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Just finished The Letter by Kathyrn Hughes. It’s a very intricate tale. At first it’s about Tina, a battered wife [at which point I paused and wondered if I wanted to read any further, but I’m glad I did]. She tries to get the courage to leave her husband. Then enters the letter she finds in a suit pocket in the thrift shop where she volunteers. It’s old – sealed and stamped, but never mailed. Then you learn about Crissie, decades earlier, a young pregnant girl who is sent off to Ireland to a distant relative by her father, then to a rigid (meaning horrible) convent [the book takes place mostly in Manchester, England and in rural Ireland]. The letter is addressed to her. Jump forward decades and William, the adopted child Crissie gave up, tries to find his birth mother. William meets Tina in Ireland [a serendipitous moment] as she’s trying to find the woman to whom the letter is addressed. This book is the #2 best seller on Amazon at the moment. It’s a riveting tale and I really enjoyed it.

Read Grace Unshakled, by Irene Huising. From Amazon’s page, it says: “In the year 2025, 17-year-old Grace Duncan finds herself in shackles because of her faith in Christ. An obedient daughter and stellar student, doing time in jail was never on her mental radar, despite the changes in religious laws [this takes place here in the United States] over the past few years. Through twists and turns in circumstances, Grace and a small band of Christians in Newport Beach, California begin a journey to discover what it means to follow Christ with unwavering faith in the midst of increasing persecution. Facing the potential loss of all her hopes and dreams, would Christ be enough?” We read this for one of my book clubs, and it’s a scary thought about what it could mean if we take God out of our country. The author is a friend of a friend and she attended our book club meeting to share about how she came to write this book. I don’t often share my faith here on my website, but this book made me stop and think about the direction our government is going, removing more and more our ability to worship God. Or to worship in any religion. Will this book ever make waves in the book world? Probably not. My copy may be a pre-edited version, as it contained numerous typos and formatting errors. But they didn’t detract from the subject, just the cosmetics. The book doesn’t come to a resolution; in fact it leaves you hanging, as some books do. It was intentional (obviously), but left me wondering about the “end of the story.”

Also just finished reading The Muralist: A Novel by Shapiro. It tells the story of a young woman, an artist, who was part of the U.S.’s WPA mural project from the 1930s-40s (she is fiction, the WPA is not). As with so many artists, even today, they live in abject poverty through much of their lives. This woman, though, had family in France, desperately trying to escape before Hitler’s henchmen rousted them into concentration camps. The story, a bit of a mystery but not of the mystery-genre, is about Alizée Benoit, this young painter, who slightly captivates Eleanor Roosevelt’s help. It also skips into current time when the painter’s great-niece uncovers paintings she believes were painted by her aunt. The painter had disappeared into thin air in 1940, and her relative tries desperately to find out what happened to her. It’s a really good story including such Abstract Expressionist painters as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner well-woven into the narrative. It keeps you guessing right up to the end. A good read. The author also wrote The Art Forger: A Novel a few years ago.

Read 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) – 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 Margaret of York (a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine),  who was 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 first!

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 July 9th, 2010.

It all started because I had a craving for something chocolate. I do my best to suppress it, but it gets the better of me now and then and there’s nothing much for it except to bake something. Something chocolate.

Well so anyway, I was reading a blog about a loaf chocolate cake. One thing led to another and I was researching an article in the New York Times about a chocolate cake and by golly, I have the cookbook from which this cake originates. Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts, it’s a treasure-trove of chocolate recipes of every type. I’ve had the book for years and rarely seem to refer to it. Shame on me!

It seems like I’ve cooked/baked a lot recently with bourbon. I really don’t drink it much, but it must be that flavor interests me at the moment. So many desserts of the South incorporate bourbon. And then there was the Kentucky Derby recently, and we attended a party where mint juleps were served. I drank two. TWO! Oh my goodness, but they were good. Must be the little bit of simple syrup in them plus the shaved ice (not cubes, mind you, but shaved pieces) and the fresh mint. So, yes, I guess I do drink bourbon every now and again. It was the first hard liquor drink I tasted when I was 21 (yeah, I didn’t drink until then – not because I was abiding by law – but because I wasn’t around people who did drink – beer was the drink of choice with a few of my college pals but I didn’t like beer). Anyway, my former father-in-law was a bourbon-and-7-up imbiber and he would make me really mild ones on rare occasions when we’d visit him. Always mwade with Jim Beam.

Back to cake . . . reading a few other websites and blogs indicated this was a five-star recipe, so since I had all the ingredients (yea!) I went for it. It can be made in either a Bundt cake or a tube pan. I opted for the Bundt just because it’s prettier. Maida includes this in a chapter of Old-Fashioned Cakes Without Icing. The cake batter is different in only one aspect – you alternate the dry ingredients with the coffee/bourbon liquid, and it makes a very liquid batter. No matter how low/slow I turned my stand mixer, and how slowly I dribbled in the coffee mixture, it spewed thin batter all over everywhere – the mixer, the counter, the cabinets, my apron and even my shoe, dad gum it! And there are dribbles on my hardwood floor that I haven’t yet mopped up. I didn’t notice those and now they’re dried. I should have used the plastic cover I have for my stand mixer. I never use it, but it would have worked well if I had! So, you’re warned, okay?

The cake is baked in a slow oven (325) for over an hour (70-75 minutes recommended). It makes a deliciously light cake, and nicely rich with chocolate. I used 70% chocolate for this to get that super dark chocolate flavor. I melted the chocolate in a little pan I have and placed it on top of a flame tamer. That’s one of those things that allows for a slower heat to a pan (top right photo in collage above) – you place it over the range burner and put your cooking pan on top. I used my smallest/lowest gas burner and turned it down to the lowest flame. It took about 10 minutes to melt, and it didn’t burn at all. One of those great little items for your kitchen that pays for itself when you need it.

