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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 Brunch, Desserts, on March 9th, 2009.

great-coffee-cake-whole

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.
printer-friendly PDF

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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