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Just finished Leaving Blythe River: A Novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde. Almost a page turner. When one uses the phrase “coming of age,” it usually means (I think) love and loss/boyfriend/girlfriend, and in this case it’s somewhat that way. When Ethan, a 17-year old boy and his mother come home unexpectedly to find dad and his young secretary in a compromising position, all hell breaks loose. Separation happens instantly and just as his father moves out, his mother has to go take care of her aging mother. Ethan’s too young to be left in the NYC apartment alone, so Mom sends son to the father who is escaping from the world in Wyoming, living in a primitive A-frame house, and continuing his daily 20+ mile running journeys. Ethan and his father are barely speaking. They live in the middle of nowhere. Ethan feels betrayed by his father in every possible way, and somewhat by his mother for forcing him to live with his father for a temporary period. Then his father doesn’t return one day from his run. The authorities do a cursory search, but they are under the impression the dad wants to “get lost” on purpose. Ethan, although he thinks he doesn’t care, really does. What happens next is best left to you reading this book. Very interesting people (kind of loners) enter the picture and off they go to search. So worth reading.

The Girl With No Name by Diney Costelhoe. What a good book. Perhaps you’ve read before about the huge numbers of German refugee children who were sent to England before Hitler closed down any exits. This is a novel about one particular young girl, who is devastated when her mother puts her on one of the boats. She ends up in London, in an orphanage kind of place, and is eventually placed with a childless couple. She speaks no English. They speak no German, but they manage soon enough. Lisa (who eventually becomes Charlotte) is so homesick. She’s bullied at school, because most people and children don’t want any Germans there. A boy steps up to protect her, and as she grows up, she’s attracted to him. She shouldn’t be – he’s also German and from her own home town. He’s not a good match for her. You live with her through the blitz during all those war years and during one attack, she’s badly injured and loses her memory (and no ID on her). Through a series of mishaps she ends up in a village far from London, with a spinster woman who does eventually come to love her very much – they name her Charlotte and Charlotte she becomes. She goes to school there, still longing, though, for her mother and brother and her London foster family too. Then when she’s 16 she returns to London to help at the orphanage where she was originally placed and tries to find her foster parents. The story goes on from there, with the boy/man who “wants” her, the bad boy, and a good boy/man she befriends in the village in the country. Eventually she regains her memory. SUCH a good read.

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 and really liked it. Don’t confuse this book with the one I recently read, The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas that I reviewed recently. 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-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.


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 February 11th, 2017.


What this is, is unusual. Different. Not a typical torte. Not a typical custard. It’s kind of like an apple pie, but with a custard/champagne filling and a load of whipped cream on top, sprinkled liberally with unsweetened cocoa. It’s SO hard to describe. Was it good? Yes, indeed.

When Chef Caroline prepared this at a December cooking class, I said, wow, this looks like way too much work. And yes, it does require several steps of preparation. But, none of the steps are all that difficult. I suppose, the question always is, was it worth the effort? The finished piece of torte was excellent. I wrote “fabulous” on my recipe notes. Caroline had a long, rambling story to tell about acquiring the recipe from her friend Doris who is of German descent. And this friend, although a really good cook, doesn’t exactly cook with a recipe, so Caroline had to visit her house and watch, scribble, help and use more guesswork to write down the ingredients and quantities. She assured us it would be worth waiting for, and worth the effort to make. Tasting the finished product, I agree.

It starts with a 10-inch springform pan that’s lined with parchment and buttered (important). A pastry dough is made, but it’s not your standard pastry, either. It has baking powder in it and an egg – but it’s not a biscuit dough. Not a pie dough – maybe more like a thin cake, yet it’s NOT a cake batter, either. So hard to describe. If any of you are overly annoyed with my inability to describe this, well, you might have to make it and tell me. I haven’t tried to analyze the chemistry of the pastry to figure out what it really is. Caroline rolled out half the dough for the bottom of the springform, then rolled out rectangles to make the sides, then pressed the edges together in the pan. Clever, that girl! She thought Doris had difficulty with the dough too, so her solution was to do it in two parts. Then you slice Gala apples and place them on top of the dough.


Picture at left is a piece of the torte, and the whipped cream topping slid right off the side. But at least you can see the consistency of the pudding part – read the next paragraph about that – it’s different!

In the meantime, you prepare the “custard,” which isn’t exactly a custard by normal standards – it’s a kind of a pudding made with Dr. Oetker’s packaged vanilla pudding mix (Cost Plus has it and I found it in a 3-pack at Amazon), but instead of mixing it with milk, it’s made with Prosecco. Yes, Dr. Oetker Original Pudding Mix, Vanilla - 3 pcs.Prosecco. Or champagne. Or even sparkling cider would likely work (use a bit less sugar). So it’s a clear-looking (sort of) pudding – almost like a gelatin pudding, but it’s vanilla flavored, of course. See, I told you this dessert was unusual. Once it’s made, you pour it on top of the apples and into the oven the torte goes for about an hour. The oven is turned off and you leave it sit in the oven for 10 minutes, then you remove it to cool completely on a wire rack.

