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Just finished 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 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 parents were 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 a old 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.

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.

Eye On the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, by James, McGrath Morris. Each year my AAUW book club reads something related to Black History Month. This is a biography of a woman you’ve probably never heard of, Ethel Payne, and about her life-long journey in journalism, struggling to keep her head above water financially, but staying true to her purposes of telling the truth about the black stories and black racism of the day. Sometimes biographies aren’t all that riveting, but I found this one to be so, and I savored each new chapter. We had a really good discussion of the book, and the ups and downs of Payne’s life, especially during her years as a Washington reporter. You’ll not be sorry to have spent the time reading this book. It’s well-written, as well. I was thrilled when the author, Morris, left a message here on my blog, thanking me (and my group) for reading his book.

H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. This one has been on the best seller list. It’s a memoir about a woman who takes on a personal challenge of taming a wild hawk. Prior to reading this book, I knew next to nothing about the entire subject of hawking, or taming any of the big, wild birds. The book is equally about the writer’s inner journey. She’s a consummate writer, and every page was a joy of words, for me. My only problem is my own – I found it hard, the more time that went by, and the more time the writer spent trying to tame this bird, to scream out “let the bird go.” Perhaps it’s because I spent time in Africa in 2015, seeing animals in the wild, that I felt more for the bird than I did with the writer’s discontent with herself and the taming process. Little did I know what a hard job it is to tame a hawk. I actually didn’t finish the book. It was a book club read, and highly recommended by several of our members. And I ended up not being able to attend the meeting as I had a cold. So perhaps there is some great ending to it that would have made me feel better. I haven’t gone to the end to find out. I just had to stop reading it. But I’m not NOT recommending it. If nothing else, read it for Macdonald’s sublime proficiency with words.

Also read George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution, by Brian Kilmeade and Dan Yaeger. Here’s what it says on amazon: When George Washington beat a hasty retreat from New York City in August 1776, many thought the American Revolution might soon be over. Instead, Washington rallied—thanks in large part to a little-known, top-secret group called the Culper Spy Ring. He realized that he couldn’t defeat the British with military might, so he recruited a sophisticated and deeply secretive intelligence network to infiltrate New York. I won’t exactly call this book a riveting read, but it was interesting. Relating facts that few people knew about, this Culper Spy Ring. It’s a little chunk of American history researched in depth by the authors. An interesting read.

Also read The Little Paris Bookshop: A Novel by Nina George. If you’re an avid reader, you probably have the same kind of longing as I do for a quaint, independently owned bookstore right around the corner. So few exist anymore. This novel is about a very unusual book store, and book store owner. In Paris. On a boat/barge. It’s not a typical book store, and the writer takes you on a journey of discovery about (likely) her own lifetime of book reading. You’ll learn all about a variety of existing books and why they’re a good read. But it’s all cloaked in a story about this book store and the owner. And the customers. Very fun. I’m reviewing it for one of my book clubs next month.

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)
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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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