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I’m going to write up an entire blog post about this book. It may be one of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s a memoir by Pat Conroy (an author I’ve long admired). He died a year or so ago – sad, that. In order to get the most out of My Reading Life, I recommend you BUY THE HARDBACK. I can’t say enough good things about this book. It’s an autobiography of sorts, but not really. He never wrote one, I don’t think, and I doubt he would ever have written one as he likely didn’t believe anyone would want to read about his (sad) life. In this memoir, he chronicles the books (and the people who recommended them) that influenced his life. Starting at his mother’s knees and continuing through influential teachers and mentors and friends. One of my book clubs read it, and I devoured it, cover to cover, with little plastic flags inserted all the way through to re-read some of the prose. Pat Conroy was a fabulous writer – he studied words from a young age and used them widely and wisely throughout his writing, but better than most authors would. He adored his mother, and hated (with venom) his aviator military father who physically abused everyone in the family, including his mother. They all took it like stoic Buddhas. I’m going to have to read Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel because of reading this book. I’ve never read it. Conroy says that book’s first page is the best first page of any book he ever read in his life. Wow. And maybe my book group is going to re-read Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Vintage Classics) too because of the chapter on that book. We might have to assign that to a 2-month or longer read. If you have friends or family who are avid readers, this would make a great gift, this book, My Reading Life. If YOU are a reader, it needs to be on your bookshelf, but in hardback, so you can go back to it and re-read his stories. It’s a series of essays, each one about a sub-section of his life. A must-have and a must-read.

Also read The Towers of Tuscany by Carol Cram. It was a bargain book through amazon or bookbub (e-book). Back in the Middle Ages women were forbidden to be artists. Their only place was in the home, caring for children and sewing and cooking. But the heroine in this book was taught to paint by her widowed artist-father (in secret, of course). When her father suddenly dies, all hell breaks loose and she must fend for herself. Much of the book takes place in Florence as she disguises herself as a boy in order to continue her life’s passion – painting. Very interesting story and worth reading.

Also finished The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry: A Novel by Gabrielle Zevin. It popped up on a list I subscribe to and was available for $1.13 as an e-book. As it begins, you’re hearing from A.J., a grieving widower who owns a bookstore on an obscure island off the East Coast. He’s angry, rude and every other negative adjective you can imagine. A book rep comes to visit and he’s awful to her, yet she perseveres and manages to sell him a few books. You get to know his friends (a friendship with him is full of sharp points) and one day an abandoned toddler is found in his bookshop. In between the story line about A.J., the book rep, the little girl and others, you will learn all about A.J.’s book tastes. If you’re an avid reader, you’ll really enjoy that part. It’s a charming book; loved it.

Also read a quirky book, Goodbye, Vitamin: A Novel by Rachel Khong. She’s a new writer (newly published, I guess I should say) and this story is about Ruth, a 30+ something, trying to readjust to life without her fiance, who’s dumped her. She goes back home to help with the care of her father, who has Alzheimer’s. Written in a diary style, it jumps all over about her life, her mother, the funny, poignant things her father says on good days, and the nutty stuff he does on not-so-good days, her ex-, and her very quirky friends, too. Then a woman flits through who had had an affair with her father –  you get to observe all the angst from the mom about that. Mostly it’s about her father, as he’s relatively “together” early in the book, but then he disintegrates. Reading that part isn’t fun, although the author is able to lean some humor into it. I’m not sure I recommend the book exactly – I read it through – and felt sad. It doesn’t tie up loose ends – if you need that kind of book – you may not want to read this one.

 

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 Cookbooks, Desserts, on May 23rd, 2011.

This is the final post in the 3-part series about this new cookbook I own. After telling you all about how the book came to be, and the amazing process Amanda Hesser went through to get it accomplished, I thought I should share with you at least one recipe. Actually I’ve made one recipe from the cookbook – the Summer-Squash Casserole I wrote about recently. It was fantastic. I even got my first splotch of food on the page! Darn. I have way too many little yellow and pink stickies poking out of the book, all recipes I want to try. I think my next one will be the 1948 Green Goddess Salad.

In the cookbook Amanda wrote a lengthy headnote about the Purple Plum Torte:

This plum torte is both the most often published and the most requested recipe in the Times archives. By my count, Marian Burros (who was given the recipe by Lois Levine, with whom Burros wrote Elegant but Easy) ran the recipe in the paper twelve times. And when I asked readers for recipe suggestions for this book, 247 people raved about the torte. The plum torte happily lives up to its billing: crusty and light, with deep wells of slackened, sugar-glazed fruit.

