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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 Veggies/sides, on May 9th, 2017.

perfect_baked_potato

Who would have thought that I could get so excited about a baked potato?

Recently I was watching America’s Test Kitchen and they did a segment about the perfectly cooked baked potato. They talked about what makes a good potato (first off, a nicely shaped oval Russet variety for sure with few blemishes, dents or eyes). But they mentioned all the things that go along with it – you want it fluffy. That’s probably the most important. You want crispy skin. And fluffy. Fluffy! So the chefs at ATK went about perfecting it, and OH did they! One of the secrets to this recipe is baking the potatoes to exactly 205°F. More and more, we’re figuring out the exact perfect temperature for cooking all kinds of things.

There are a list of steps to make these:

  1. buy a really nice oval Russet with few blemishes, about  7-9 ounces each (mine were heavier)
  2. poke the potato 6 times on the top with a fork
  3. dip the potato in heavily salted water (see exact amounts below)
  4. bake on a rack on top of a baking sheet at 450°F
  5. bake about 45-60 minutes, or until the internal temp reaches exactly 205°F
  6. remove from oven and brush the outside with vegetable oil
  7. bake another 10 minutes
  8. remove and cut a big X in the top and smoosh the two ends together to open up the top
  9. plop a lovely tablespoon of butter inside, add salt and pepper to taste
  10. swoon.

russets_poked_and_soakedAnd I mean swoon (definition: a state of ecstasy). I could have made just that for a dinner for myself – maybe I will one of these days. I invited 3 friends for dinner (made some grilled shrimp with a garlic and butter sauce, a new green goddess dressing that was the best I’ve ever made, and crumbled asparagus) So, that means I tried 3 new recipes. All 3 of them winners. Yes, I’ll post the other recipes soon.

Pictured, the potatoes after they’d been swirled in the heavily salted water.

These potatoes are just SO good. When I pulled the potatoes out of the oven, steam was escaping from the fork holes in the tops. Then, when cut the X and smooshed the ends in, there was a geyser of steam from each potato, and OH, were they fluffy inside. I had 4 pats of butter (room temp) and dropped one into each. I also made a topping for them, that was recommended by ATK to go along with it, but I preferred the potato just plain, with butter, salt and pepper.

The outside skins were crunchy-perfect and salty – at the end of our meal I just kept pulling off little chunks of skin and eating it. Stone cold. But still delicious, and those pieces didn’t have any pepper, butter or topping on them. Just the salty, crunchy skin.

All 4 of us left our potatoes with most of the insides eaten and everyone went home with their own shells. Today, for lunch, I’m going to open up the potato fully, maybe fry up a slice or two of bacon, shred some cheddar, bake it for 10 minutes or so in my toaster oven, then top it with some green onions. Oh, and maybe a tablespoon or so of sour cream. Decadent. And I will eat the entire thing, the little bit of inside potato and all.

Image result for thermapenTHERMAPEN: As an aside, I’ll mention that I was so upset a couple of weeks ago when my beloved Thermapen quit working after 6 years! Woe is me! I use it ALL THE TIME. So I contacted ThermoWorks, and mailed the probe to them, with a $25 check and they repaired it with all new insides. Since these Thermapens are expensive, it was well worth paying $25 to get it fixed to near-new.

What’s GOOD: where do I start? Everything about this potato was downright perfect. Hence, the perfect baked potato. The crunchy, salty skin, the super-fluffy insides. This will be my go-to preparation from here on! DO MAKE THESE, okay? Thanks to Cook’s Country or America’s Test Kitchen they’ll be absolutely perfect!

What’s NOT: none of it is hard, but there are a few steps involved. Get everything ready (mis en place) so you don’t have to hunt for the thermometer, the pan and rack, the vegetable oil or brush, and have the butter at room temp. That will make the process easier and quicker. And once they’re out of the oven, no dilly-dallying getting to the table to sit down!

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

* Exported from MasterCook *

Perfect Baked Potatoes

Recipe By: Cook’s Illustrated, Jan, 2016
Serving Size: 4

4 russet potatoes — unpeeled, each lightly pricked with fork in 6 places (about 7-9 ounces each)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

NOTE: Open up the potatoes immediately after removal from the oven in step 3 so steam can escape. Top them as desired.
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 450°F. Dissolve 2 tablespoons salt in 1/2 cup water in large bowl. Place potatoes in bowl and toss so exteriors of potatoes are evenly moistened. Using a fork, poke each potato about 6 times on the top half.Transfer potatoes to wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet and bake until center of largest potato registers 205°F, 45 minutes to 1 hour. (I put foil underneath them.)
2. Remove potatoes from oven and brush tops and sides with oil. Return potatoes to oven and continue to bake for 10 minutes.
3. Remove potatoes from oven and, using paring knife, make 2 slits, forming X, in each potato. Using clean dish towel, hold ends and squeeze slightly to push flesh up and out. Season with salt and pepper to taste and a pat of butter. Serve immediately.
Per Serving: 89 Calories; 3g Fat (34.2% calories from fat); 2g Protein; 13g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 0mg Cholesterol; 5mg Sodium.

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  1. hddonna

    said on May 9th, 2017:

    I love super-crisp-skinned baked potatoes. I like the idea of getting the skins salty. Will definitely try this. My husband and son always leave their skins, so I’ve got a plan: let them have most of the insides of mine, and they can give me their skins! Your lunch sounds marvelous. I’d do it for breakfast–with an egg on it.

    Great idea, Donna. You’ll be in potato-skin-heaven! . . . carolyn t

  2. Toffeeapple

    said on May 25th, 2017:

    I would pay good money to be able to get my oven to even near 205 degrees! I never know what it will end up at.

    I know I would not go to all that trouble over a baked potato, I wash, dry and slather mine in butter then push a skewer through the length of it then bake it for an hour or so. I could never stick to one pat of butter either – I like a lot of it, probably more than you would be happy with…

    Sounds like you need to replace your oven? Or have it fixed? It really isn’t that much trouble to fix the potato, it’s just those few little things that make such a difference to the fluffy texture you’ll get. And I might be tempted to use a LOT of butter too. Usually if I’m having one, I’ll add sour cream too, and butter, S & P. But baked this way, butter is all that’s needed. . . carolyn t

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