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Just finished a quirky book, Goodbye, Vitamin: A Novel by Rachel Khong. She’s a new writer (newly published, I guess I should say) and this story is about Ruth, a 30+ something, trying to readjust to life without her fiance, who’s dumped her. She goes back home to help with the care of her father, who has Alzheimer’s. Written in a diary style, it jumps all over about her life, her mother, the funny, poignant things her father says on good days, and the nutty stuff he does on not-so-good days, her ex-, and her very quirky friends, too. Then a woman flits through who had had an affair with her father –  you get to observe all the angst from the mom about that. Mostly it’s about her father, as he’s relatively “together” early in the book, but then he disintegrates. Reading that part isn’t fun, although the author is able to lean some humor into it. I’m not sure I recommend the book exactly – I read it through – and felt sad. It doesn’t tie up loose ends – if you want that kind of book – you may not want to read this one.

Also finished Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia. You know Julian Fellowes, the producer and writer of Downton Abbey? He lends his mind to a story about a family or two from the similar time period as Downton, who live in London. There’s some amount of intrigue, romance, observations from within the halls of wealthy Londoners and moderately well off tradesmen and their families. There’s affairs, shady business dealings, an illegitimate child, the comings and goings of the “downstairs” staff too, etc. The characters were well done – I had no trouble keeping all of the people identified. The story is somewhat predictable, but it was interesting clear up to the end.

The Letter by Kathyrn Hughes. It’s a very intricate tale. At first it’s about Tina, a battered wife [at which point I paused and wondered if I wanted to read any further, but I’m glad I did]. She tries to get the courage to leave her husband. Then enters the letter she finds in a suit pocket in the thrift shop where she volunteers. It’s old – sealed and stamped, but never mailed. Then you learn about Crissie, decades earlier, a young pregnant girl who is sent off to Ireland to a distant relative by her father, then to a rigid (meaning horrible) convent [the book takes place mostly in Manchester, England and in rural Ireland]. The letter is addressed to her. Jump forward decades and William, the adopted child Crissie gave up, tries to find his birth mother. William meets Tina in Ireland [a serendipitous moment] as she’s trying to find the woman to whom the letter is addressed. This book is the #2 best seller on Amazon at the moment. It’s a riveting tale and I really enjoyed it.

The Muralist: A Novel by Shapiro. It tells the story of a young woman, an artist, who was part of the U.S.’s WPA mural project from the 1930s-40s (she is fiction, the WPA is not). As with so many artists, even today, they live in abject poverty through much of their lives. This woman, though, had family in France, desperately trying to escape before Hitler’s henchmen rousted them into concentration camps. The story, a bit of a mystery but not of the mystery-genre, is about Alizée Benoit, this young painter, who slightly captivates Eleanor Roosevelt’s help. It also skips into current time when the painter’s great-niece uncovers paintings she believes were painted by her aunt. The painter had disappeared into thin air in 1940, and her relative tries desperately to find out what happened to her. It’s a really good story including such Abstract Expressionist painters as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner well-woven into the narrative. It keeps you guessing right up to the end. A good read. The author also wrote The Art Forger: A Novel a few years ago.

Also recently read News of the World: A Novel by Paulette Jiles. One of my book-reading friends said this is one of the best books she’s ever read in her life. That kind of praise required me to read it and I just LOVED it. It’s about an old man (a widower), who was a former military captain, during the 1800s, who goes from town to town to read out loud the current news of the world (yes, there WAS such a free-lance job.) Newspapers didn’t make it to small towns back then. By chance he’s asked to take a 10-year old girl to East Texas to reunite with relatives. The child had been captured by an Indian tribe as a baby (her family was killed in the raid), raised by the Kiowa and as was often the case of such children, she wants nothing to do with leaving. So the “hero” in this story has his hands full. And yet, they learn to trust each other on the journey. Reaching the destination, there are lots of complications (of course!). This book is truly a wonderful read – I didn’t want it to end. The author has a gift of description and the severe dangers and difficulties of an old (wild) west horse and wagon journey. The relationship is tender. Now I’ve got to investigate the author’s other books, of which there are many. Just read this one first!

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 Desserts, on February 18th, 2008.

The photo doesn’t do justice to this delicious dessert. As some other blogger wrote recently, “beige” food doesn’t photograph well. Beige (pear) ice cream. Beige pears. Beige tart pastry. The only contrast is the chocolate horizontal stripe you can barely see at the bottom. That’s not just a shadow, but chocolate. Good chocolate. We were entertaining guests for dinner, and I didn’t take the dessert dish over to my good light (see photo below) I’ve put in the butler’s pantry. It’s just adjacent to the dining room. I didn’t want to disturb our guests sitting but a few feet away. This blogging business is a bit distracting sometimes. Distracting to our guests. Distracting even to me sometimes. So I took a photo with ambient light.

This doesn’t look like much, but it’s my new Lowel EGO blogging light. It lives in my butler’s pantry (for now anyway). It’s kind of innocuous looking, although larger than I’d thought. I’d like to hide it, but for now it lives out there in the open. It creates a very bright but diffused light to get better photos of the food. All for you, dear readers. In case you’re interested, I learned about it over at Jaden’s Steamy Kitchen.

I know the drill! A picture is worth a thousand words, and I know photos make a food blog interesting. Photos make people read on. So, through hectic food prep, making merry, washing dishes and everything else that goes along with producing a dinner party, I gotta have PICTURES! Fortunately, our family & friends who had dinner with us were patient with me. They may be thinking I’m totally NUTS doing what I’m doing – maybe even rude. Hope not, but it’s possible! They all know I have a food blog, but it’s one thing to talk about it, another to pause and prop pictures in the midst of a party.

