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Just finished 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 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 parents were 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 a old 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.

Winter Journey by Diane Armstrong. Have you ever read about forensic dentistry? I sure had not, so I found it fascinating reading. It’s a debut novel for the author, and what a story. Halina, an Australian, with Polish roots, specializes in this obscure profession as a forensic dentist, and is asked to go to Poland, to help identify bone (and tooth) fragments, to put to rest a sad event in the story of this small town, when many, many people (Jews) were murdered. Was it the Nazis? Or was it the local townspeople who disliked the Jews. What a tangled web of intrigue, including Halina’s own mysterious past. I really enjoyed the read. The author does a great job of developing the characters (which I always like). This is no light read if you consider the subject matter, although it IS a novel (but based on fact). Nor is it a spy thriller – it’s more just an historical novel with lots of interesting people throughout. There’s a romance thrown in too, and a whole lot of angst about the discoveries found in the mass grave. But, the subject expanded my knowledge about forensics.

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr. I just LOVED this book. I’ve never been much of a fan of Caravaggio’s paintings, although I’ve seen plenty of them (many are extremely large) in museums around the world. His paintings were dark, often with dark subjects. But as with many of the old masters, occasionally some obscure work surfaces, perhaps credited to another artist, even, that turns out to be one done by “the” master. In this case, Caravaggio. Although this book is written as a novel (with dialogue, etc.) it’s historical through and through. It begins with two young women art scholars, in Italy, who are asked to do a research project. One thing leads to another, and to another. All true.  If you enjoy books about art – I learned some things about the paint and the canvases of the time – you’ll be intrigued as I was.

Eye On the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, by James, McGrath Morris. Each year my AAUW book club reads something related to Black History Month. This is a biography of a woman you’ve probably never heard of, Ethel Payne, and about her life-long journey in journalism, struggling to keep her head above water financially, but staying true to her purposes of telling the truth about the black stories and black racism of the day. Sometimes biographies aren’t all that riveting, but I found this one to be so, and I savored each new chapter. We had a really good discussion of the book, and the ups and downs of Payne’s life, especially during her years as a Washington reporter. You’ll not be sorry to have spent the time reading this book. It’s well-written, as well. I was thrilled when the author, Morris, left a message here on my blog, thanking me (and my group) for reading his book.

H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. This one has been on the best seller list. It’s a memoir about a woman who takes on a personal challenge of taming a wild hawk. Prior to reading this book, I knew next to nothing about the entire subject of hawking, or taming any of the big, wild birds. The book is equally about the writer’s inner journey. She’s a consummate writer, and every page was a joy of words, for me. My only problem is my own – I found it hard, the more time that went by, and the more time the writer spent trying to tame this bird, to scream out “let the bird go.” Perhaps it’s because I spent time in Africa in 2015, seeing animals in the wild, that I felt more for the bird than I did with the writer’s discontent with herself and the taming process. Little did I know what a hard job it is to tame a hawk. I actually didn’t finish the book. It was a book club read, and highly recommended by several of our members. And I ended up not being able to attend the meeting as I had a cold. So perhaps there is some great ending to it that would have made me feel better. I haven’t gone to the end to find out. I just had to stop reading it. But I’m not NOT recommending it. If nothing else, read it for Macdonald’s sublime proficiency with words.

Also read George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution, by Brian Kilmeade and Dan Yaeger. Here’s what it says on amazon: When George Washington beat a hasty retreat from New York City in August 1776, many thought the American Revolution might soon be over. Instead, Washington rallied—thanks in large part to a little-known, top-secret group called the Culper Spy Ring. He realized that he couldn’t defeat the British with military might, so he recruited a sophisticated and deeply secretive intelligence network to infiltrate New York. I won’t exactly call this book a riveting read, but it was interesting. Relating facts that few people knew about, this Culper Spy Ring. It’s a little chunk of American history researched in depth by the authors. An interesting read.

Also read The Little Paris Bookshop: A Novel by Nina George. If you’re an avid reader, you probably have the same kind of longing as I do for a quaint, independently owned bookstore right around the corner. So few exist anymore. This novel is about a very unusual book store, and book store owner. In Paris. On a boat/barge. It’s not a typical book store, and the writer takes you on a journey of discovery about (likely) her own lifetime of book reading. You’ll learn all about a variety of existing books and why they’re a good read. But it’s all cloaked in a story about this book store and the owner. And the customers. Very fun. I’m reviewing it for one of my book clubs next month.

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.

apple_champ_custard_torte_whole

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.

apple_champ_custard_torte_slice

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

PASTRY:
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)
APPLE FILLING:
2 1/2 pounds apples — Gala (or Fuji), peeled, thinly sliced
A bowl of lightly salted water
CUSTARD PUDDING:
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
TOPPING:
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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