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Just finished reading 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 because 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 a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine, Margaret of York, later titled Countess of Salisbury, but 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, too!

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.

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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