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Just finished a stunning book, The Girl with Seven Names by Hyanseo Lee. If you, like me, know little about North Korea and how it came to be what it is today, you’ve got to read this book. It’s a memoir written by a young woman who escaped from North Korea about 9 years ago. Her journey – and I mean JOURNEY – is harrowing, frightening, amazing, heart-rendering all at the same time. She chronicles the lives of the Kims (Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il to current Kim Jong Un), shares the strict propaganda that surrounds every North Korean citizen, the poverty and hunger, as well as the underground black market for food and goods. It took her awhile to get from North Korea, to China and eventually to South Korea, where she currently lives. She’s well educated and speaks English quite well. She was invited to be a speaker at a TED talk – you know about those, right? TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a media organization which posts talks online for free distribution, under the slogan “ideas worth spreading.” I listen to them as  podcasts now and then. Always very educational, if sometimes over my head when it gets very technical. She works diligently for human rights now, doing her best to help other North Koreans escape. You owe it to yourself to read this book.

Also just finished reading The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian. Another WOW book. I’ve always liked the author – many years ago I read his book, Midwives (don’t confuse this book with the one I recently read and is reviewed below) and really liked it. I think we read it in one of my book groups. He’s a brilliant writer, and this one has a lot of characters and twists. It’s a novel, but based on a lot of truth regarding the Armenian genocide. Most of the book takes place in Aleppo, Syria with some good Samaritan folk trying to help rescue people (mostly children) following the forced long marches the Turks made prodding the Turkish Armenians to exit their country. But it also jumps to near present day as a family member is trying to piece together obscure parts of her grandparents’ former lives there. She uncovers some hidden truths (many survivors of the genocide never-ever wanted to talk about it) and a bit more about her Armenian heritage. A riveting book – I could hardly put it down. Lots to discuss for a book club read. I simply must read more of Bohjalian’s books (he’s written many).

The Good Widow: A Novel by Lisa Steinke. All I can say is “wow.” In a general sense, this book is based on the premise of The Pilot’s Wife. But this one has some totally different twists and turns. A young wife is met at the door by police, informing her that her husband has died in an auto accident. Then she finds out he died in Hawaii – not Kansas, where she thought he was, on business. Then she finds out there was a woman in the car. Then she meets the fiance of the woman passenger and the two of them embark on a fact-finding mission in Hawaii to discover the truth. Well, I’m just sayin’ . . . the plot thickens. And thickens. And thickens clear up to the last few pages. Hang onto your seat. A really, really good, suspenseful read.

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 Novel by 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. 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 angry father is a wealthy and influential man in the area. 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.

 

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 20th, 2008.

almond pound cake with limoncello

In my recent frenzy to dispose of some old magazines, I read and sorted about 20 old issues of my regular pile of food-oriented magazines. And normally I wouldn’t have stopped at a recipe for almond pound cake. But the word “limoncello” was a part of the title, so I read the story. It was included in the monthly Barbara Fairchild letter from the editor, of Bon Appetit. She explained that Inga Swenson (the actress from the tv series Benson), a friend of hers, gave her the recipe. Swedish, I would guess from her name. Then I glanced at the ingredients – almond paste, light olive oil and limoncello. Well, it got my attention because the ingredients were so unusual.

Limoncello didn’t hit my radar until a few years ago when we visited Sicily and other parts of Italy. Lemons are an integral part of the Italian – and particularly the Sicilian – food landscape. They eat them, juice them, paint them and sculpt them. And decorate everything in between (like tablecloths, napkins, plates, even silverware).

So, with a friend coming for dinner, I pulled out this recipe and my DH made a trip to the grocery store (I never keep almond paste around because it gets hard as a rock if you don’t use it very soon). The cake batter isn’t all that unusual, actually, except that you add in about 10 ounces of the almond paste (crumbled up in little pieces). I do not think – my humble opinion – that the cake portion meets the qualification of “pound” cake (used to be a pound of flour, a pound of eggs, a pound of butter). This is more like a cake-cake. It has a lighter crumb than pound cake, although the almond paste does give it a heavier texture than a cake.

After baking and cooling the cake, you slather it all over with limoncello, the lemon-flavored (vodka) liqueur that is ubiquitous in Italy. Then serve it in narrow slices. I’d serve it with whipped cream or table cream or vanilla ice cream, and maybe some berries for decoration. I didn’t have any berries or I’d have done so. Whatever the décor, this cake is scrumptious. The three of us scarfed down that cake in nothing flat. You do need to like almond as the flavor predominates through the cake. Wonderful. Worth making.
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Almond Pound Cake with Limoncello

Recipe By: Inga Swenson, via Barbara Fairchild, Bon Appetit, March, 2006
Serving Size: 12

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup light olive oil
5 tablespoons unsalted butter — softened
10 1/2 ounces almond paste — 1 1/2 tubes, finely crumbled
2 tablespoons lemon peel — finely grated
4 large eggs
1/3 cup limoncello liquer
2 teaspoons powdered sugar — for garnish

1. Preheat oven to 325 F. Butter and flour a 9-inch springform pan. In a bowl whisk flour, baking powder and salt.
2. Using a mixer, beat the 3/4 cup of sugar, the oil and soft butter until light and fluffy, about 3-4 minutes. Add the almond paste and lemon peel. Beat until smooth. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add flour mixture; stir to blend. Transfer to prepared springform pan.
3. Bake cake until golden brown on top and cake tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 45-50 minutes. Cook cake on a cake. Can be made one day ahead. Cover and store at room temp.
4. Remove sides from cake. Brush top of cake with limoncello liqueur and sprinkle top with powdered sugar. Store at room temp, covered. Will keep about a week!
Per Serving: 313 Calories; 19g Fat (54.6% calories from fat); 5g Protein; 31g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 84mg Cholesterol; 112mg Sodium.

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