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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 Cookies, Desserts, on January 10th, 2008.

brandied_apricot_barsSurely I’m not alone in having an occasional baking failure. I rarely have an actual cooking “failure.” But, this was a close call! One of my greatest cooking failings is that I don’t read the directions completely before plunging into the preparation. This time was no exception. But, hey, it’s a cookie, and what’s a little extra sugar, right?

Last time I made these, probably two years ago, after they were finished I even went into my recipe software and re-arranged the recipe, separating the ingredients for the bar part, the syrup part and the glaze part. So that I wouldn’t do exactly what I repeated – again – today. But did I print out the recipe and toss the old one? You can guess, can’t you? No. I didn’t. Dummy. Idiot that I am. So this morning, as usual, always with 101 things on my mind (gotta finish this quickly, need to pay some bills, make the bed, finish my makeup) before I leave for a luncheon. I did READ the ingredients. But I glossed over the directions about separating the sugar portion (some of the sugar goes in the syrup).

This recipe is a favorite (when I make it) of my friend, Cherrie. She’s an excellent cook, but she isn’t a baker, so she relies on her friends who are bakers (uh, that’s me and others, I assume) to give her some goodies now and then. And sometimes I give her a little bag of cookies which she parcels out in her DH Bud’s lunch bag. I gave her one of my Bishop’s Breads I made before Christmas. (I don’t mean to be going on and on about my Bishop’s Bread – it’s just that Cherrie has learned to love this like I do.) Just a slice with her afternoon tea. So when one of her friends called to tell me she was having a birthday luncheon for Cherrie today, I thought – oh, I’ll make a batch of those Brandied Apricot Bars for her. That will make Cherrie very, very happy. She adores these things. More than I do, actually. I mean, they’re really good, but she would happily cross a glacier to get ahold of brandied_apricot_bars_full_panthese, and she doesn’t “do” cold. Of all the things I bake, these cookies may be her very favorite. It could be the little rolling warmth that emanates from your gullet after chewing one – after all, it does have brandy in it. Not cooked much, either. Supposedly the alcohol is cooked off when you heat alcohol to a boil, but since this is apricot brandy you use, it’s potent stuff and I’m sure there is still alcohol remaining, because I sure do get warmth in my mouth, throat and tummy when I eat these. Back when I made these the first time, Cherrie was actually staying with us for awhile. She and I were both having sleeping issues, often waking up in the middle of the night, not able to sleep (my reason was that I was taking Claritin-D; once I stopped taking that, I began sleeping better). But back then, if she heard me up, we’d meet in the kitchen, whispering so we wouldn’t wake up my DH, and tiptoe with a tea tray into our living room, light the fire and have some Earl Gray and one of these bars. Or maybe two. At 6:30 am, or so, my DH would wander out, sleep in his eyes and say what in the world are you two doing? He learned eventually – if I wasn’t in the bed with him when he awoke, I’d be in the living room with tea and a fire, or in my office playing some mindless solitaire.

So, back to today and too much sugar. What to do, what to do? I was already fully into the batter when I re-read the directions. That’s when I discovered my mistake. Oops. I had put a scant cup of white sugar into the batter. So, I cut down some on the brown sugar (about half) and used less sugar in the brandy mixture. The lemon juice topping requires a certain amount of sugar – otherwise it would turn out too sour, so I really couldn’t reduce the powdered sugar there. I also made these in a 9×13 Pyrex pan, so baked them slightly longer, and it made 32 bars, not 36. But even with all my bad reading and chemistry juggling, they turned out just fine. Amazing. And Cherrie was really tickled (see big smile below) with my plate of cookies. All for her, with a little bite for everybody else at the luncheon.

So, the recipe below, for these tummy-warming bars, is the corrected one. Note to self: print out the gosh-darned corrected recipe and put it in your file! (done!)
printer-friendly PDF

Files: MasterCook 5+ and MasterCook 14 (click on link to open in MC)

Brandied Apricot Bars

Recipe: Adapted by me from a Sunset Magazine article, 1996
Servings: 36
NOTES: When making the final glaze, add enough powdered sugar to make the glaze fairly firm – otherwise the bars are too soft and difficult to hold in your hand(it will ooze the glaze) and they’re hard to store. Serve immediately or store airtight up to 2 days; freeze to store longer. If storing or freezing, separate layers with waxed paper or plastic wrap. Originally the bar called for more butter and sugar, but I reduced the amounts, as well as the amount of apricots and raisins.
Serving Ideas: Originally a cookie, I think these make an equally interesting dessert. But, whichever, they’re great with a cup of coffee or tea.

7 tbsp butter
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 tbsp grated orange peel
1 tbsp vanilla
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 1/2 cups dried apricots — minced
2/3 cup golden raisins
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup apricot brandy — or Cointreau
3 tsp lemon juice
4 tsp lemon juice
2/3 cup powdered sugar

1. Batter: preheat oven to 350°. In a large bowl, beat butter, 1/3 cup sugar, and brown sugar with mixer until fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition, then add orange peel and vanilla.
2. In separate bowl, mix flour, baking powder, soda and cinnamon. Stir into butter mixture along with apricots and raisins.
3. Pour batter into lightly buttered 10×15 inch pan. Bake for 20 minutes or until cookie is lightly browned and springs back in center. If using a 9×13 pan, bake for about 25 minutes. Set on rack to cool.
4. Apricot Syrup – Just before bars are done, combine 1/3 cup sugar, brandy, and 3 tsp lemon juice in sauce pan. Bring to boil over high heat, remove and when bars comes from oven, spoon warm apricot syrup evenly over it. Let cool completely, then cut into 3 dozen equal pieces and leave in pan.
5. Lemon Icing – mix 4 teaspoons lemon juice and powdered sugar until smooth. Drizzle over the cookies. Once drizzle is sort-of dried, remove bars from pan.
Per Serving: 132 Calories; 6g Fat (38.9% calories from fat); 2g Protein; 19g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 37mg Cholesterol; 93mg Sodium.

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  1. Toffeeapple

    said on January 11th, 2008:

    Well, Doesn’t Cherrie look pleased with herself? I think you should too, for turning around a possible disaster! I’m sure you’ll do it correctly next time.

  2. Elizabeth

    said on January 11th, 2011:

    I noticed that the Sunset recipe,, uses 1 cup butter. Did you find that too greasy and reduce it to 7 T?
    These sound delicious. I love a dessert with a little alcohol.

    Yes, that’s exactly what I did. I might be fine with even less, but the 7 seemed about right. . . carolyn t

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