! Thank you for your excellent description and tips.

    I’m glad I was able to draw a mental picture of a really good cake, and something that you want to try. . . carolyn t

  3. Madonna

    said on March 28th, 2016:

    I will be making this for my nephew’s birthday. Almond is his favorite flavor.

    I do love your blog. I love how you guide us through with extra comment of how to get a little more flavor or the pitfalls of getting that cake out of the pan even if the pan is nonstick. Those little extra tips make a big difference.

    Thanks.

    Thank you so much for your very kind comments. I do try to make it easy or easier anyway. I stuck the last couple of pieces of that almond cake in the freezer, so I have that to look forward to one of these days. Hope you enjoy it as I did. . . carolyn t

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