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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 Breads, Brunch, on March 6th, 2008.

chocolate sour cream coffeecake

The stories that go along with recipes, those hand-me-down treasures from family members especially, lend a rich character to them. Their origin gives them special merit. Added credibility. A known quantity of deliciousness.

I don’t talk about my first marriage much (thank goodness, you really should be spared the details), but in the course of the years that she was alive, I got to know and love my former husband’s step-grandmother, Ethel. She was a dear little lady, and I have 3 or 4 recipes of hers acquired over the years. This is one (I also have one for avocado ice cream, and another for icebox almond cookies that I remember right off the top, neither of which I’ve posted yet) that must have been served to me one of the multitude of times I visited her home. She was a very good cook, and managed to prepare some amazing meals in her very small kitchen. She enjoyed entertaining, even though it was hard work for her as she aged. She lived to be in her 90’s, bless her. I hope she’s waving at me from heaven since I’m sharing her recipe for coffeecake.

For many years, even up until recently, I have made this on holiday mornings, like Christmas, or Easter, or the day after Thanksgiving. With a bowl of fresh fruit, and maybe some bacon or sausage, it makes a lovely breakfast or brunch.

Chocolate as an ingredient in coffeecake isn’t very common. At least I don’t think so. And this really isn’t chocolate-chocolate coffeecake. You might think the chocolate is in the entire coffeecake, and it’s not. It’s not overwhelming with chocolate, but is laced through in a kind of dry mix that is layered, then sprinkled on top. So, it’s a chocolate streusel-type coffeecake. It’s just a rich sour cream based cake. The only unusual ingredient there is cream of tartar. Not many recipes include it anymore. It used to be quite common, before double acting baking powder. So, that probably gives you an idea how old this recipe really is. Old.

So I did a bit of research about it cream of tartar. I’d forgotten what it is, exactly. Now I know:

Cream of tartar is a by-product of the wine industry. A crystalline acid forms on the inside of wine barrels. The barrels are scraped and the sediment is purified and ground to form cream of tartar. Cream of tartar is used to stabilize egg whites when making meringue or as an addition to certain frostings to produce a creamy product.

Why it’s in this recipe, I don’t know, but I’ve never wanted to bake the coffeecake without it merely to test it. There’s so much chemistry involved with baking that I don’t want to tamper with success. But be my guest, then let me know!

  • Normally, when cream of tartar is used in a cookie, it is used together with baking soda. The two of them combined work like double-acting baking powder. When substituting for cream of tartar, you must also substitute for the baking soda. If your recipe calls for baking soda and cream of tarter, I would just use baking powder.
  • One teaspoon baking powder is equivalent to 1/4 teaspoon baking soda plus 5/8 teaspoon cream of tartar. If there is additional baking soda that does not fit into the equation, simply add it to the batter.

Looks like you could substitute additional baking powder for the cream of tartar and baking soda called for, but since I had the cream of tartar, I stuck with the tried-and-true recipe when I made it this time.
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Grandma’s Chocolate Sour Cream Coffeecake

Serving Size: 18
Cook’s Notes: The recipe can be halved and baked in a 9×9 pan. That pan will easily serve 9 people, so the double recipe probably would serve 18-20, no problem. The original recipe indicated it served 12. Although the recipe indicates two layers, I made 3 layers – more areas for the chocolate. The middle layer didn’t completely cover the bottom layer. You don’t have to be exact. The crumb on this cake is so tender, likely from the sour cream addition. The amount of chocolate/cinnamon mixture is probably a bit too much. I always have leftover that I toss out, so you could likely reduce the dry mix by about 1/3 and have just enough.

1/2 pound margarine — softened
2 cups sugar
4 whole eggs
2 cups sour cream
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
2 teaspoons baking soda
4 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder [I increase to 2 T.]
1 cup sugar
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1. Preheat oven to 350. In separate bowl combine topping: cocoa, sugar and cinnamon and set aside.
2. Combine margarine, sugar, eggs, vanilla and sour cream in mixer and mix well. Then add flour, baking powder, cream of tartar and soda.
3. Pour half of the batter into an oiled 9×13 pan, then sprinkle half of the topping over it (covering every inch of batter), then pour in remaining batter. Use a knife to swirl the batter a little, then sprinkle remaining topping on top. Bake for 45 minutes.
Per Serving: 396 Calories; 17g Fat (38.2% calories from fat); 5g Protein; 57g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 86mg Cholesterol; 383mg Sodium.

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