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Just finished reading The German Girl: A Novel by Correa. It chronicles the story of a wealthy German Jewish family in Berlin, as the Nazis arrive and make life a living hell. The family is lucky (I guess you could say this) to be allowed to purchase passage on the M.S. St. Louis, a passenger liner, to take them to “the Americas.” The destination is actually Cuba. The story is told from two voices – the teenage daughter in this story, and from a current-day distant family member who is trying to learn about her ancestry. Of the 900+ passengers on the ship, only a few were allowed to disembark since the Cuban President decided he needed more money to accept them. Most families had no money left, as the Reich had taken nearly all of their assets. The daughter and her very eccentric mother were allowed to stay in Cuba.  The remaining passengers are rejected by the U.S. too, and eventually return to Europe, where most of the Jews end up dying in concentration camps. The story goes back and forth from the 1939 journey to current day as the link between the two women is slowly revealed. I had a tough time sometimes, tracking the people in this book, but the story was very riveting. It’s based on facts about the ship (see Wikipedia link above if you’re interested). A shameful chapter in history.

Recently finished reading a magnificent historical novel. Not new. Philippa Gregory has been a favorite author of mine for a couple of decades. You may remember her most famous book, The Other Boleyn Girl, published some years ago. I thought that was a really great book. I’ve read other books by Gregory, but most recently I read The King’s Curse (The Plantagenet and Tudor Novels). The time period is the 1450s to 1541, mostly under the rule of King Henry VIII, the infamous womanizer and wife/Queen-killer. The man who cursed Rome/the Pope because he wanted his first marriage annulled because Queen Catherine couldn’t produce a living male heir. And subsequently made himself the head of the church in England in order to do so. It was a Catholic country at the time. This story (it’s fiction, but woven with intricate historical detail) is from the voice of a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine, Margaret of York, later titled Countess of Salisbury, but a Plantagenet in her own right (which is key to the later events in the book). Certainly I’ve read other novels over the years that dealt with Henry VIII, but not with this much breadth of info. What a wicked, sinful man he was. And did I say tyrant. Wow.  I could hardly put it down, through its nearly 600 pages. In the author’s notes at the end, she shares relatively recent medical info that suggests Henry probably suffered from a rare problem, Kell positive blood type, which can cause miscarriages, stillbirths and infant deaths IF the mother has the more common Kell negative blood type. And that in his later years, he may have had McLeod syndrome, a disease only found in Kell positive individuals. Around the age of 40 it causes physical degeneration and personality changes resulting in paranoia, depression and irrational behavior. All of those King Henry VIII had in spades. If you read the book, you might read the author’s notes (at the end) before reading the book. If you like historical fiction (I love any book about English history) you’ll just love this one. It’s interesting, though, as I think about the many books I’ve read covering this era in English history, that each book presented its hero/heroine as the most innocent and worthy individual vying for the crown of England. I remember thinking Anne Boleyn was dealt with so badly during her life (and certainly her beheading), and yet reading this book, I completely reversed my opinion. Anne Boleyn was called a wh–e by most people during the years she shared Henry’s bed. The “curse” from the title pertains to Henry’s inability or the curse on the Tudors, that caused him to fail in producing a male heir. In any case, none of Henry’s wives should have died for it – likely it was all Henry’s fault anyway. Just read this one, okay?

Also recently read News of the World: A Novel by Paulette Jiles. One of my book-reading friends said this is one of the best books she’s ever read in her life. That kind of praise required me to read it and I just LOVED it. It’s about an old man (a widower), who was a former military captain, during the 1800s, who goes from town to town to read out loud the current news of the world (yes, there WAS such a free-lance job.) Newspapers didn’t make it to small towns back then. By chance he’s asked to take a 10-year old girl to East Texas to reunite with relatives. The child had been captured by an Indian tribe as a baby (her family was killed in the raid), raised by the Kiowa and as was often the case of such children, she wants nothing to do with leaving. So the “hero” in this story has his hands full. And yet, they learn to trust each other on the journey. Reaching the destination, there are lots of complications (of course!). This book is truly a wonderful read – I didn’t want it to end. The author has a gift of description and the severe dangers and difficulties of an old (wild) west horse and wagon journey. The relationship is tender. Now I’ve got to investigate the author’s other books, of which there are many. Just read this one, too!

