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Just finished a stunning book, 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 (don’t confuse this book with the one I recently read and is reviewed below) and really liked it. 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 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.

The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas. It’s a very, very good read. It tells the story of an older married woman who lives in a small mining town in the Colorado rockies (this is the mid-1800’s), and is well known by all because she’s the only midwife in the area. Often people can’t pay her anything, or very little for her days of service with little or no rest or food. Suddenly, a couple accuse her of strangling their infant. Hence the story is about how this small town rallies or rails for or against Gracy. She didn’t commit the crime, but not everyone can be convinced since the angry father is a wealthy and influential man in the area. There’s plenty of relationship issues here, which make really great fodder for a novel. And there are plenty of characters in the book that you’ll love or hate. Some secrets get dredged up too. Oh, such a good read.


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 Breads, on October 8th, 2007.

It was just a couple of weeks ago I mentioned how FUN it is (for me, anyway) when I discover a new method for making some heretofore ordinary dish. That was the green beans with garlic and olive oil. So, now, I have a great new recipe for you. This one is compliments of Cooks Illustrated, the bi-monthly magazine. I’ve subscribed to this gem for many years. And I think I’ve mentioned before (also) that I truly enjoy reading the long treatises on individual subjects. It could be gravy for pork chops, or just the right texture for fudgy brownies. You get the drift.

The subject of this article was : “The Best Drop Biscuit,” by Sandra Wu. The writer (food developer) explained the steps and stages she used to refine a favorite, the lowly drop biscuit. I don’t make drop biscuits very often. Why? I don’t know . . . I think I prefer the kind that you knead just a little bit, then pat out the dough and cut with a biscuit cutter. Plus, they’re perhaps a bit easier to break apart without falling apart. And sometimes drop biscuits are unevenly baked because they’re not all the same size or shape. An inherent problem with a drop biscuit. But this new method solves most of those problems.

The only thing you need for this recipe is butter (the real stuff) and buttermilk. (Although, to be fair, the recipe does indicate how to make clabbered milk instead of buttermilk.) I try to have buttermilk on hand. Once I’ve used whatever I needed it for, I freeze it in 1-cup freezer cups. My scones require exactly one cup. So do these biscuits, which will now become part of my regular repertoire. Now, whether this method for drop biscuits would work with defrosted buttermilk, I’m not sure. So, for now I won’t recommend that until I try it. Once defrosted, buttermilk gets a bit watery. It works fine for my scones, but, as I explain below, it might not work for these biscuits.

I won’t belabor all the explanation the author went through to finally GET to the final product. I found it very interesting. You might not. But, what’s unusual is: you pour slightly cooled, but melted butter INTO the one cup of buttermilk before adding that to the dry ingredients. Who woulda thunk that coulda make such a difference? Certainly not me! Here’s a picture of the clumpy buttermilk.

The writer is enough of a baking chemist to know that you need to stabilize – or equalize the temperatures of the butter and the usually cold buttermilk. She kept getting this clumpy mass (see picture), and probably threw away countless efforts of that combination. But one time she decided to go ahead and use that clumpy mess in the biscuit anyway. Voila! As you stir the moderately warm/hot butter into the cold buttermilk the little clumps in buttermilk that are there naturally attach themselves to all the little molecules of butter. And you have this heaping cup full of lumps. It’s such an incongruous pile of stuff.

But anyway, you pour all that into the dry ingredients, stir just until mixed thoroughly (no kneading) and you’re ready to make quick drop biscuits. She recommended using a greased 1/4-cup measuring cup. I used cooking spray, which didn’t work all that well, I must say. Keep the waxed paper the butter is wrapped in and grease the measuring cup with that. The 2nd time I made these I used a narrow metal sandwich spreader to kind of scoop out the batter. Buttering the 1/4-cup measure didn’t work any better than cooking spray. Whichever method you use, you scoop equal 1/4-cup measures of the batter and drop onto parchment on a baking sheet. Then you gently reshape any that aren’t uniform.

Now, there’s a side story (a sidebar) in the article about the use of parchment vs. a Silpat. I have bunches of and I use them constantly. In the usual Cooks Illustrated’s style, they did a study of these biscuits using both. They far prefer parchment because they believe silicone mats (silpats or others) can impart some off-flavors. Mostly that wouldn’t bother me, but since biscuits are such a delicate flavored item, I took their advice and used paper. Then, I straightened all of the biscuits on the sheet – to make sure none were too high, or short, etc. That made a big difference – all the biscuits were perfectly, evenly browned.

Need I say they were a big hit? A BIG hit. These biscuits are so very light and tender. The master recipe is for a plain biscuit, but they also gave variations for both Black Pepper and Bacon Biscuits, and Rosemary and Parmesan Biscuits. I made the bacon and pepper version. We had leftovers of soup last night, and made the biscuits again, but also added some sharp cheddar cheese, at my son-in-law’s request. Any way you make them, they’re good.
printer-friendly PDF

Best Drop Biscuits

Recipe: Sandra Wu, Cooks Illustrated
Servings: 12

2 cups all-purpose flour — unbleached, if possible
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk — COLD
8 tablespoons unsalted butter — melted and cooled slightly
2 tablespoons butter — melted, for brushing tops

Bacon/Pepper Variation: cut 6 slices bacon into small pieces and fry until crisp. Crumble. Add bacon and 1 tsp. coarsely ground pepper to the dry mixture in step 1.
Rosemary/Parmesan Variation: add 3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese and 1/2 tsp. minced rosemary to the flour mixture in step 1.
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 475. Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar and salt in a large bowl. (Or, you can sift it together.)
2. In a medium bowl (at least 1 1/2 cups or larger) combine the cold buttermilk and the melted and slightly cooled butter. Stir until buttermilk forms clumps.
3. Add buttermilk mixture to dry ingredients and stir with rubber spatula until just incorporated and batter pulls away from side of the bowl.
4. Using a greased 1/4-cup measure, scoop level amounts of batter and drop onto a parchment-lined baking sheet, approximately 2 1/4 inches across and 1 1/4 inches high. Repeat with remaining batter, spacing biscuits about 1 1/2 inches apart. Bake until tops are golden brown and crisp, approximately 12-14 minutes.
5. Brush biscuit tops with remaining 2 T. melted butter. Transfer to a wire rack to cool, or serve immediately.
Per Serving: 171 Calories; 10g Fat (52.4% calories from fat); 3g Protein; 17g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 27mg Cholesterol; 309mg Sodium.

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