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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 Appetizers, on May 5th, 2010.

So, I made this appetizer. To somewhat mixed reviews, including my own. I liked the components – the savory cheesecake layer, and the spiced apple layer, and the bacon sandwiched in between – but when you eat it. . . well, it’s good, but I wouldn’t call it outstanding. It’s best with a cracker or some kind of neutral palette to put it on; otherwise it’s too rich. And if you eat just the cheesecake alone – no. Didn’t like it. Adding the apple really makes a different, but then when you put it on a water cracker, it was very good. But it’s very unusual. Made for a nice addition to a buffet-type potluck event we went to. Would I make it again? Uhm. Maybe, maybe not. But not because it’s not good. I’d want to do something different to it. But I can’t figure out what. I’d for sure add less bacon, and I’d crumble it up really finely. And I’d probably not use the Irish porter ale cheddar that I did. I’d use ordinary sharp cheddar cheese. The porter ale cheese just got lost in the dish; maybe it even flavored the dish in an unpleasant way somehow. And it gave the cheesecake layer a speckled, or freckled look. Some guests, I noticed, just picked off the apples on top. They didn’t know what was underneath and didn’t want to try it. (Aren’t people funny sometimes?

This recipe comes from Diane Phillips’ cookbook, Happy Holidays from the Diva of Do-Ahead: A Year of Feasts to Celebrate with Family and Friends. I’d made a copy of the recipe and stuck it in my to-try book, and thought it would be appropriate for a large-group gathering. It could be made ahead (I did it the day before) and it’s supposed to be served at room temperature anyway.

The making of it wasn’t difficult, although there are several steps to it. The most time consuming was peeling, coring and slicing the apples. They’re mixed with some butter, brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg (and a little tiny nip of lemon juice) and placed into the bottom of a prepared springform pan. I used parchment paper, but learned a valuable lesson – with a mixture as liquidy as the butter/sugar mixture from the apples, it oozed right out of the springform pan before I could get it in the oven. So you need to line the springform with a single piece of foil or parchment (I think foil would be easier to mold around the sides, but it’s got to be from one of those wider-width boxes of foil) that molds partway up the sides. It’s not necessary to go ALL the way up as it’s only the apple liquid that is in danger of leaking out. And it only fills the pan about 3/4 of an inch or so.

Anyway, the parchment or foil gets fizzed with nonstick spray. Then you very carefully arrange the apple slices in a pattern (like a spoke). I did that for the bottom ( the bottom that became the top once this was unmolded), then just poured in the remaining apples and the liquid. Then the bacon was sprinkled on top of the apples. Meanwhile I’d made the cheesecake mixture – cream cheese, two eggs, a dash of hot sauce and the shredded cheese. That combination was thicker than something you could pour, so I spooned it on top of the apples and carefully spread it in an even layer. It was at that point I discovered the brown sugar and butter sauce had oozed out of the bottom of the springform pan and all over my kitchen counter. Darn! I just hoped there was enough still inside that it didn’t ruin the appetizer. (There was, but it would have been nicer if it had ALL been there, of course. I did save some of it from the foil wrapped around the springform pan and poured it on top after it was baked and removed from the pan.)

So, back to the baking – I put the springform in a rimmed baking sheet, just in case more juice escaped. It baked for 45 minutes, at which point you stick a toothpick in the center to make sure it’s done (it was). Then it cools IN the oven for another 30 minutes with the door ajar (helps prevent cracks in the cheesecake). Once removed from the oven it needs to cool completely before you turn it over onto a platter. I did have a bit of trouble with this step – because the cheesecake was only about 1 1/2 inches high inside the springform pan, when it was turned over to unmold most of it came up, but because I’d not made a continuous piece of parchment, part of it stuck in the bottom of the pan. Sigh. But it didn’t matter – once the cheesecake cooled enough I was able to piece the top back together. See picture below.

The cheese came from Costco. It has a very dark look from the porter ale used, obviously. It has a really delicious nutty kind of taste. The white part is the cheese; the dark part is the ale they’ve somehow made it so it firms up like cheese. Do note – on the far right of the middle picture at the bottom you can see a small chunk of the cheese. Unusual, huh?

The bottom right picture shows the two layers – the cheesecake part and the apple layer on top. Made for a very attractive platter. We’d been invited to a Kentucky Derby party, and were asked to bring an appetizer. Sometimes brown-ish food doesn’t look all that appealing. I did hear a couple people whisper to the next person – what’s that, do you think? I should have made a little sign. Yet, the cheesecake part with the bacon was kind of hard to distinguish what it was. It needs to be eaten together – on a cracker or bread. Definitely. Maybe more would have tried it had I not used the porter ale cheese, which gave it a very unusual look.  They ate about 2/3 of it, so now I need to figure out what to do with the leftovers. Any ideas?
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White Cheddar, Apple and Bacon Cheesecake

Recipe By: From Diane Phillips’ cookbook Happy Holidays from the Diva of Do-Ahead
Serving Size: 16

NOTES: It’s important that the parchment or foil completely cover the bottom and partway up the sides in one continuous piece (without any patched pieces or edges) as the liquid from the apples will ooze right out of the springform pan. Although this is an appetizer, it can also be served as a sit-down starter for a light dinner. You can use different kinds of cheddar cheese (I used an imported one that contained porter ale, which gave the cheesecake a freckled look), but it does need to be a sharp cheese.

1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup light brown sugar
4 medium Granny Smith apples — peeled, cored, sliced
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 pinch ground nutmeg
6 pieces bacon — cooked and crumbled
16 ounces cream cheese — softened
2 large eggs
2 cups sharp white cheddar cheese — grated
1 teaspoon hot sauce

1. Line the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan or a cake pan with 3-inch tall sides with a continuous piece of parchment paper or aluminum foil and coat with nonstick cooking spray.
2. In a medium-sized skillet over medium heat melt the butter, then add the brown sugar and stir until dissolved. Add the sliced apples and stir to coat them with the sauce. Add the lemon juice, cinnamon and nutmeg and continue stirring a few times for 4-5 minutes. The apples will retain their crispness but should have absorbed some of the sauce. Pour the apples and sauce into the prepared pan and arrange in a decorative pattern, if desired. Sprinkle the bacon evenly on top of the apples.
3. Preheat the oven to 350°.
4. In a bowl of an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese until smooth. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until light and fluffy. Stir in the cheddar cheese and hot sauce. Gently pour or spoon the mixture over the apples and bacon in the prepared pan, smoothing the top with a rubber spatula.
5. Bake until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cheesecake comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Leave the cheesecake in the oven with the door ajar for another 30 minutes (to help prevent cracks from developing).
6. Remove the cheesecake from the oven and let cool on a rack for another 30-45 minutes.
7. Place a large serving plate over the pan, invert, and remove the pan from the cheesecake. Peel away the parchment or foil. At this point you can let the cheesecake cool completely, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 2 days. Bring to room temp before serving. Serve at room temp with crackers or bread.
Per Serving: 180 Calories; 15g Fat (71.6% calories from fat); 4g Protein; 9g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 67mg Cholesterol; 141mg Sodium.

A year ago: Orange Coconut Sour Cream Cookies
Two years ago: White Chicken Chili
Three years ago: Stacked Enchilada

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