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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 November 25th, 2016.

moms_cocoa_spice_cake

Not, perhaps, the spice cake you’re used to – one that’s light and speckled with spices. This one is much more a chocolate cake. And not a lot of frosting, certainly not enough to spread on the sides. But good, nonetheless. My cake pans are not angled, yet the cake looks like they are flared. Oh well.

My mom did enjoy baking. But, I don’t think she enjoyed it as much as I do. My mom was a relatively plain cook. Products of Midwest parents, my mom and dad both grew up on simple fare, with their mothers rarely using spices or herbs to enhance meats or vegetables. Hence, my mother didn’t either. Only in baking did spices pop up. As I was going through old recipes (and throwing out the 3×5 card this was on – it took me awhile to physically DO that – the throwing of it into the trash – I mean, what if I lost my entire MasterCook files? – what if, what if – I also hated throwing away the ones written in my mother’s handwriting – it seemed like a bad thing to toss out that little piece of her. Can you relate?). Yet, I have my recipes backed up in 2 places (one on my computer and also on Carbonite) so I should feel assured my precious recipes won’t get lost.

What I remember of a spice cake my mom made wasn’t this one (now that I’ve made it) because the one I remember was moist and paler without any chocolate in it. Maybe it was a banana spice cake. I’ll have to go hunting further into my mother’s recipe box – I still have all those recipes – they’re ones I didn’t think I’d ever make – I took out the ones I thought I would, of which this was one. But this cake was good. Maybe not sensational. But if you like spice cakes (this one with cinnamon and nutmeg) this will satisfy for sure. For me, the chocolate was all I tasted, so my mother’s notes about increasing the amount of cocoa perhaps should be a cautionary tale.

cocoa_spice_cake_sliceI don’t buy Crisco anymore, but the newer trans-fat free type. It’s available at most markets these days. You can use Crisco if you want – I just prefer to not eat trans-fats anymore if I can help it. I also didn’t have lemon extract, so that ingredient was left out entirely. I suppose I could have used some lemon zest – didn’t think of it. I also didn’t use the egg yolk (raw) in the frosting. Why? I didn’t think an egg yolk would really enhance the frosting all that much, much less the possible dangers of eating raw egg. I never seem to mind nibbling on raw cookie dough, though, so why should I care. When I can avoid it, though, I do.

The recipe calls for all-purpose flour, or cake flour. I didn’t quite have enough cake flour, but I used what I had and added in more AP to equal the 2 cups (slight). I think the cake flour is the right way to go.

The frosting contains both cocoa and coffee. On the recipe it’s called a “coffee” frosting. I made espresso so I’d be sure to taste the coffee (yes, you could). It makes only enough to frost the center and the top – if you like a bit drizzled down the sides, or you really want it frosted all over, you’ll need to make more (double it for drizzles, triple to frost all over). The only cocoa_spice_cake_sidecomplaint I have is that the sides of the cake that were exposed got dried out during the 3-4 hours it sat on my kitchen counter. That’s not good. If you have a cake cover, use it! Otherwise, eat it right away. I have the left overs covered in plastic so hopefully it will be okay.

I served the cake with a drizzle of heavy cream (above photo) but I wanted you to see the better side view (see sliced almonds in the cake – which didn’t sink to the bottom).

What’s GOOD: the cake was FULL of flavor, mostly chocolate. I liked the almonds – next time I’ll use walnuts if I do make it again. My favorite part was the frosting – it wasn’t so profuse that I didn’t enjoy a bit with many of the bites. This isn’t a super-soft cake like a cake mix cake, but it was moist. However, the cake did soak up the cream on the plate. It was very tasty. My friend Bud slicked it up in no time, and I sent him home with enough for 2 meals, I think. Cherrie isn’t a fan of chocolate, particularly, but she might eat this. We’ll see.

What’s NOT: For me there wasn’t quite enough frosting, so it was barely sufficient. I liked the coffee accent (which was only in the frosting) so it was a very nice flavor. I don’t think this cake would keep long without getting stale. I’m giving all but one tiny sliver to my neighbors. It’s not because I don’t like it, just so I won’t eat it all myself!

