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Just finished reading 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 Cookies, on May 22nd, 2007.

Are all cookies seasonal in your book? Certainly I have a few cookie recipes that I don’t make year around . . . like gingerbread men . . . or sugar cookies decorated with red and green. But otherwise, cookies are calendar universal. I had a bag of dried cranberries that needed to be used, and I remembered this recipe that’s become a personal favorite since 2000 when my friend Darlene brought them to a Christmas cookie exchange.

If you haven’t ever been to a cookie exchange, you should try it. These days, every woman’s magazine blasts ideas for how to streamline our shopping, wrapping, decorating, cooking and entertaining during the holidays. Happily I’ve hostessed cookie exchanges for years. I had my first one in about 1971. And I’ve had them many times since – not every year, but every few. I love to have a variety of cookies to serve friends and family during the holidays, so what’s easier than inviting a group of baking friends to share everyone’s goodies. I can remember many times trying to figure out the math – okay, 11 people coming, everyone’s bringing 5 dozen, how many of each cookie do we take? Got it. Oh, one gal didn’t come at the last minute? Oops, change the number. Oh, another gal only got 50 out of her batch? Uhm, what do I change the number to now? Eventually we just took a bunch and if there were still lots of cookies, we’d make another turn around the cookie table adding a few more to our stashes.

I didn’t intend this to be a lesson in cookie exchanges, but one thing I’ve learned is that each different cookie needs to go into its own plastic bag and sealed. Otherwise, someone’s double mint cookies will infect all the other cookies in your container with mint. And all the bags go directly into the freezer after the exchange.

These Cranberry Noel cookies were the hit of the cookie exchange that year. Hands down. (Thank you, Darlene.) They came from Martha Stewart, but at the time they were the #1 winner of a Christmas cookie contest Martha had on her website. For this posting I did look it up and finally found it on one of Martha’s forums here. I know they were originally part of a cookie contest because I wrote it into my recipe program in 2000. Martha subsequently published it in a Christmas special issue, apparently. These are super simple – you mix up the batter, roll into two logs, roll the logs in shredded coconut, chill, slice and bake. And once they’re cooled they go into Ziploc freezer bags and back into the freezer.

So, just because these contain dried cranberries, pecans and coconut, that doesn’t mean you can’t have them in May! I had one yesterday in the mid-afternoon with my cup of Earl Grey tea. Delicious.

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Cranberry Noels

Recipe: Winner of MarthaStewart.com’s online Cookie Contest, 2000
Serving: 48    Preparation Time 15 minutes

1 cup unsalted butter — room temp
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract — or rum (I always use vanilla)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup dried cranberries (sometimes I chop them a little)
1/2 cup pecans — chopped
3/4 cup shredded coconut meat — unsweetened

1. In a bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about two minutes. Add milk, vanilla, and salt. Beat until just combined. Gradually add flour, cranberries and pecans. Mix on low speed until fully combined.
2. Divide dough in half and shape each half into 8-inch logs, about two inches in diameter. Roll logs in coconut, pressing firmly to coat the outside of the logs, but without misshaping the logs. Wrap logs in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about two hours.
3. Heat oven to 375°. Using a sharp knife, cut logs into 1/4 inch thick slices. Transfer to an ungreased cookie sheet, placing about 1 – 1.5 inches apart. Bake until the edges are just golden brown, about 12 minutes. Transfer cookies to a rack to cool.
Per Serving: 78 Calories; 5g Fat (57.8% calories from fat); 1g Protein; 8g Carbohydrate; trace Dietary Fiber; 10mg Cholesterol; 23mg Sodium.

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  1. Freya and Paul

    said on May 23rd, 2007:

    Yum, these sound great, Xmas or not! I have never made refrigerator biscuits and I think it’s high time I started!

  2. Anne Dovel

    said on December 20th, 2008:

    Oh! These are a favorite at our house every year! In fact, I’m making them today!

    You’re right – these are the “best.” Glad you enjoy them like we do. . . Carolyn T

  3. L Allen

    said on December 12th, 2009:

    I LOVE these cookies. They are always a hit. Had lost my recipe. So glad you had it here.
    Why does Martha do that? She has a Cranberry Noel recipe on her site, but it is ever so slightly different. Doesn’t even include the coconut.

    When my friend Darlene brought these cookies to a Christmas event, she said the cookies were a winner in a Martha Stewart Christmas cookie contest. They were first published in a Martha Stewart Christmas magazine (a special one, just Christmas stuff) that year. I found the recipe online (only then). Subsequently it disappeared from the website. Now I suppose Martha feels she owns it, maybe, and she had to change the recipe just a bit? I don’t know. Glad you enjoy these like I do! . . . carolyn T

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