At this point you refrigerate it overnight. When ready to serve, whip up the heavy cream with a tablespoon of “vanilla sugar,” from a package you can find at Cost Plus. It’s also a Dr. Oetker product – available in multi-packs at Amazon. Spread that all over the top of the torte, then sprinkle unsweetened cocoa through a sieve (so it will distribute evenly) on top. You can also top with chocolate shavings if desired – or both. You don’t have to buy vanilla sugar to make this part – just add sugar and some vanilla instead.

What’s GOOD: although this might look like an extra-rich, heavy dessert, it isn’t. Making the pudding with Prosecco provides a light feeling to the torte. The pastry isn’t all that rich – the apples are good for us – and the only wicked part is the whipped cream on top. If you decide to make this, you’ll be glad you did. It looks gorgeous. What’s also GOOD is that it serves 12. Not very many desserts serve that many people. If you prefer, you can halve the recipe (to serve 6) and make it in a 7” springform pan.

What’s NOT: well, perhaps all the steps, but none are all that difficult. The pudding part is easy, actually with the packaged mix to help. Now I just need an excuse to make it myself – and have  12 people over in order to serve it all!

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

* Exported from MasterCook *

Apple & Champagne Custard Torte

Recipe By: Caroline Cayaumazou, chef, Antoine’s, San Clemente
Serving Size: 12

1 2/3 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons unsalted butter — melted
1 large egg — beaten (or up to 1 1/2 eggs)
2 1/2 pounds apples — Gala (or Fuji), peeled, thinly sliced
A bowl of lightly salted water
74 grams Dr. Oetker vanilla pudding mix — (instant type – 2 packages)
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 bottle Prosecco — or Champagne, or white sparkling wine
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 tablespoon vanilla sugar — (Dr. Oetker, a packet)
1 tablespoon cocoa — unsweetened

NOTES: Dr. Oetker products can be found online at Amazon (free shipping if you buy the multi-packs) and most Cost Plus stores (imported from Germany). The prepared pudding in this torte is not a true “cream” looking pudding – it’s made with sparkling wine, so it’s much less rich – but no less good!
1. PASTRY: Preheat oven to 350°F. Line the bottom of a 10-inch springform pan with parchment paper and butter the sides only. In a medium sized bowl combine the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. Make a well in the center and add the melted butter and egg. Mix with a fork until the dough comes together and then knead with your hands a few times to make the dough smooth.
2. Roll HALF the dough on a lightly floured tea towel to make a circle – slightly larger than 10″ to fit in the springform pan. With remaining HALF of the dough, roll into strips about 3″ wide and 6-7 inches long. You will have 2-3 pieces – enough to press onto the sides of the springform pan, and then press all the edges together so you have an even, filled-in pastry shell.
3. APPLES: As you prep the apples, place them in the bowl of lightly salted water. Remove apple slices to paper towels and blot dry. Place all the apple slices on top of the pastry.
4. PUDDING: In a medium bowl, whisk the sugar and vanilla pudding packets with about 1/2-cup of Prosecco. Then, in a medium saucepan, add the remaining Prosecco and bring to a boil. Whisk constantly as you add it to the pudding mixture and bring it to a boil again. Cook for 30 seconds and remove from heat. Pour evenly over the apples in the pastry. Bake the torte for 60 minutes. Turn off the oven heat and allow torte to sit in the oven for an additional 10 minutes, then remove to a rack and cool completely. Refrigerate the torte overnight, if possible.
5. TOPPING: Whip the heavy cream to stiff peaks and add the packaged Vanilla Sugar (or omit and just add your own quantity of sugar and vanilla). Whip until completely mixed in. Spread cream over the top of the torte. Using a sieve, sprinkle unsweetened cocoa powder all over the top of the torte and keep refrigerated until ready to serve.
Per Serving: 381 Calories; 19g Fat (42.8% calories from fat); 3g Protein; 53g Carbohydrate; 3g Dietary Fiber; 77mg Cholesterol; 122mg Sodium.

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  1. Toffeeapple

    said on February 11th, 2017:

    I have a jar of vanilla sugar, I simply put vanilla pods into the sugar in the jar and over time the flavour is imparted to the sugar. I know that the Germans use little sachets of it but it really is so easy to make. It even works if you have removed the seeds from the pod.

    Yes I’ve done that too in years past. Great tip, Toni. . . Carolyn t

  2. hddonna

    said on February 12th, 2017:

    I usually have some vanilla sugar around, made as Toni suggests. The difficulty for me is that I try to avoid mixes. If a recipe calls for a pudding mix, I usually skip it, unless I feel I can substitute. I guess it irritates me to have to spend money on something that would cost a few cents if made from scratch–just a little sugar, thickener, and flavoring, and in the cases of custard, some dried egg. I see this calls for instant, but I wonder if one couldn’t just use a cooked pudding recipe and substitute the wine for the milk. I suppose it would be wise to make it once according to the recipe, though. And it does look like it would be delicious and different.

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