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Just finished 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 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 parents were 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 a old 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.

Winter Journey by Diane Armstrong. Have you ever read about forensic dentistry? I sure had not, so I found it fascinating reading. It’s a debut novel for the author, and what a story. Halina, an Australian, with Polish roots, specializes in this obscure profession as a forensic dentist, and is asked to go to Poland, to help identify bone (and tooth) fragments, to put to rest a sad event in the story of this small town, when many, many people (Jews) were murdered. Was it the Nazis? Or was it the local townspeople who disliked the Jews. What a tangled web of intrigue, including Halina’s own mysterious past. I really enjoyed the read. The author does a great job of developing the characters (which I always like). This is no light read if you consider the subject matter, although it IS a novel (but based on fact). Nor is it a spy thriller – it’s more just an historical novel with lots of interesting people throughout. There’s a romance thrown in too, and a whole lot of angst about the discoveries found in the mass grave. But, the subject expanded my knowledge about forensics.

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr. I just LOVED this book. I’ve never been much of a fan of Caravaggio’s paintings, although I’ve seen plenty of them (many are extremely large) in museums around the world. His paintings were dark, often with dark subjects. But as with many of the old masters, occasionally some obscure work surfaces, perhaps credited to another artist, even, that turns out to be one done by “the” master. In this case, Caravaggio. Although this book is written as a novel (with dialogue, etc.) it’s historical through and through. It begins with two young women art scholars, in Italy, who are asked to do a research project. One thing leads to another, and to another. All true.  If you enjoy books about art – I learned some things about the paint and the canvases of the time – you’ll be intrigued as I was.

Eye On the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, by James, McGrath Morris. Each year my AAUW book club reads something related to Black History Month. This is a biography of a woman you’ve probably never heard of, Ethel Payne, and about her life-long journey in journalism, struggling to keep her head above water financially, but staying true to her purposes of telling the truth about the black stories and black racism of the day. Sometimes biographies aren’t all that riveting, but I found this one to be so, and I savored each new chapter. We had a really good discussion of the book, and the ups and downs of Payne’s life, especially during her years as a Washington reporter. You’ll not be sorry to have spent the time reading this book. It’s well-written, as well. I was thrilled when the author, Morris, left a message here on my blog, thanking me (and my group) for reading his book.

H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. This one has been on the best seller list. It’s a memoir about a woman who takes on a personal challenge of taming a wild hawk. Prior to reading this book, I knew next to nothing about the entire subject of hawking, or taming any of the big, wild birds. The book is equally about the writer’s inner journey. She’s a consummate writer, and every page was a joy of words, for me. My only problem is my own – I found it hard, the more time that went by, and the more time the writer spent trying to tame this bird, to scream out “let the bird go.” Perhaps it’s because I spent time in Africa in 2015, seeing animals in the wild, that I felt more for the bird than I did with the writer’s discontent with herself and the taming process. Little did I know what a hard job it is to tame a hawk. I actually didn’t finish the book. It was a book club read, and highly recommended by several of our members. And I ended up not being able to attend the meeting as I had a cold. So perhaps there is some great ending to it that would have made me feel better. I haven’t gone to the end to find out. I just had to stop reading it. But I’m not NOT recommending it. If nothing else, read it for Macdonald’s sublime proficiency with words.

Also read George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution, by Brian Kilmeade and Dan Yaeger. Here’s what it says on amazon: When George Washington beat a hasty retreat from New York City in August 1776, many thought the American Revolution might soon be over. Instead, Washington rallied—thanks in large part to a little-known, top-secret group called the Culper Spy Ring. He realized that he couldn’t defeat the British with military might, so he recruited a sophisticated and deeply secretive intelligence network to infiltrate New York. I won’t exactly call this book a riveting read, but it was interesting. Relating facts that few people knew about, this Culper Spy Ring. It’s a little chunk of American history researched in depth by the authors. An interesting read.

Also read The Little Paris Bookshop: A Novel by Nina George. If you’re an avid reader, you probably have the same kind of longing as I do for a quaint, independently owned bookstore right around the corner. So few exist anymore. This novel is about a very unusual book store, and book store owner. In Paris. On a boat/barge. It’s not a typical book store, and the writer takes you on a journey of discovery about (likely) her own lifetime of book reading. You’ll learn all about a variety of existing books and why they’re a good read. But it’s all cloaked in a story about this book store and the owner. And the customers. Very fun. I’m reviewing it for one of my book clubs next month.

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.
printer-friendly PDF

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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