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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 December 5th, 2009.

pumpkin streusel coffeecake whole

Does that look yummy, or what? It’s so pretty. Extra flavorful. Easy to make, although you must concoct three different mixtures – the cake batter, the pumpkin and dried cranberry middle and the nut streusel for the top. They’re layered in a springform pan and that’s all there is to it.

pumpkin streusel side view

Reading Canela y Comino’s blog, she raved – with lots of superlatives – in the write-up about this coffeecake. Since pumpkin in just about anything is “my cup of tea,” there was no question I’d be making it. My DH was having his Bible study guys here, so it was a perfect occasion to make it. Festive for the holidays.

pumpkin streusel slice The cake batter is a normal type – this one contains buttermilk (I used whole-milk yogurt because that’s what I had on hand). The recipe calls for pumpkin pie spice. I don’t keep that combo in my spice pantry, so just added my own mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and cloves, in descending quantities. If you make your own as I did, do note that there is pumpkin pie spice in both the cake batter and the streusel.

The pumpkin was Libby’s canned. And I used walnuts in the streusel, just because I didn’t have any pecans on hand.  I didn’t take photos of all the different processes (but if you go to Gretchen’s blog, she has photos of every step). The pumpkin layer, although not all that much quantity, really (it starts with a cup of canned pumpkin), does give you almost a pumpkin-pie type consistency. But it’s thin as you can see in the photo above and right. You place half the cake batter on the bottom, the pumpkin in the middle, blobs of the cake batter on top of that (which must be carefully spread out to the edges) then the nut streusel generously sprinkled on top. The recipe indicated the cake should be baked for about 60-65 minutes. I did 60, poked my cake tester in it in several places. What I didn’t do was poke the tester right in the center. Once the cake cooled, I discovered it was still doughy in the middle, so it likely should have baked another 10 minutes. The other option would be to bake this in a bundt pan for about 50-55 minutes (my guess on time).

So, if you’ve still got some pumpkin lurking in your pantry, this is a winner. Try it! Gretchen says the recipe came from a cookbook (magazine maybe?), Holiday Baking, 2009.
printer-friendly PDF

Pumpkin Coffee Cake with Pecan Streusel

Recipe By: Adapted from Holiday Baking 2009, on Canela y Comino blog
Serving Size: 12

1/3 cup flour
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
3 tablespoons cold butter
1/3 cup chopped pecans — [or walnuts, my alteration]
1 cup canned pumpkin
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup dried cranberries
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
1/2 cup unsalted butter — softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
2 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk — or sour cream, or plain yogurt

1. To prepare pecan streusel, combine flour, brown sugar and pumpkin pie spice in a medium bowl. Using a pastry blender, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles pea sized crumbs. Mix in the pecans. Reserve.
2. To prepare pumpkin filling, combine pumpkin, brown sugar, cranberries and flour in a small bowl. Reserve.
3. Preheat oven to 325F. In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and pumpkin pie spice. In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar until creamy. Add vanilla and then eggs one at a time, beating after each one. Add one third of the flour mixture followed by half of the buttermilk; repeat, ending with the flour mixture. Remove and reserve 1 1/2 cups of batter.
4. Pour remaining batter into a 9? springform, already prepared with cooking spray, spreading into an even layer. Spoon filling into the center of the pan, spreading to make an even layer. Carefully spoon reserved batter in small mounds on top of filling, spreading gently to cover. Sprinkle with streusel.
5. Bake at 325F for 60-70 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean when tested in the center of the pan. Cool in pan for 10 minutes, then remove the sides of the springform pan. Cool completely.
Per Serving: 332 Calories; 14g Fat (37.8% calories from fat); 5g Protein; 47g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 64mg Cholesterol; 291mg Sodium.

A year ago: Panettone bread
Two years ago: Salmon with Maple Syrup and Thyme

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