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

* Exported from MasterCook *

My Mother’s Cocoa Spice Cake

Recipe By: My mother, Fay Orr’s, recipe – don’t know origin
Serving Size: 12

CAKE:
3/4 cup shortening — buy trans-fat free type, not Crisco
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 large eggs
2 cups cake flour — or 1 3/4 cups AP flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa — original recipe was 1 T, my mother’s notes suggested 1/2 cup (what I used – too much)
3/4 cup buttermilk — or sour milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon lemon extract — optional (or some lemon zest)
1/2 cup nuts — chopped (walnuts, pecans or almonds)
COFFEE FROSTING:
6 tablespoons butter
1 large egg yolk — optional
2 cups powdered sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/2 tablespoons hot coffee — [I used espresso] and may need more for the right consistency

NOTE: My mother’s recipe showed adding 1 T. cocoa to the cake batter, but her hand-written notes said to increase to 1/2 CUP. Having made this, I think less would be better, so I’ve suggested 1/4 cup. Use your own judgment. I’d also add about a T. more buttermilk if you use 1/4 cup cocoa as the cocoa is just like adding more flour to the batter.
1. CAKE: Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease two 9-inch layer cake pans. Set aside.
2. Cream together the shortening and sugar until light and fluffy. Blend in eggs, one at a time, mixing well between additions. Sift flour once before measuring, then sift the flour with baking powder, salt, soda, cocoa and spices. Add the dry ingredients alternately with the buttermilk. Beat the batter well so there are no streaks of dry ingredients. Add vanilla, lemon extract and nuts. Pour into the two prepared pans.
3. Bake cake about 35-40 minutes, testing it by inserting a toothpick in the center which should come out clean. Cool cake in pans and cool completely before frosting.
4. FROSTING: Cream butter and blend with egg yolk (if using). Add cocoa and mix well. Sift sugar and cinnamon together, then add to creamed mixture, alternately with the hot coffee. Beat until smooth, adding more coffee or powdered sugar to make it spreadable. Use a bit less than half to frost between the layers and use the larger portion on top. If you want to have nice frosting drips down the sides, increase quantities of powdered sugar and coffee. There is just enough to frost the middle and top (barely). The cake sides will begin to stale if not covered (use toothpicks in cake and cover with plastic wrap).
5. SERVING: Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream for sure! Or a drizzle of heavy cream as I did. Just know the cake will soak most of it up before you can eat the cake!
Per Serving: 483 Calories; 24g Fat (44.3% calories from fat); 5g Protein; 63g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 87mg Cholesterol; 257mg Sodium.

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  1. Toffeeapple

    said on November 27th, 2016:

    I like the look of this. Did you keep the card with your mother’s handwriting on it? I surely would have done so.

    I didn’t. I thought about it. And thought about it. I have many others with her handwriting, but this one I decided to toss once I input it into my computer. But I had misgivings about doing it. I’m trying to get rid of stuff. Maybe I’ll give the entire big recipe box to my San Diego daughter who would probably really appreciate it, though I doubt she’d cook many, if any of the recipes. . . carolyn t

  2. hddonna

    said on November 30th, 2016:

    I admire you for organizing all those recipes–what a huge project! I need to do it, too, but haven’t taken the plunge yet!

    My favorite cake that my mom baked when I was growing up was a buttermilk chocolate one. It called for shortening, too, but about 15 or 20 years ago, I took a chance and substituted butter. It worked great, and I’ve never looked back. A couple years ago, I was making it for my son’s birthday, and I put out all the ingredients for the frosting as well as the cake. Then I put all three sticks of butter into the cake! Didn’t realize what I’d done until I was ready to make the frosting and couldn’t find the butter. And guess what? It was even better than usual, and it didn’t fall or turn out heavy. My son said he’d like it that way all the time, but I’m not going that far!
    But I’d call that a true never-fail cake.

    I’m sure most of us have made some similar mistake – I did that once myself. Can’t recall what it was in, and I thought the cake tasted okay, but not great. Nobody else knew or noticed, thankfully! . . . carolyn t

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