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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 Cookies, Desserts, on December 19th, 2016.

new_cream_cheese_brownies

Did you know there’s a somewhat different way to make cream cheese brownies? Neither did I, but they’re really, really good. Yes, better than the old recipe.

I’ve long been a fan of cream cheese brownies. Not that I make them all that often – it’s been a couple of years. But I watched a show on America’s Test Kitchen awhile back and they talked about some of the inherent problems that existed with the old-style ones. What’s new about these: (1) unsweetened chocolate provides a more bold chocolate flavor; (2) sour cream added some tang to the cream cheese layer; (3) a more cakey batter doesn’t allow the brownies to get soggy or dense; (4) no more dry edges because the cream cheese layer is spread all over the chocolate batter, then a reserved portion of chocolate is dolloped on top before the whole pan is swirled and baked.

cc_brownies_slingThe chefs at ATK felt that the two batters didn’t complement one another, so they set out making a bunch of changes. And it works. No question about that. I’ll be making these again and again. They also recommend preparing heavy-duty foil slings (both directions) in and out of the 8×8 pan. See photo above.

You prepare a chocolate batter. You make a cream cheese, sour cream, sugar and flour (very little) mixture that comprises the cream cheese layer, so to speak. cc_brownies_choc_batterThere on the right you can see the chocolate batter which was poured into the pan first. About 1/2 cup was reserved and set aside to dollop on top later.

cc_brownies_ch_layerAt left, see how you gently spread the cream cheese layer on top of the chocolate batter. You spread it almost out to the edges. THEN, you use that reserved chocolate batter (that needs to be heated in the microwave for 10-20 seconds to heat it up and make it more liquid) and you either pour or scoop it all over and around the top. Then you use a regular knife to swirl it – they tell you to do about 10-12 strokes. I did a zigzag patterncc_brownies_baked_swirled, going one way, then the other. I ended up with the photo at right of the finished pan.

The brownies are baked at 325°F. for about 35-40 minutes. Mine took the full 40 minutes and you need to stick your cake tester or toothpick into the chocolate portion, not the cream cheese part (it’s still retains a bit of a soft texture).

Once baked, you leave the brownies in the pan (in the slings) for an hour before removing them. If you do it too soon they won’t remain flat and stable (solid) on the bottom and the whole pan full would bend with the sling. I removed them after an hour or so, laid the foil edges over the top and let it sit overnight. They were still warm when I went to bed, so I left them out. They recommend you keep these refrigerated (because of the sour cream), but I think I’d let them come to room temp before serving.

What’s GOOD: these cream cheese brownies are really wonderful. I loved the more intense chocolate flavor. The cream cheese layer was a bit more stable (with the added flour) so the brownies weren’t dense at all, more cakey altogether. Loved these. As I mentioned, this is going to replace my old recipe, and yes, I’ll be making them again.

What’s NOT: nothing really. The foil slings take a bit of fussing with, to get them right, but they’re not difficult.

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

* Exported from MasterCook *

New Cream Cheese Brownies

Recipe By: America’s Test Kitchen, 2016
Serving Size: 16

4 ounces cream cheese — cut into 8 pieces
1/2 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
BROWNIE BATTER:
2/3 cup all-purpose flour — (3 1/3 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate — chopped fine
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups sugar — (8 3/4 ounces)
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. FOR THE CREAM CHEESE FILLING: Microwave cream cheese until soft, 20 to 30 seconds. Add sour cream, sugar, and flour and whisk to combine. Set aside.
2. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Make foil sling for 8-inch square baking pan by folding 2 long sheets of aluminum foil so each is 8 inches wide. Lay sheets of foil in pan perpendicular to each other, with extra foil hanging over edges of pan. Push foil into corners and up sides of pan, smoothing foil flush to pan. Grease foil.
3. FOR THE BROWNIE BATTER: Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt together in bowl and set aside. Microwave chocolate and butter in bowl at 50 percent power, stirring occasionally, until melted, 1 to 2 minutes.
4. Whisk sugar, eggs, and vanilla together in medium bowl. Add melted chocolate mixture (do not clean bowl) and whisk until incorporated. Add flour mixture and fold to combine.
5. Transfer 1/2 cup batter to bowl used to melt chocolate. Spread remaining batter in prepared pan. Spread cream cheese filling evenly over batter.
6. Microwave bowl of reserved batter until warm and pourable, 10 to 20 seconds. Using spoon, dollop softened batter over cream cheese filling, 6 to 8 dollops. Using knife, swirl batter through cream cheese filling, making marbled pattern, 10 to 12 strokes, leaving 1/2-inch border around edges.
7. Bake until toothpick inserted in center comes out with few moist crumbs attached, 35 to 40 minutes, rotating pan halfway through baking. Let cool in pan on wire rack for 1 hour.
8. Using foil overhang, lift brownies out of pan. Return brownies to wire rack and let cool completely, about 1 hour. Cut into 2-inch squares and serve.
Per Serving : 225 Calories; 14g Fat (54.3% calories from fat); 3g Protein; 24g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 53mg Cholesterol; 117mg Sodium.

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  1. Toffeeapple

    said on December 21st, 2016:

    Gosh, I had no idea that such a thing existed. Fudgy chocolate Brownies is all I know!

    Several years ago I posted the recipe for the “old” ones that I knew from the 1970s. These are different – good different. They’re a lighter cake-type brownie. . . carolyn t

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