Winter Journey by Diane Armstrong. Have you ever read about forensic dentistry? I sure had not, so I found it fascinating reading. It’s a debut novel for the author, and what a story. Halina, an Australian, with Polish roots, specializes in this obscure profession as a forensic dentist, and is asked to go to Poland, to help identify bone (and tooth) fragments, to put to rest a sad event in the story of this small town, when many, many people (Jews) were murdered. Was it the Nazis? Or was it the local townspeople who disliked the Jews. What a tangled web of intrigue, including Halina’s own mysterious past. I really enjoyed the read. The author does a great job of developing the characters (which I always like). This is no light read if you consider the subject matter, although it IS a novel (but based on fact). Nor is it a spy thriller – it’s more just an historical novel with lots of interesting people throughout. There’s a romance thrown in too, and a whole lot of angst about the discoveries found in the mass grave. But, the subject expanded my knowledge about forensics.

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr. I just LOVED this book. I’ve never been much of a fan of Caravaggio’s paintings, although I’ve seen plenty of them (many are extremely large) in museums around the world. His paintings were dark, often with dark subjects. But as with many of the old masters, occasionally some obscure work surfaces, perhaps credited to another artist, even, that turns out to be one done by “the” master. In this case, Caravaggio. Although this book is written as a novel (with dialogue, etc.) it’s historical through and through. It begins with two young women art scholars, in Italy, who are asked to do a research project. One thing leads to another, and to another. All true.  If you enjoy books about art – I learned some things about the paint and the canvases of the time – you’ll be intrigued as I was.

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, Desserts, on March 16th, 2010.

My friend Linda, who came up to visit last week, was telling me all about Tyler Florence, and about how much she enjoys his cookbooks (I bought her one for Christmas), his Food Network programs, and his recipes. Naturally, I had to go check him out. It’s not like I didn’t know who he was – I did – or that I’d never watched his show – I had – but somehow I’d never tried any of his recipes. So, I’ve started to Tivo his programs now, and I’m subscribed to his blog (through his website). And in the process I came across this chocolate banana bread recipe.

At a local restaurant we go to now and then, they offer a tart that always rocks my boat – it’s a very small pastry shell filled with chocolate pudding, with sliced bananas on top, then some whipped cream on top of that, with more bananas. It’s been a year or two since I’ve had one of them, so I thought maybe this chocolate banana bread would sort-of satisfy that flavor need.

The bread is quite easy to make – you just have to have some very ripe bananas. I think Tyler mentions it in his blog piece – gotta have ultra-ripe bananas or it just doesn’t have the flavor he knows it can have. The bread calls for both cocoa – I used Penzey’s natural (which is extra dark), not Dutch processed, which weakens the flavor –  and semisweet chocolate (I used some Ghiradelli chocolate chips I had in the stash). Otherwise, the bread is typical (butter, flour, baking powder, sugar, eggs). It requires little mixing once you get everything all together and it’s baked for a little under an hour. I should have rapped the pan once on the counter (see the air bubbles in the top half of the bread in the photo above), but otherwise it was easy to remove and slice. The taste is really good – I mean really, really good. Very chocolate-y and moderately high on banana flavor too. I like it very much and would definitely make it again.

Chocolate Banana Bread

Recipe By: Tyler Florence (on his website)
Serving Size: 12

NOTES: You won’t need to butter the pan if you use a nonstick bread pan. The bread develops deep cracks during the baking process, but it does flatten some once it cools.

1/2 cup unsalted butter — (1 stick) softened, plus more for the pan
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate — melted
2 large eggs
3 whole bananas — ripe
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan. Mix together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. In another bowl, cream the butter until lightened, then beat in the chocolate, eggs, bananas, and vanilla. Stir in the dry ingredients just until combined and no streaks of flour are visible; do not overbeat.
2. Pour the batter into the loaf pan. Drop the pan on the counter from about 2-3 inches above it (to pop any air bubbles in the batter) and bake until a toothpick stuck into the center of the bread comes out almost clean, 50 to 60 minutes. Transfer the pan to a rack and cool for at least 15 minutes before unmolding.
Per Serving: 286 Calories; 14g Fat (42.2% calories from fat); 5g Protein; 39g Carbohydrate; 3g Dietary Fiber; 56mg Cholesterol; 233mg Sodium.
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A year ago: Corned Beef Dinner
Two years ago: Fumi Chinese Chicken Salad

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