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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 17th, 2010.

My mother’s recipes were all collected in the 3×5 card era. My mother’s recipe-collecting years were from about 1938 (when she was married) to about 1992 (when she and my dad moved into a retirement home and she stopped cooking altogether). And I’ve shared before, I think, a photo of my mom’s recipe box (below). I think she bought this metal card box – a huge one – at a garage sale, or a rummage sale. It barely held all of her recipes. It was so full I had to go through and throw out some of the less-interesting recipes, mostly newspaper clippings with no notes, so I knew she’s never made them. Most of the treasured ones that I remember I’ve already shared on this blog. The inside of the box says “The American Home menu maker.” It also has a list of weights and measures and a section of equivalents like 1 tablespoon of flour = 1/2 tablespoon cornstarch. Or 1 cup honey = 1 to 1 1/4 cups sugar and 1/4 cup liquid. Hmm. That’s an interesting one.

This nut pudding cake recipe is also on a 3×5 card, well aged, with some food spatters and notes written in pencil. Also her little code in the corner – EXC – she wrote. So I’m guessing this recipe dates from about 1950, just based on the yellowish cast to the 3×5 card itself. You can see the card in the left front of the box. It might date even to the 40’s. There’s no date, of course.

This dessert has all the regular trappings of a pudding cake – the kind you make that creates its own sauce. I pulled it out of the recipe box a month of so ago when I was searching for something. I flipped through a whole bunch of recipes – like Margie’s Fruit Cookies (a friend from when we lived in Rhode Island), Clair’s Crab (a neighbor for years in San Diego), Ruth’s Salmon Aspic (my dad worked with her husband – I have several of Ruth’s recipes), Esther’s Split Cake (one of my mom’s best friends), Aunt Sadie’s Lemon Chiffon Pie, (she was my dad’s aunt), Gertrude’s Chicken Ring (another work friend – my dad worked with her husband), and Frozen Pea Salad (from LaVern, my dad’s 2nd cousin, who lived in Sacramento). Aren’t the people names and the recipe names SO evocative of the times. I must go through the box again and pull out even more recipes and try them. It will take me hours and hours to review. Likely I’ll shed a tear or two as I read more of the cards in my mother’s flowing handwriting. The ones that were written with a fountain pen – well, I can be pretty certain those are very old. This is one of those.

So, back to the recipe itself. It’s quite simple to make, really. Although I will say there were a whole lot of measuring cups to wash and several bowls of different sizes too. My DH is so good to me – he washes all the dishes morning, noon and night and in between if I’m creating things in the kitchen.

First you make a cake batter of flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, some cocoa, milk, vanilla and nuts. That gets poured into the bottom of an 8x8x2 baking pan and spread out evenly. Then you mix more cocoa and brown sugar to sprinkle all over the top, and lastly you pour 2 cups of hot, boiling water over the top. Just be careful as you move the pan (that’s hot) from your countertop to the oven shelf. You probably could (and I should have) put the pan on the oven shelf, then poured the hot water in. You don’t stir it or anything. Just gently pour in the water. It bakes for 40-45 minutes and when it comes out all the cake has risen to the top and the nice, goopy sauce-like stuff is on the bottom. When you spoon it out, the sauce is there to dribble over ice cream if you want to add that.

The first time I garnished with ice cream. Second serving I used fat-free half and half, which was very nice, actually. Ice cream may not be the perfect combo after all. In either case, though, this was delish. Moist. Chewy-crunchy from the nuts, which I liked. I happened to use pecans because that’s what I had on hand, so either walnuts or pecans would work. Do note this dessert is very low-fat. So, thanks, mom, for this good, comfort-food, old-fashioned dessert.
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Chocolate Upside-Down Baked Nut Pudding

Recipe By: Adapted from my mother’s recipe from about 1950, in her handwriting.
Serving Size: 8

CAKE BATTER:
1 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cocoa
1 cup 2% low-fat milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons unsalted butter — melted
1/2 cup chopped nuts — walnuts or pecans
TOPPING:
1 1/4 cups light brown sugar
1/4 cup cocoa — (scant the measure by about a tablespoon)
2 cups boiling water

1. Preheat oven to 350. Sift flour, baking powder, salt, sugar and cocoa together. Sift into a larger bowl.
2. Add vanilla to milk, then combine with the melted butter and chopped nuts. Add to the dry ingredients. Stir just enough to combine, then pour into an 8x8x2 baking dish.
3. Mix brown sugar with the 1/4 cup cocoa. Sprinkle this mixture on top of the entire surface of the batter.
4. Gently pour the hot water over the top. Do not stir.
5. Gently move the pan into oven and bake for 40-45 minutes.
6. Serve warm with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.
Per Serving (you might get 9-10 servings if they’re smaller): 323 Calories; 9g Fat (24.5% calories from fat); 5g Protein; 59g Carbohydrate; 3g Dietary Fiber; 10mg Cholesterol; 284mg Sodium.

A year ago: Barbecued Southern Shrimp
Two years ago: Greek Steak in Pita Sandwich
Three  years ago: Cranberry Orange Cookies

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