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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 February 13th, 2011.

countess_toulouse_lautrec_french_chocolate_cake

Looking at this photo above, you’d probably think this is just a chocolate cake. Well, it is a chocolate cake, but it’s nothing related to ordinary. One of the descriptions of this cake is that it tastes more like cheesecake than cake. I don’t know that it’s cheesecake-like, only because it doesn’t have that wet-like texture of a cheesecake. It’s more like a cake, but with an almost velvet texture. It sort of defies description. It’s not exactly a cake; it’s not really a cheesecake, either (because it contains no dairy – like cream cheese –  except butter, and doesn’t have a crust – and isn’t wet like a cheesecake – it’s not even like a dry cheesecake, either). It’s not a torte, because it has no crust. I don’t really know what to call it.

The recipe is in Maida Heatter’s chocolate cookbook: Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts. It’s an old cookbook, but Maida Heatter is just a jewel of a baker. Nothing I’ve ever made from this book has been less than fabulous. Last year I made her 86-proof Chocolate Bundt Cake. It was sensational.

I can’t say that I’d ever even heard of Countess de Toulouse-Lautrec (1901-1969). And no, she was not married to the famous artist. Her husband was one of Henri’s distant cousins. But, she became a well-known foodie of that era and published a cookbook. This recipe, though, she introduced to American tastes by way of an article in McCall’s magazine way back in 1959.

Whatever this cake is, it’s absolutely rich with chocolate. It’s soft and velvety. And not heavy in the least. It’s a somewhat unorthodox cooking method, I will say. Not hard to make – kind of like a sponge cake – a chocolate one.  But it’s a far cry from a sponge cake in texture – it’s a bit more dense, remember. I was supposed to use an 8-inch springform pan. Would you believe, I don’t have one. So I had to improvise and use an 8 1/2-inch cake pan. It made it a little bit iffy getting the cake out of the pan that way (it could have been a disaster, actually), but it did come out because I greased a piece of parchment paper in the bottom. And the cake pan was nonstick too.

What’s odd is that you bake this little guy for a total of 15 minutes. Yup. That’s correct. And would you believe it only has one tablespoon of flour in it? And one tablespoon of sugar too. Well then, we will talk about the chocolate – it, of course, has sugar in it. And the recipe uses an entire pound of chocolate. The recipe calls for semisweet chocolate. I didn’t have a whole pound of semisweet, so I had to improvise with some bittersweet plus some ordinary chocolate chips. It didn’t seem to matter – the cake came out just fine.

Once we cut into this cake, I had a very hard time keeping my kitchen knife out of the dish to just cut off a thin, tiny little wedge to eat out of hand. Even with no whipped cream on top, it was sensational. The recipe indicates it’s even better made a day ahead. I would agree, although it was delicious the first evening too. You don’t chill it – it stays out at room temp, covered, of course. If you chilled it, I think the chocolate would firm up, and that you wouldn’t want! Do eat it within 2 days, though. Otherwise, freeze it to eat at a later time.

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Countess Toulouse-Lautrec’s French Chocolate Cake

Recipe By: Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts, 1978
Serving Size: 10
NOTES: Use whatever combination you have on hand for the chocolate – semisweet if you have it (chocolate chips, even) or bittersweet. The ‘one tablespoon’ measures of flour and sugar are correct. It is rather like a rich, moist, dense cheesecake – like unadulterated and undiluted chocolate. It is best to make it a day before serving or at least 6 to 8 hours before, or make it way ahead of time and freeze it. (Thaw before serving.)

1 pound semisweet chocolate
5 ounces unsalted butter — room temp
4 large eggs — separated
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour — unsifted
1 pinch salt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
2. In an 8-inch springform pan, cut a round waxed or parchment paper to fit the bottom. Butter one side of paper and the sides of the pan (not the bottom). Place buttered paper in pan, buttered side up, and clamp shut.
3. In top of double boiler, place coarsely chopped chocolate. Melt over simmering water, stirring occasionally with rubber spatula. Add 1/3 of butter at a time, each addition completely melted before adding next. Set aside to cool slightly.
4. In small bowl beat egg yolks at high speed for 5-7 minutes, until pale and thick. Add Tbsp. of flour and beat on low only to incorporate. Gently fold beaten egg yolks to into chocolate.
5. In another clean bowl, beat egg whites and salt until whites hold a soft shape. Add sugar and beat until whites hold definite shape but not too stiff or dry. Fold one-half beaten whites into chocolate — don’t be too thorough. Fold chocolate into remaining whites, handling gently until blended. Turn into prepared pan and rotate to level batter.
6. Bake for 15 minutes. Cake will be soft (only 1 inch high in middle, rim higher and cracked ~ you’ll think it’s not done but don’t worry). With a small sharp knife, carefully cut around side of hot cake, but don’t remove sides. Let cake stand in pan until room temperature. Refrigerate several hours or overnight.
7. To remove, cut around sides again with small sharp knife. Remove sides. Carefully insert a narrow spatula and invert on serving plate. Glaze with whipped cream, ganache (or top with toasted sliced almonds or a fine dusting of cocoa).
Per Serving: 355 Calories; 27g Fat (63.2% calories from fat); 5g Protein; 31g Carbohydrate; trace Dietary Fiber; 116mg Cholesterol; 48mg Sodium.

A year ago: Chocolate Puddle Cookies
Two years ago: A post about planning for a Valentine’s dinner

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  1. Janet J

    said on April 18th, 2011:

    Carolyn, when I attempted to print out the pdf version of the Countess Toulouse-Latrec Fr Choc Cake, McAfee gave me a warning!!!

    Yes, Janet, I have a problem with FileDen, the site where I’ve been storing my pdf’s. I’m loading all of them to my own website and am going back to fix all the links so they point to the new location. I’ve sent you the link privately. . . carolyn

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