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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 Desserts, on June 17th, 2007.

When I was in Berkeley 2 weeks ago Cherrie and I went on a tour of the Scharffen Berger chocolate factory. It was just a few blocks from our hotel near the waterfront and my GPS drove us right to the door in the industrial section of town. The factory itself was a big surprise – it’s quite small. Having once visited the Nestle plant in Pennsylvania, I was expecting something dramatic, especially with the panache garnered by the Scharffen Berger line.

As I think I explained before, John Scharffenberger (spelling intentional) came to some reknown as a winemaker. After a couple of decades producing some very fine sparkling wine (a favorite of mine, his to be specific), he sold the business. Then he was approached by Robert Steinberg, a friend, and now his partner in Scharffen Berger, and they decided to start a chocolate manufacturing company, but only producing a high quality – European style – product. They purchased European, i.e. old, equipment. They wanted to capitalize on the known Scharffenberger name, but John had sold the rights to it with the winery. So, they merely added a space between the n and the b and made it into Scharffen Berger. It wasn’t quite building a business in a garage, but close to it.

They don’t make chocolate every day. Although likely some pieces of equipment are running most days. The roaster (the red thing right) was in a separate room (warm and if running, very noisy). The building probably isn’t 300 feet long and about 200 feet wide, and not only housed the factory floor, but offices, a restaurant and a store. Did I spend money in there? Well, to be sure. Did we taste chocolate? Oh yes, indeed. Probably the most important thing I learned there was about how to eat a piece of chocolate: put it into your mouth, hold it on the middle of your tongue, up against the roof of your mouth, and allow it to completely melt on your tongue. Don’t chew. Don’t move it around. You’ll savor the flavors far better, and it’ll last longer besides. Kind of like how you taste wine.

To the left is the photo of the cocoa bean crusher. A huge cauldron – I mean huge – of swirling, melting chocolate and the crusher rolling around in the middle. So, it was on a blog a few months ago that I read about a recipe in the new cookbook published by the Scharffen Berger partners, The Essence of Chocolate. Liking chocolate as I do, I made it and oh – my – goodness.
What flavor. Not all that difficult. I like bundt cakes, and this one doesn’t require anything but the cake itself. It does have a caramel sauce that is poured over the hot-out-of-the-oven cake, but otherwise, nothing else. No garnishes, although you could serve with a bit of vanilla ice cream. It’s rich enough, however, as it is. I will include the nutritional information about the cake, but for heaven’s sake, whatever you do, don’t read it. I’m going to put it in the smallest type available on this blog.
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Banana Caramel (Chocolate) Cake with Caramel Sauce

Recipe: Essence of Chocolate by Robert Steinberg and John Scharffenberger.
Serving: 12 – I think it will serve at least 16
Note from Carolyn: I think the caramel is too thick – it doesn’t drip down into the cake like I think it should, so I’ve been adding more milk to the sauce so it’s thinner.

CAKE:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. cloves
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
3 large eggs
1 1/4 cups vegetable oil
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
3/4 cup chopped pecans
3 ounces chocolate — broken into small pieces (size of chips)
3 whole bananas — diced
CARAMEL:
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 tbsp. whole milk
4 tbsp. unsalted butter — cut into pieces

1. Butter and flour a tube pan or a bundt pan that can hold 12 cups. Preheat the oven to 350°.
2. Sift together the dry ingredients (flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, salt and baking soda).
3. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the eggs, oil and sugar. With the paddle attachment, mix on medium speed for 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl to ensure that the sugar has been incorporated. Add the vanilla extract and mix for another 30 seconds. With the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients a bit at a time. Scrape down the sides of the bowl every now and then to ensure everything is incorporated. Once the dry ingredients have been added, remove the bowl from the stand mixer and add the pecans, chocolate and bananas. Gently fold them in with a spatula or a wooden spoon. Don’t over mix.
4. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 50 minutes and then test the cake to see if it’s done by poking a toothpick or cake tester into the center of the cake. If it comes out clean, it’s done. If not, bake the cake for another 5 to 10 minutes. In my oven, this cake took 55 minutes.
5. About 5 to 10 minutes before the cake is done, make the caramel by combining all the ingredients in a small pan. Bring to the boil and stir occasionally to ensure that it doesn’t burn. Let it boil for about 5 minutes and then turn off the heat. The caramel needs to be thin, so add more milk if needed. Once the cake is out of the oven, poke holes all over the cake with a skewer. Immediately pour the caramel over the cake, stopping every now and then to let the caramel sink in. If the caramel pools in spots, poke more holes to allow it to sink in. Gently push cake away from sides to add more caramel.
6. Let the cake cool in the pan on a wire rack. Once it’s cool, loosen the cake from the sides of the pan and then unmold it onto a plate. If most of the caramel pooled on the top (in the pan) you may want to turn the cake back over so the wide side is on top.
Per Serving: 595 Calories; 36g Fat (52.7% calories from fat); 5g Protein; 67g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 64mg Cholesterol; 308mg Sodium.

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  1. Kit Oliveira

    said on June 17th, 2008:

    Hi Carolyn,
    I made this banana carmel chocolate cake for our June garden club meeting. It was very, very popular. People were going back for seconds. I barely had a piece to bring home to Stan.
    Kit

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