My only advice about making this cake – do use very finely crushed dry bread crumbs for the cake pan. All I had in my pantry was panko. And now you know, even panko crumbs stay crisp after being in contact with a cake batter! It didn’t really detract from the cake – at first I thought it was just the outer edge of cake that had become crispy. Uhm. No. Panko. Light colored little flecks of panko. So, be warned about that!

Once the cake is baked, you let it rest for 15 minutes, then turn it out (over) onto a rack to cool completely. You can poke a few holes and drizzle more bourbon on it, if you like (I didn’t). And once totally cool, sprinkle the top with powdered sugar. According to Maida’s recipe, you can also substitute rum, Cognac, Scotch or Amaretto for the bourbon. The recipe was a favorite of hers to demonstrate at cooking classes, and the feedback she got was that everyone couldn’t wait to go home and make it. That’s surely good reason to make this cake! Do serve it with whipped cream, or vanilla ice cream. Or maybe a glass of iced-cold milk. Well –  the taste – oh my goodness – was it good. The lightest crumb. Just the lightest I’ve ever had in a cake. Worth making? Absolutely. Will I make it again. A resounding YES.

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Maida Heatter’s 86-Proof Chocolate Cake

Recipe By: Adapted from “Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts”
Serving Size: 12
NOTES: With smaller portions this would easily serve 16. Use very light, fine bread crumbs for this. You can also use real espresso (very strong) for the espresso powder (mixed with water). I used part decaf espresso, part decaf coffee granules and added cold water for the required liquid amount. I used a 10-inch bundt, which worked fine, but the cake was not as tall.

butter for greasing cake pan (use ample)
1/3 cup dry bread crumbs — (approximately), very fine
5 ounces unsweetened chocolate — (5 squares)
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup espresso powder — (or substitute prepared espresso for the water)
boiling water cold water
1/2 cup bourbon
1/2 pound unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
Additional bourbon (optional)
Confectioner’s sugar (optional)

1. Adjust rack one-third up from bottom of the oven and preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter well the inside of a 9-inch bundt pan (called a mini-bundt pan), or any other fancy tube pan with a 10-cup capacity, and dust with fine dry breadcrumbs. Invert the pan over a piece of paper and tap lightly to shake out excess crumbs. Set aside.
2. Place the chocolate in the top of a small double boiler over hot water on low heat. Cover and cook only until melted; then remove the top of the double boiler and set it aside, uncovered, to cool slightly.
3. Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt and set aside.
4. In a two-cup measuring cup dissolve the coffee in a little boiling water. Add cold water to the 1 1/2 cup line. Add the bourbon. Set aside.
5. Cream the butter in the large bowl of an electric mixer. Add the vanilla and sugar and beat to mix well. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until smooth after each addition. Add the chocolate and beat until smooth.
6. Then, on low speed, alternately add the sifted dry ingredients in three additions with the liquids in two additions, adding the liquids VERY gradually to avoid splashing. Scrape the bowl with a rubber spatula after each addition. Be sure to beat until smooth after each addition, especially after the last. It will be a thin mixture.
7. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan. Rotate the pan a bit briskly, first in one direction, then in the other, to level the top. In a minibundt pan the batter will almost reach the top of the pan, but it will not run over and you will have a beautifully high cake.
8. Bake for one hour and 10 to 15 minutes. Test by inserting a cake tester in the middle of the cake and bake only until the tester comes out clean and dry.
9. Cool in the pan for about 15 minutes. Then cover with a rack and invert. Remove the pan, sprinkle the cake with a little optional bourbon, and leave the cake upside down on a rack to cool. Before serving, if you wish, sprinkle the top with confectioners’ sugar through a fine strainer. Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.
Per Serving: 455 Calories; 23g Fat (46.8% calories from fat); 6g Protein; 54g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 94mg Cholesterol; 198mg Sodium.

A year ago: Scenery in Glacier Bay (Alaska)
Two years ago: Potato Salad

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  1. hddonna

    said on July 9th, 2010:

    You told me this was coming, and I am definitely going to make it! You know, I have that book, too, and I love it. I’ve made various recipes from it over the years, but hadn’t taken note of this one, so thank you for bringing my attention to it! I like that it’s a bundt cake–I’ve been gravitating more towards those lately.
    My favorite recipe from Maida Heatter’s book is the chocolate shortbread. I make several batches every Christmas, but instead of rolling it out and cutting it, I make little balls and press them down with my cookie stamps, of which I have a dozen or so in Christmas designs. They’re my easiest Christmas cookie and a family favorite.

    Thanks, Donna. I’ll have to go look up the shortbread recipe. I would think of making chocolate shortbread, but with your recommendation I’ll have to try it – maybe for next Christmas. . . carolyn t

  2. hddonna

    said on July 18th, 2010:

    I made the cake, and we’ve been eating it for several days, with homemade ice cream. This cake is amazing. It is incredibly moist but not heavy and dense–just melts in your mouth! I forgot it overnight on the cooling rack, and it didn’t hurt it at all. The breadcrumbs work amazingly well. I have a bundt pan with very narrow, sharp ridges, and things tend to stick. With the crumbs, it slipped right out. They kind of meld with the crust, too, so it isn’t obvious that they were used. This is the best chocolate bundt cake recipe I have tried.

    So glad you liked it. I still have a small chunk in the freezer and will look forward to having the last of this. It really is a fantastic tasting cake! . . . carolyn t

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