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Just finished reading 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 Novelby 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 (she arrived after the birth, actually). 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 father is a wealthy man in the area who carries a lot of clout. 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.

On my recent road trip, I visited one of my local libraries and borrowed 5 books on tape. We listened to 3 of them. I’m a big fan of Craig Johnson, the author of a series of mysteries taking place in Wyoming, and a TV series on Netflix called Longmire. This book, A Serpent’s Tooth: A Longmire Mystery was really complex. Hard to explain, but it’s about graft and greed and oil. Worth reading, for sure. Also read Stone Kiss by Faye Kellerman, another complex mystery about Lt Decker, an LA cop who journeys to NYC to help out his family when a murder occurs. Lots of violence in this one.  Not particularly a fav book, I’d venture. Then read Leaving Time: A Novel by Jodi Picoult. I’ve read most of her books – always very riveting. In this book, you’ll learn a whole lot about elephants since the protagonist in it is a young girl whose mother disappeared when she was quite young. Her parents ran an elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire. In the ensuing years, Jenna has tried to find clues as to her mother’s whereabouts because she just cannot believe her mother would have up and abandoned her. There are a whole cast of characters (her mother, her father, employees at the sanctuary, a cop or two, and a psychic). All play fairly prominent roles. Fascinating book – I really liked it, almost as much for the education about the behavior of elephants as about the mystery. A great read.

Also on the trip, I read a book (on Kindle) for one of my book clubs, The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin. It’s about the relationship between Truman Capote and his “swans,” a group of middle-aged high society ladies, and specifically Beth Paley. I don’t know whether to recommend this book or not. Truman Capote was not a nice man, although the whole novel (vs. non-fiction, which this is not) is conjured from speculation about the years Truman was kind of adopted by the group of women. He cared about all of them (most were married/divorced, and wealthy) but in the end he betrays them all by writing a novella about their secrets, their marriages, their affairs (theirs or their spouses, information they’d all shared with him, thinking he could be trusted with their innermost secrets). It was scandalous, and yes, all that part is true. I finished the book, but almost felt like I’d read a “dirty book.” There is no graphic detail in this book – it’s just what Capote did to destroy these women, supposedly his dear, darling “swans.” He was the villain in the book, and in his old age . . . well, I won’t spoil the story if you’re interested in reading it.


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 Brunch, Desserts, on March 9th, 2009.


I’m feeling much, much better, after being down flat for 5 days with a bad head cold. (Thanks to those of you who sent me kind get well wishes.) Finally yesterday I returned to the land of the living. I had this write-up done last week, but just didn’t feel up to posting it. The photo was still in my camera, and it would have taken too much energy to combine the two. But today, here it is.

Since I don’t have the cookbook, The Breakfast Book by Marion Cunningham, from whence this came, I don’t know the story behind its name. Is this a great (delicious) coffee cake, or is it a great (large) coffee cake? Either one will probably do, as it was certainly large enough, and it was very nice to eat too. I was reading an article in the newest issue of Gourmet, and in it was mentioned this coffee cake, and that it’s Ruth Reichl’s favorite. And the favorite of any number of other significant foodies. That was all the information I needed. The recipe is on the Gourmet website.

We’re having a meeting (a Bible study, actually) here at our house for the next 5 Tuesday nights, so as hostess I thought it appropriate to bake something. I never need much of a nudge to bake. Since this recipe was foremost on my mind, why not make a coffee cake for an evening get-together.

If tasting the batter was any indication, this coffee cake was going to be sensational. I always taste cake batter (yes, I know, raw eggs, etc. but it’s never hurt me yet), and must say this one tasted just super. Great. Really smooth batter, and it was super-easy to put together – butter and sugar, eggs, flour, baking powder and soda, salt and sour cream. What could be simpler? Bake for 50 minutes in a Bundt pan, cool 5 minutes, unmold, cut and serve. It has many of the ingredients of a pound cake, or a sour cream pound cake.

great-coffee-cakeThe recipe also included a number of variations (raisin and spice, dried fig and almond, apple and walnut, and vanilla).  Those are in the PDF recipe you will get if you print it out from the link at the bottom. But for the first time around I wanted to make this true to the original. The coffee cake was plain. Good kind of plain. A very tender crumb. Next time I make this I’ll try one of the variations.

If you like Marion Cunningham, you might want to try another recipe I have of hers, the Feather Dumplings, which were served with Stewed Chicken. I waxed on and on when I made those in 2007.
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Marion Cunningham’s Great Coffee Cake

Recipe: From The Breakfast Book by Marion Cunningham
Servings: 12

1/2 pound butter — (2 sticks) room temperature
1 cup sugar
3 eggs — at room temperature
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup sour cream

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan or Bundt pan.
2. Put the butter in a large mixing bowl and beat for several seconds. Add the sugar and beat until smooth. Add the eggs and beat for 2 minutes, or until light and creamy. Put the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl and stir with a fork to blend well. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and beat until smooth. Add the sour cream and mix well.
3. Spoon the batter into the pan. Bake for about 50 minutes, or until a straw comes out clean when inserted into the center. Remove from the oven and let rest for 5 minutes in the pan. Invert onto a rack and cool a little bit before slicing. Serve warm.
Per Serving: 355 Calories; 21g Fat (52.4% calories from fat); 5g Protein; 38g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 103mg Cholesterol; 548mg Sodium.
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A year ago: Plate & Utensil Etiquette in Europe

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  1. donna

    said on August 21st, 2012:

    In the NYT Obituary for Ms. Cunningham, they included her Coffee Cake recipe! I have since made it several times, each time customizing it to my own interests. However, what WAS included in the NYT recipe that is NOT in yours is 5 teaspoons of pure vanilla extract. it is strange that it is missing completely from the above one.
    I have since tailored the recipe to include 4 teaspoons of vanilla extract and 1 teaspoon of pure almond extract. In addition I put in 1 teaspoon of lemon peel, finely shaved. It just adds that little extra zest.
    Also key to all this is the butter and eggs at room temperature.
    Thank you for your interest. August 21 2012

    Hmmm. I wonder if I made a mistake in entering the recipe? I’ll have to go look it up and make sure! An egregious error, to be sure, if I made it! . . . carolyn t

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