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Just finished 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 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 parents were 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 a old 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.

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.

Eye On the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, by James, McGrath Morris. Each year my AAUW book club reads something related to Black History Month. This is a biography of a woman you’ve probably never heard of, Ethel Payne, and about her life-long journey in journalism, struggling to keep her head above water financially, but staying true to her purposes of telling the truth about the black stories and black racism of the day. Sometimes biographies aren’t all that riveting, but I found this one to be so, and I savored each new chapter. We had a really good discussion of the book, and the ups and downs of Payne’s life, especially during her years as a Washington reporter. You’ll not be sorry to have spent the time reading this book. It’s well-written, as well. I was thrilled when the author, Morris, left a message here on my blog, thanking me (and my group) for reading his book.

H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. This one has been on the best seller list. It’s a memoir about a woman who takes on a personal challenge of taming a wild hawk. Prior to reading this book, I knew next to nothing about the entire subject of hawking, or taming any of the big, wild birds. The book is equally about the writer’s inner journey. She’s a consummate writer, and every page was a joy of words, for me. My only problem is my own – I found it hard, the more time that went by, and the more time the writer spent trying to tame this bird, to scream out “let the bird go.” Perhaps it’s because I spent time in Africa in 2015, seeing animals in the wild, that I felt more for the bird than I did with the writer’s discontent with herself and the taming process. Little did I know what a hard job it is to tame a hawk. I actually didn’t finish the book. It was a book club read, and highly recommended by several of our members. And I ended up not being able to attend the meeting as I had a cold. So perhaps there is some great ending to it that would have made me feel better. I haven’t gone to the end to find out. I just had to stop reading it. But I’m not NOT recommending it. If nothing else, read it for Macdonald’s sublime proficiency with words.

Also read George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution, by Brian Kilmeade and Dan Yaeger. Here’s what it says on amazon: When George Washington beat a hasty retreat from New York City in August 1776, many thought the American Revolution might soon be over. Instead, Washington rallied—thanks in large part to a little-known, top-secret group called the Culper Spy Ring. He realized that he couldn’t defeat the British with military might, so he recruited a sophisticated and deeply secretive intelligence network to infiltrate New York. I won’t exactly call this book a riveting read, but it was interesting. Relating facts that few people knew about, this Culper Spy Ring. It’s a little chunk of American history researched in depth by the authors. An interesting read.

Also read The Little Paris Bookshop: A Novel by Nina George. If you’re an avid reader, you probably have the same kind of longing as I do for a quaint, independently owned bookstore right around the corner. So few exist anymore. This novel is about a very unusual book store, and book store owner. In Paris. On a boat/barge. It’s not a typical book store, and the writer takes you on a journey of discovery about (likely) her own lifetime of book reading. You’ll learn all about a variety of existing books and why they’re a good read. But it’s all cloaked in a story about this book store and the owner. And the customers. Very fun. I’m reviewing it for one of my book clubs next month.

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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