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Just finished reading The Boston Girl: A Novel by Anita Diamant. A very, very intriguing book. The book is written from the voice of a Jewish grandmother as she tells her granddaughter the saga of her life starting about 1910, who struggles with her own individuality, with her domineering mother who never says a kind word to her. It’s certainly a coming-of-age story as she grows up, finds a job, makes friends, joins a literary girls club, moves out, but still suffers under her mother’s thumb and tongue. She becomes a reporter on a local newspaper, which opens her eyes to more of the world than she ever knew. She finally meets the right man (of course!) and she shares the stories about her life, and her friends and family members as she grows up, giving some sage advice along the way. Part of the time she’s talking to herself – to her young self  (really wanting to tell young Addie to keep on, forgive herself for her perceived transgressions, to live life, and experience the world).

One of the best books I’ve read in a long time – Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. Rivers is a prodigious writer of Christian fiction, and I’d never read anything by her until now. As I write this, I’ve already read this, another one (below) and just purchased the Kindle trilogy called Mark of the Lion (Vol 1-3) that I haven’t yet started. (Two of my friends have said the trilogy is her best.) Redeeming Love details the fictional story of a godly man, Michael Hosea, forging his way in the era of the Gold Rush. He’s “driven” to rescue a beautiful prostitute who lives and works her trade in a nearby town. The entire book is about the story, the rescue, and it parallels a bit of scripture about Hosea who rescues a prostitute names Gomer. You get into the heads of both Hosea and the prostitute, named Angel. We read this for one of my book groups. A great read.

As soon as I finished the above book I promptly visited my church library and found a whole shelf of Rivers’ books, and grabbed one called The Atonement Child. This book takes place in the 1980s or 90s, about a young college student who is raped. She was engaged to be married, was a stellar student. The book chronicles what happens to her when she discovers she is pregnant from the rape. Every possible thing goes wrong in her life. I don’t want to spoil the story if you’re interested in reading it, but I couldn’t put it down. I ended up spending a good part of a day plowing through it. You hear her inner voice (I’m guessing this is a common thread in Rivers’ books) from a Christian perspective. Lots of meaty issues to discuss in a book club if your group would be interested and willing to talk about rape, abortion, adoption and the thorny issues surrounding all of those things, but with a Christian bent, for sure.

The Tuscan Child by Rhys Bowen. It’s kind of amazing how many and varied plot lines can be created from events of WWII. This is another one, about a current day woman who finds papers in the attic, after her father’s death, with references to “the child.” She never knew her father could have had another child – could she have a step-sibling somewhere? Her father she knew, had been shot down over Italy, but he never talked much about it. But of course, she must go to Italy to find out about this “child.” The book flips back and forth from this daughter on the search, to her father during the war, all of it taking place in a very small town in Tuscany. It’s about the varied people she meets who want her to go away and not dredge up anything about the war years (are they hiding something, you question), about how much she loves the landscape, and some of the people. And about the intense love affair between the injured pilot and a caring woman of the village. Very charming story. I could almost smell the flowers, taste the olives, hear the bees flitting, and loved the prose about the simple meals that were described. I really enjoyed the book. Perhaps not enough meat for a book club read, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy reading it nonetheless.

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 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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