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Just finished reading 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 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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