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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 July 24th, 2011.


Can I just say . . . OMG! Talk about fantastic. Bursting with flavor. From one spectrum to the other – the sweet from the sugar sprinkled on top that gives it crunch – to the plums themselves which are a bit on the tart side.

The day I baked this I had plums on hand – the first I’ve seen of the season. I’d bought them 3-4 days before and knew I needed to use them asap. I had strawberries just past their peak and had decided to try a new recipe for strawberry buttermilk ice cream. I’ll be posting about that recipe too. And Dave had purchased a flat of peaches at Costco, and they were all (12 of them) RIPE! So I started working in the kitchen. The ice cream was first. While it was churning, I started on a peach chutney which I’m going to serve soon with a pork dinner. I’ll post that one too. Thirdly, I whipped up the plum torte.

torte_unbakedYou may remember, this is the recipe that has received the most raves by readers of  The New York Times, and the most requested recipe as well. Now I see why. And it’s interesting – there’s nothing unusual in the cake. Nothing at all. It’s an easy batter to make. There’s nothing unusual about the plum preparation – in fact there’s nothing to it – you slice them in half, remove the pits and plop them into the springform pan, skin side up, on top of the batter. I will mention – my plums were really large, and I only used 6; the recipe calls for 12. The top is sprinkled with a copious amount of cinnamon and a jot of sugar and into the oven it goes. SO easy. The picture shows it just before I put it in the oven.

Since then I’ve made it numerous times – always to raves – and recently when I couldn’t find plums, I made it with fresh apricots (photo at right). All I’ll say is: the plums are better, but apricots were okay too – but they needed more sugar. I’d suggest if you make it with apricots, when you slice it to serve, take a small bite of both apricot and cake, and if it’s too tart, sprinkle more sugar on top of the cake.

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What I liked: absolutely every single thing – the crunch, the sweet, the tart, and the texture. Yumminess in every single bite. And I did mention, it’s EASY!
What I didn’t like: nothing, nothing, nothing!

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, 50-60 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.

A year ago: Bittersweet Chocolate Pear Cake
Two years ago: Beef and Biscuit Casserole (my grandkids’ favorite)
Three years ago: Balsamic Onion Marmalade

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  1. Gloria

    said on July 24th, 2011:

    Yeah! I’m super excited to see this post! Your torte looks amazing. And based on the rave reviews, I think I’m going to have to make this. I’m always a little leery of plums because the skin is so tart. I recently made a plum pie and it was so tart that I almost couldn’t eat it with out some sweet brown sugar vanilla ice cream to cut it down. Sounds like there is enough sweetness in this torte to balance out the tartness. Thanks for sharing Carolyn!

    I’m sure with different kinds of plums the sweetness could vary. My plums were quite sweet, but the skin – of course – was tart. Do let me know what you think! . . . carolyn t

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