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Just finished a stunning book, The Girl with Seven Names by Hyanseo Lee. If you, like me, know little about North Korea and how it came to be what it is today, you’ve got to read this book. It’s a memoir written by a young woman who escaped from North Korea about 9 years ago. Her journey – and I mean JOURNEY – is harrowing, frightening, amazing, heart-rendering all at the same time. She chronicles the lives of the Kims (Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il to current Kim Jong Un), shares the strict propaganda that surrounds every North Korean citizen, the poverty and hunger, as well as the underground black market for food and goods. It took her awhile to get from North Korea, to China and eventually to South Korea, where she currently lives. She’s well educated and speaks English quite well. She was invited to be a speaker at a TED talk – you know about those, right? TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a media organization which posts talks online for free distribution, under the slogan “ideas worth spreading.” I listen to them as  podcasts now and then. Always very educational, if sometimes over my head when it gets very technical. She works diligently for human rights now, doing her best to help other North Koreans escape. You owe it to yourself to read this book.

Also just finished reading The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian. Another WOW book. I’ve always liked the author – many years ago I read his book, Midwives (don’t confuse this book with the one I recently read and is reviewed below) and really liked it. I think we read it in one of my book groups. He’s a brilliant writer, and this one has a lot of characters and twists. It’s a novel, but based on a lot of truth regarding the Armenian genocide. Most of the book takes place in Aleppo, Syria with some good Samaritan folk trying to help rescue people (mostly children) following the forced long marches the Turks made prodding the Turkish Armenians to exit their country. But it also jumps to near present day as a family member is trying to piece together obscure parts of her grandparents’ former lives there. She uncovers some hidden truths (many survivors of the genocide never-ever wanted to talk about it) and a bit more about her Armenian heritage. A riveting book – I could hardly put it down. Lots to discuss for a book club read. I simply must read more of Bohjalian’s books (he’s written many).

The Good Widow: A Novel by Lisa Steinke. All I can say is “wow.” In a general sense, this book is based on the premise of The Pilot’s Wife. But this one has some totally different twists and turns. A young wife is met at the door by police, informing her that her husband has died in an auto accident. Then she finds out he died in Hawaii – not Kansas, where she thought he was, on business. Then she finds out there was a woman in the car. Then she meets the fiance of the woman passenger and the two of them embark on a fact-finding mission in Hawaii to discover the truth. Well, I’m just sayin’ . . . the plot thickens. And thickens. And thickens clear up to the last few pages. Hang onto your seat. A really, really good, suspenseful read.

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 Novel by 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. 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 angry father is a wealthy and influential man in the area. 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.


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.
printer-friendly PDF

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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