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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 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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