So, back to this dessert. Which is delicious, if I didn’t mention that before. I know I did – I’m just repeating it for emphasis. It’s a subtle dessert – cooked pears aren’t exactly bold, and there are just 8 ounces of chocolate in this, so you don’t get a huge punch of it. But the combination of the two, with the tender pastry and the cool frosty ice cream on the side, make for one great dessert. This dessert is NOT difficult to make, despite the list of ingredients, and the long list of instructions. It’s just that the steps are a bit detailed. You also need to have some Poire William, or pear brandy. Here’s a photo of my bottle of Poire William, purchased some years ago. It was dear, that I remember, but you only use a little bit at a time. Do note the pear in the bottom of the bottle. How do they do that, you ask? They place the bottle over the pear when it’s teeny tiny, somehow strap it to the tree branch, put an opaque cover over the top (otherwise the pear would burn in the sunshine), then let the pear mature.

This liqueur is not sweet – it’s not really for sipping. Although perhaps the French do. I only use it for cooking, and the rare item, to be sure.

So, where’d the recipe come from? Another cooking class. From Kate Hill, an American woman, who moved to France probably 20 years ago. She bought an old barge, the Julia Hoyt, from Holland and sailed it down to Southern France where she parks it on the side of a canal. She bought a small cottage there, and even takes paying guests on the barge now and then. She’s written a cookbook, called A Culinary Journey in Gascony, about her experiences, and with lots of peasant style recipes. She taught a cooking class about 5 years or so ago, right after her cookbook was published. This was the dessert she prepared. She has a blog, in case you’re interested in reading. She posts recipes occasionally, but mostly the blog is about her life. Her day to day, with her adorable dog Bacon.

Cook’s Notes: There are a few things to mention here. First, and most important, be certain your pears are the right stage of ripeness. I seem to have the toughest time with pears. The day they finally ripen, is not the day I’m ready to cook them. One day more and they’ve become grainy and inedible. So, this particular time I bought the pears 4 days before the event, and they were just the perfect shade of ripe. Thank goodness. Also, don’t roll the dough too thin, as it will break when you try to pull up the sides. If you do that, the cream fraiche topping will ooze out all over everywhere. Take it from someone who knows from first hand experience about that! So read the directions carefully.
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Pear and Chocolate Tart

Recipe: Kate Hill, author
Servings: 8

PASTRY:
1 cup flour
1 tablespoon sugar
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 whole egg
1 tablespoon ice water
CHOCOLATE:
8 ounces dark chocolate — Valrhona or Sharffen Berger
PEARS:
4 large fresh pears — peeled and halved, not Bartlett
2 tablespoons Poire William — or pear brandy
CREAM LAYER:
1 cup creme fraiche
1 whole egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon vanilla sugar

1. Pastry: mix flour and sugar together and work in the butter in your fingers, until the butter is flaked and broken into the flour. Don’t overhandle the dough. If it’s a warm day, dip your hands in some icy water periodically, as the heat from your hands can begin to melt the butter.
2. Make a well in the center of the flour, then add egg and water. Mix with fork until most of the flour is absorbed. Knead lightly with your hand to form a smooth ball. This dough should be very “wet” and soft. Don’t be tempted to add more flour because it’s too sticky. It needs to be just barely manageable. Cover with a cloth and rest while you prepare the filling. Preheat oven to 425°.
3. Pear Filling: Slice the pears into a bowl to which you add the 2 T. of Poire William. Gently roll the pears in the liquid to keep them from discoloring.
4. Chocolate: Melt the chocolate over very low heat, or a double boiler with 3 T. of pear syrup (from the bowl of pears) or water.
5. Roll out the pastry to a rough rectangle. Try to make this fit onto a large baking sheet, approximately 11 x 14 inches, fitted with a Silpat or parchment paper. It is not necessary to have even edges and do not trim the edges. Try not to have any thin spots – if you do, cut from a fuller area and patch. Dough is very soft and will allow you to do this easily.
6. Spread the chocolate mixture onto the pastry, leaving about 1 1/2 to 2 inches of pastry all around the edge (this is the edge that gets folded inward). Spread as evenly as possible.
7. In a small bowl stir the creme fraiche, egg, vanilla and Poire William juice that is poured off from the pears. You may need to add another 2-3 tsp. of Poire William to make the mixture thickly pourable.
8. Place the pear slices on top of the chocolate in a decorative manner. Spoon a little bit of the cream mixture around the outer edges of the pears, but not so much that it dribbles out onto the outer dough. Carefully fold the pastry edge up over the chocolate pear mixture. Don’t pull the dough – you do not want the dough to break anywhere or the filling will ooze out in the baking. The edges do not meet – in fact you need to leave space because the creamy mixture goes in the center, and on top of the pears.
9. Gently pour or spoon the creme fraiche mixture into the center area – not on the pastry. If necessary, carefully lift up the edges of the pastry a little bit, to spoon into crevices. Try to cover most or all of the chocolate. Sprinkle with (vanilla) sugar and bake in the top half of your oven for 20-25 minutes, or until pastry is golden brown.
Per Serving: 450 Calories; 30g Fat (57.5% calories from fat); 6g Protein; 45g Carbohydrate; 4g Dietary Fiber; 111mg Cholesterol; 36mg Sodium.

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