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Just finished The Letter by Kathyrn Hughes. It’s a very intricate tale. At first it’s about Tina, a battered wife [at which point I paused and wondered if I wanted to read any further, but I’m glad I did]. She tries to get the courage to leave her husband. Then enters the letter she finds in a suit pocket in the thrift shop where she volunteers. It’s old – sealed and stamped, but never mailed. Then you learn about Crissie, decades earlier, a young pregnant girl who is sent off to Ireland to a distant relative by her father, then to a rigid (meaning horrible) convent [the book takes place mostly in Manchester, England and in rural Ireland]. The letter is addressed to her. Jump forward decades and William, the adopted child Crissie gave up, tries to find his birth mother. William meets Tina in Ireland [a serendipitous moment] as she’s trying to find the woman to whom the letter is addressed. This book is the #2 best seller on Amazon at the moment. It’s a riveting tale and I really enjoyed it.

Read Grace Unshakled, by Irene Huising. From Amazon’s page, it says: “In the year 2025, 17-year-old Grace Duncan finds herself in shackles because of her faith in Christ. An obedient daughter and stellar student, doing time in jail was never on her mental radar, despite the changes in religious laws [this takes place here in the United States] over the past few years. Through twists and turns in circumstances, Grace and a small band of Christians in Newport Beach, California begin a journey to discover what it means to follow Christ with unwavering faith in the midst of increasing persecution. Facing the potential loss of all her hopes and dreams, would Christ be enough?” We read this for one of my book clubs, and it’s a scary thought about what it could mean if we take God out of our country. The author is a friend of a friend and she attended our book club meeting to share about how she came to write this book. I don’t often share my faith here on my website, but this book made me stop and think about the direction our government is going, removing more and more our ability to worship God. Or to worship in any religion. Will this book ever make waves in the book world? Probably not. My copy may be a pre-edited version, as it contained numerous typos and formatting errors. But they didn’t detract from the subject, just the cosmetics. The book doesn’t come to a resolution; in fact it leaves you hanging, as some books do. It was intentional (obviously), but left me wondering about the “end of the story.”

Also just finished reading The Muralist: A Novel by Shapiro. It tells the story of a young woman, an artist, who was part of the U.S.’s WPA mural project from the 1930s-40s (she is fiction, the WPA is not). As with so many artists, even today, they live in abject poverty through much of their lives. This woman, though, had family in France, desperately trying to escape before Hitler’s henchmen rousted them into concentration camps. The story, a bit of a mystery but not of the mystery-genre, is about Alizée Benoit, this young painter, who slightly captivates Eleanor Roosevelt’s help. It also skips into current time when the painter’s great-niece uncovers paintings she believes were painted by her aunt. The painter had disappeared into thin air in 1940, and her relative tries desperately to find out what happened to her. It’s a really good story including such Abstract Expressionist painters as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner well-woven into the narrative. It keeps you guessing right up to the end. A good read. The author also wrote The Art Forger: A Novel a few years ago.

Read The German Girl: A Novel by Correa. It chronicles the story of a wealthy German Jewish family in Berlin, as the Nazis arrive and make life a living hell. The family is lucky (I guess you could say this) to be allowed to purchase passage on the M.S. St. Louis, a passenger liner, to take them to “the Americas.” The destination is actually Cuba. The story is told from two voices – the teenage daughter in this story, and from a current-day distant family member who is trying to learn about her ancestry. Of the 900+ passengers on the ship, only a few were allowed to disembark since the Cuban President decided he needed more money to accept them. Most families had no money left, as the Reich had taken nearly all of their assets. The daughter and her very eccentric mother were allowed to stay in Cuba.  The remaining passengers are rejected by the U.S. too, and eventually return to Europe, where most of the Jews end up dying in concentration camps. The story goes back and forth from the 1939 journey to current day as the link between the two women is slowly revealed. I had a tough time sometimes, tracking the people in this book, but the story was very riveting. It’s based on facts about the ship (see Wikipedia link above if you’re interested). A shameful chapter in history.

Recently finished reading a magnificent historical novel. Not new. Philippa Gregory has been a favorite author of mine for a couple of decades. You may remember her most famous book, The Other Boleyn Girl, published some years ago. I thought that was a really great book. I’ve read other books by Gregory, but most recently I read The King’s Curse (The Plantagenet and Tudor Novels). The time period is the 1450s to 1541, mostly under the rule of King Henry VIII, the infamous womanizer and wife/Queen-killer. The man who cursed Rome (the Pope) – he wanted his first marriage annulled because Queen Catherine couldn’t produce a living male heir. And subsequently made himself the head of the church in England in order to do so. It was a Catholic country at the time. This story (it’s fiction, but woven with intricate historical detail) is from the voice of Margaret of York (a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine),  who was a Plantagenet in her own right (which is key to the later events in the book). Certainly I’ve read other novels over the years that dealt with Henry VIII, but not with this much breadth of info. What a wicked, sinful man he was. And did I say tyrant. Wow.  I could hardly put it down, through its nearly 600 pages. In the author’s notes at the end, she shares relatively recent medical info that suggests Henry probably suffered from a rare problem, Kell positive blood type, which can cause miscarriages, stillbirths and infant deaths IF the mother has the more common Kell negative blood type. And that in his later years, he may have had McLeod syndrome, a disease only found in Kell positive individuals. Around the age of 40 it causes physical degeneration and personality changes resulting in paranoia, depression and irrational behavior. All of those King Henry VIII had in spades. If you read the book, you might read the author’s notes (at the end) before reading the book. If you like historical fiction (I love any book about English history) you’ll just love this one. It’s interesting, though, as I think about the many books I’ve read covering this era in English history, that each book presented its hero/heroine as the most innocent and worthy individual vying for the crown of England. I remember thinking Anne Boleyn was dealt with so badly during her life (and certainly her beheading), and yet reading this book, I completely reversed my opinion. Anne Boleyn was called a wh–e by most people during the years she shared Henry’s bed. The “curse” from the title pertains to Henry’s inability or the curse on the Tudors, that caused him to fail in producing a male heir. In any case, none of Henry’s wives should have died for it – likely it was all Henry’s fault anyway. Just read this one, okay?

Also recently read 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 free-lance 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 family was 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 an old (wild) 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. Just read this one first!

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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