I’ve thought a lot about why this torte struck such a chord with people: the answer, I think, is that it’s a nearly perfect recipe. There are only eight ingredients, all of which, except for the plums, you probably already have in your kitchen. There are just four steps, most of which are one sentence long. You need no special equipment, just a bowl, a wooden spoon, and a pan. The batter is like pancake batter, which most everyone is comfortable making. And baked plums are sweet and tart, making the flavor more complex and memorable than a hard-hitting sweet dessert.

It also freezes well. “A friend who loved the torte said that in exchange for two, she would let me store as many as I wanted in her freezer,” Burros wrote one year when she ran the recipe. “A week later, she went on vacation for two weeks and her mother stayed with her children. When she returned, my friend called and asked, ‘How many of those tortes did you leave in my freezer?’

“‘Twenty-four, but two of those were for you.’

“There was a long pause. ‘Well, I guess my mother either ate twelve of them or gave them away.’”

In later versions of the plum torte recipe, Burros cut back the sugar to 3/4 cup—feel free to if you like—and added variations, such as substituting blueberries or apples and cranberries for the plums (I haven’t tried either, but Burros was a fan). She jumped the shark, in my view, though, when she created low-fat variations with mashed bananas and applesauce. While I respect her enthusiasm for innovation, this is one recipe that needs no improvement.—Amanda Hesser

This particular recipe also contained several reader comments (presumably from the 6,000 emails and letters she received from her request for favorite recipes). Most recipes don’t have that much information. At the end of every recipe is the origin of it, the article title it came from, and the date. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading through recipes by the dozens, and noting the year it was published, like a sour milk cake from 1876 or a sauce for venison from 1880. Or even Dwight Eisenhower’s Steak in the Fire, from 1949, from one or more of his fishing trips to Wisconsin.

Obviously, you can tell, I’m really enjoying this cookbook. If you need a gift for someone, this would be a perfect one. Especially if that person enjoys cooking as well as reading about it. Or buy it for yourself – I don’t think you’ll be a bit sorry you did! The book is a bargain at $23.52 at Amazon.com: The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century.

As a result of Amanda’s and Merrill’s collaboration on this cookbook, (they’re now business partners too) they have a blog called Food52, in case you’re interested.

printer-friendly PDF for the Purple Plum Torte

Purple Plum Torte

Recipe By: The Essential New York Times Cookbook, by Amanda Hesser
Serving Size: 8
NOTES: In the cookbook are several comments from long-time readers who suggested using apples or frozen cranberries. Someone else used mango, peaches, adds 1/2 tsp of vanilla and the grated rind of a small lemon to the batter. Yet another person added a teaspoon of almond extract to the cake batter. Someone else wrote that if you have more plums and want to use them, stand the plum halves on their sides and put them in a spoke pattern on the batter.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 pinch salt
1 cup sugar — plus 1 T. or more, depending on the tartness of the plums
8 tablespoons unsalted butter — softened
2 large eggs
12 whole plums — purple variety, halved and pitted
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice — or more or less, depending on the tartness of the plums
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1. Heat oven to 350°. Sift the flour with the baking powder and salt.
2. Cream 1 cup sugar and butter in a large bowl with a hand mixer (or a stand mixer) until light in color. Add the dry ingredients and then the eggs.
3. Spoon the batter into an ungreased 9-inch springform pan. Cover the top of the batter with the plum halves, skin side up. Sprinkle with the remaining tablespoon of sugar and the lemon juice, adjusting to the tartness of the fruit. Sprinkle with the cinnamon.
4. Bake until the cake is golden and the plums are bubbly, 45-50 minutes [Mine takes 60 minutes to be completely cooked in the center]. Cool on a rack, then unmold. [Optional: serve with almond-flavored whipped cream.]
Per Serving: 331 Calories; 14g Fat (35.6% calories from fat); 4g Protein; 51g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 84mg Cholesterol; 97mg Sodium.

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  1. Gloria

    said on May 23rd, 2011:

    Darn! I was excited to see the a photo of the the most popular recipe, the Purple Plum Torte. Guess I’ll have to try it out myself. 😉

    Truly, if I’d been able to buy plums (I even went to Bristol Farms, a very upscale grocery store about 15 miles away, but no, they didn’t have any) I’d have made it already. Stay tuned – as soon as I find some plums, I’ll be-a-tryin’ it. . . . and I’ll have a photo . . . carolyn t

  2. Gloria

    said on May 25th, 2011:

    Looking forward to it! 🙂

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