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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 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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