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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 Desserts, on May 15th, 2008.

molten chocolate cake (lava cakes) with caramel sauce

There are probably 1001 recipes out there for molten chocolate cake, or lava cake. Meaning that some of the batter doesn’t quite get cooked through, so when you press your fork or spoon into it, some of the center, hot batter oozes out and becomes a sauce. I have made these before, but not often, since I rarely make a heavy-duty chocolate dessert for guests. I do serve chocolate, but not usually a really heavy dose of it because the caffeine in chocolate affects me, so I assume it affects others too. I’m sensitive to caffeine. A half a cup of regular coffee and I’m feeling jittery in a matter of 15 minutes and regular coffee would probably prevent me from sleeping all night.

When this was served at the cooking class last week I hesitated. Should I really eat this? I don’t want to be up half the night playing mindless games on the computer. But my will power was weak. Especially when each of these cakes was cut in half, so I was only getting a half portion. I dug in. Ah, yes, it was good. Very good.

It’s a relatively simple recipe. The batter can be made up ahead of time, poured into ramekins and refrigerated. Then you can pop the pan into the oven about 15 minutes before you want to eat them. You could bake them just as you’re getting up from the dinner table perhaps. The only thing I learned from this version was dusting the buttered ramekins with granulated sugar before pouring in the batter. You could also use powdered cocoa (that’s what I’ve done in the past) but the granulated sugar is probably a better option. Dusting the ramekins with one or the other helps when it comes time to unmold the cakes. And make the caramel sauce ahead of time – it will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator.

The good news is that I slept just fine, thank you!
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Molten Chocolate Cake with Caramel Sauce

Recipe: Deb Buzar, professional chef
Serving Size: 4

4 ounces semisweet chocolate
1/2 cup butter
1 cup powdered sugar
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks — whole, reserve whites for another use
6 tablespoons flour
8 ounces sugar
1/8 cup water
1/4 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
3/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons butter
2 cups vanilla ice cream or whipped cream
Fresh berries to decorate plates

1. Preheat oven to 425 F. Butter and sugar 4 custard cups or ramekins. Place on cookie sheet and set aside.
2. Place chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl and set over a bowl of simmering water (do not let bowl touch water), and stir occasionally until chocolate and butter are melted. Stir to combine, then add sugar. Remove from heat and mix until combined. Blend in eggs and egg yolks with a wire whisk. Stir in flour until no flour streaks are visible. Pour batter equally into the four cups.
3. Bake for 13-15 minutes, or until sides are firm but the centers are still soft and jiggly. Let them stand for one minutes. Take a small knife and loosen cake from sides of ramekins. Invert cakes onto dessert plates. It may take a fairly solid bang onto the plate to get them to release. Or, serve them in the ramekin. Serve immediately with topping of your choice, and with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream and berries for garnish.
1. Place sugar, water and lemon juice in a small saucepan and gently bring to a boil. Brush down the edges of the pot with a wet, clean pastry brush. Add the corn syrup and continue to cook until the caramel turns a golden amber color. Do not stir even once.
2. Remove from heat and whisk in the butter. Carefully pour in the cream, whisking gently but constantly. May be done ahead and kept covered in the refrigerator for several weeks.
I purposely have not included the nutrition count on this as the recipe assumes you eat all of the caramel sauce, which you won’t do. The numbers would scare anybody away from ever making this!

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