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Just finished reading 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 Breads, Brunch, on April 9th, 2009.

custard-filled-cornbread

The name Marion Cunningham reached the altitude of my food-seeking radar a couple of years ago. I know I’d heard her name in foodie circles (magazines, books, Food Network) over the years, but didn’t own any of her books. She’s most famous for writing the Fannie Farmer Cookbook. And more recently she wrote a book called Lost Recipes, about good, old-fashioned kinds of recipes we’re known to rely on, but they’ve gotten lost in the flurry of fast food, take out and a general cooking malaise. The first recipe to reach my radar was a year or so ago when I made her unbelievably good and light dumplings on top of a chicken stew. That’s when I realized she knew a thing or two about how to get around a baking kitchen.

Then, recently I tried a coffee cake that came from her book, The Breakfast Book. I didn’t own that cookbook either. But I made a trip to a local library and found it there – so I photocopied a bunch of recipes from it. This recipe below was one.

The other night we’d invited friends to come over for a salad dinner. It was warm enough to eat outside, and I had most of the ingredients on hand to make one of my favorite salads – another Phillis Carey recipe – her Mexican Chopped Salad with Cilantro Dressing . I added chicken to it and it became our main course. Sue brought over an appetizer – one of my recipes as a matter of fact – gorgonzola, grape and pine nut crostini – and some brownies she’d made the day before which I paired with my roasted strawberry balsamic vinegar ice cream. We had a feast, along with the leftover margaritas I’d made over the weekend.

So, now, to finally get to the recipe, I didn’t have any bread to serve with the salad dinner, so I grabbed the photocopied recipe for custard-filled cornbread I’d just saved from Cunningham’s book. It took about 10+ minutes to put together. Tops.

This bread, served as is, probably is best suited to serve with breakfast – but only because of the sweetness to it. But actually, if you reduce the sugar just a little bit, it’s wonderful with any dinner. Yes, it’s cornbread. And yes, it’s a little sweet (not overly, though), but it’s SO delicious. It’s like no cornbread you’ve ever had, unless you’ve had one similar to this one. You mix up a cornbread batter (I used fine ground polenta-type cornmeal) and pour it into a hot 9×9 pan. Then, just before you carefully pop this into the oven, you pour a cup of cream into the CENTER of the batter. And you don’t touch it. No stirring. Nothing. As it bakes, the cream infiltrates the entire pan in the middle of the cornbread (how? I have no idea the chemistry of this, except to note that it works!), and gives you a very moist, creamy, soft cornbread. You can see the creamy, custardy layer in the center, in the photo at top. We had this as leftovers a couple of nights later, and it was as good if not better than the first time. My DH even went back for a second piece. It went perfectly with the salad. I will make this again. Definitely. And, I’ll be on the lookout at used book stores for some of Cunningham’s older cookbooks.
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Custard-Filled Cornbread

Recipe: Marion Cunningham, from The Breakfast Book
Servings: 12
NOTES: If you’re making this to go with dinner, reduce the sugar by half.

1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup yellow cornmeal — fine ground is better
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons butter — melted
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups milk
1 1/2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 cup heavy cream

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Butter an 8-inch square baking dish, and place it in the hot oven while you prepare the batter.
3. Sift or stir together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and baking soda.
4. In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs and the melted butter until well-blended. Add the sugar, salt, milk and vinegar and beat well. Stir the dry ingredients into the egg mixture just until the batter is smooth and there are no lumps.
5. Pour the batter into the heated baking dish. Pour the heavy cream into the center of the batter. Do not stir. Check the cornbread after 45 minutes. It is done when the top becomes lightly browned. Serve warm.
Per Serving: 213 Calories; 13g Fat (53.1% calories from fat); 5g Protein; 20g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 76mg Cholesterol; 251mg Sodium.

A year ago: Pork Tenderloin with Maple-Mustard Sauce

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  1. farida

    said on April 9th, 2009:

    This looks absolutely delicious! I will save the recipe to make this for my kids for breakfast. I am sure they will love it. Thanks for sharing, Carolyn!

    You’re welcome – they are just fabulous. They’re all gone already (although I gave away some of them) and am already craving to make them again . . . carolyn t

  2. Toffeeapple

    said on April 11th, 2009:

    I might just have to find my baking dish! It’s a long time since I had corn bread so I really should make the effort to do this.

    Oh, you should! This cornbread is better than any cornbread I’ve ever had, I do believe. .. . carolyn t

  3. Marie

    said on April 15th, 2009:

    Great minds must think alike Carolyn. I have all of Marion’s cookbooks and I love them. I have long wanted to make this cornbread and after seeing yours, I must not put it off any longer! That looks fantastic!! (can you believe I have worn out 3 copies of the Fanny Farmer cookbook? I got my first one when I was 16. It’s the best).

    Wow. Really? THREE copies! I guess I’ll have to invest in one of them. Maybe I’ll replace my old Joy of Cooking with a new copy of the F.F. cookbook. And yes, the cornbread is really scrumptious. . . carolyn t

  4. Rachelle

    said on April 27th, 2009:

    This looks heavenly! I made a similar recipe from Martha Stewart that called for corn kernels as well… If you go check out my blog, you can see the results. I’m thinking it wasn’t right. I love how yours has that little layer of custard in the center, I followed the instructions exactly and mine had way more in the center than anywhere else. Do you really just pour the cream right into the very center? I wondered about pouring it in rows? I also used medium cornmeal, maybe that had something to do with it? Anyway, I will try this recipe next time. It looks perfect!

    Rachelle – yup, you pour the cream ONLY in the very center. The recipe is SO easy. As I mentioned, I did use fine polenta, but supposedly you can use any type of grind. Adding corn might be a great idea – maybe I’ll try it next time. . . carolyn t

  5. sue

    said on April 25th, 2010:

    You can get a wonderfully custard-y cornbread without using cream at all, and no fancy pouring.

    Just make a regular cornbread recipe, using whole wheat pastry flour as the flour. Add 3 cups of whatever milk you have on hand milk (I use 1%) and add as usual, with the beaten eggs. Bake at 350 for 50 minutes. It separates BY ITSELF into layers, bran on the top, custard in the middle and crunchy cornmeal on the bottom. This recipe is from Edward Espe Brown’s Tassajara Breadbook from the early 1970’s. He calls it “Easy! Glorious! Amazing!”

    I’ve been enjoying it for 40 years. It has also made the rounds on chowhound.com’s home cooking board.

    How interesting. I’ll have to go hunt for the recipe. I used to have that bread cookbook, but must have given it away. Thanks for the idea. . . carolyn t

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