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Just finished a stunning book, The Girl with Seven Names by Hyanseo Lee. If you, like me, know little about North Korea and how it came to be what it is today, you’ve got to read this book. It’s a memoir written by a young woman who escaped from North Korea about 9 years ago. Her journey – and I mean JOURNEY – is harrowing, frightening, amazing, heart-rendering all at the same time. She chronicles the lives of the Kims (Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il to current Kim Jong Un), shares the strict propaganda that surrounds every North Korean citizen, the poverty and hunger, as well as the underground black market for food and goods. It took her awhile to get from North Korea, to China and eventually to South Korea, where she currently lives. She’s well educated and speaks English quite well. She was invited to be a speaker at a TED talk – you know about those, right? TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a media organization which posts talks online for free distribution, under the slogan “ideas worth spreading.” I listen to them as  podcasts now and then. Always very educational, if sometimes over my head when it gets very technical. She works diligently for human rights now, doing her best to help other North Koreans escape. You owe it to yourself to read this book.

Also just finished reading The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian. Another WOW book. I’ve always liked the author – many years ago I read his book, Midwives (don’t confuse this book with the one I recently read and is reviewed below) and really liked it. I think we read it in one of my book groups. He’s a brilliant writer, and this one has a lot of characters and twists. It’s a novel, but based on a lot of truth regarding the Armenian genocide. Most of the book takes place in Aleppo, Syria with some good Samaritan folk trying to help rescue people (mostly children) following the forced long marches the Turks made prodding the Turkish Armenians to exit their country. But it also jumps to near present day as a family member is trying to piece together obscure parts of her grandparents’ former lives there. She uncovers some hidden truths (many survivors of the genocide never-ever wanted to talk about it) and a bit more about her Armenian heritage. A riveting book – I could hardly put it down. Lots to discuss for a book club read. I simply must read more of Bohjalian’s books (he’s written many).

The Good Widow: A Novel by Lisa Steinke. All I can say is “wow.” In a general sense, this book is based on the premise of The Pilot’s Wife. But this one has some totally different twists and turns. A young wife is met at the door by police, informing her that her husband has died in an auto accident. Then she finds out he died in Hawaii – not Kansas, where she thought he was, on business. Then she finds out there was a woman in the car. Then she meets the fiance of the woman passenger and the two of them embark on a fact-finding mission in Hawaii to discover the truth. Well, I’m just sayin’ . . . the plot thickens. And thickens. And thickens clear up to the last few pages. Hang onto your seat. A really, really good, suspenseful read.

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes. What a WONDERFUL book. It opens up a shameful part of America’s past, but one you might not have heard about before this. In the late 1800s thousands of Chinese workers were brought to the West Coast to help with a variety of construction projects and a myriad of other things where laborers were needed. Many settled, married and made a new life for themselves. But suddenly the white population didn’t want them here anymore and they summarily ordered them ALL out of our country. This book chronicles a young Chinese girl, who was on a ship that was supposed to take her family to China, but the ship’s captain decided en route to dump them all overboard, to drown. The girl’s father knew it was going to happen and in order to save her, he threw his daughter off the ship as they were passing Orcas Island (in the San Juan Islands west of Seattle). She was saved. The book switches from that time to current time as a woman is rebuilding her family’s home on Orcas and finds a beautifully embroidered silk Chinese robe sleeve hidden under a stair step. The book is about that sordid past and the young girl’s descendents, and about the woman who is rebuilding. Stunner of a novel. Good for a book club read, I think. It has a reader’s guide at the back with good questions for book groups.

How It All Began: A Novel by 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. 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 angry father is a wealthy and influential man in the area. 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.

 

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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