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Just finished reading How It All Began: A Novelby 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 (she arrived after the birth, actually). 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 father is a wealthy man in the area who carries a lot of clout. 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.

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 middle-aged 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, and wealthy) 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.

 

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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