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Just finished 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 want that kind of book – you may not want to read this one.

Also finished Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia. You know Julian Fellowes, the producer and writer of Downton Abbey? He lends his mind to a story about a family or two from the similar time period as Downton, who live in London. There’s some amount of intrigue, romance, observations from within the halls of wealthy Londoners and moderately well off tradesmen and their families. There’s affairs, shady business dealings, an illegitimate child, the comings and goings of the “downstairs” staff too, etc. The characters were well done – I had no trouble keeping all of the people identified. The story is somewhat predictable, but it was interesting clear up to the end.

The Letter by Kathyrn Hughes. It’s a very intricate tale. At first it’s about Tina, a battered wife [at which point I paused and wondered if I wanted to read any further, but I’m glad I did]. She tries to get the courage to leave her husband. Then enters the letter she finds in a suit pocket in the thrift shop where she volunteers. It’s old – sealed and stamped, but never mailed. Then you learn about Crissie, decades earlier, a young pregnant girl who is sent off to Ireland to a distant relative by her father, then to a rigid (meaning horrible) convent [the book takes place mostly in Manchester, England and in rural Ireland]. The letter is addressed to her. Jump forward decades and William, the adopted child Crissie gave up, tries to find his birth mother. William meets Tina in Ireland [a serendipitous moment] as she’s trying to find the woman to whom the letter is addressed. This book is the #2 best seller on Amazon at the moment. It’s a riveting tale and I really enjoyed it.

The Muralist: A Novel by Shapiro. It tells the story of a young woman, an artist, who was part of the U.S.’s WPA mural project from the 1930s-40s (she is fiction, the WPA is not). As with so many artists, even today, they live in abject poverty through much of their lives. This woman, though, had family in France, desperately trying to escape before Hitler’s henchmen rousted them into concentration camps. The story, a bit of a mystery but not of the mystery-genre, is about Alizée Benoit, this young painter, who slightly captivates Eleanor Roosevelt’s help. It also skips into current time when the painter’s great-niece uncovers paintings she believes were painted by her aunt. The painter had disappeared into thin air in 1940, and her relative tries desperately to find out what happened to her. It’s a really good story including such Abstract Expressionist painters as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner well-woven into the narrative. It keeps you guessing right up to the end. A good read. The author also wrote The Art Forger: A Novel a few years ago.

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 first!

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 Cookies, Desserts, on September 20th, 2011.

viennese_choc_walnut_bars

Really, I thought I’d posted this recipe before. I searched all over my own website because I was certain I had. Nope. So, I’m rectifying that right now. I’ve made these several times (usually around Christmastime), maybe not in the last couple of years, though. They’re worth making. Not all that hard, either, although you might think so by looking at them.

First you make a rich pastry crust that is a cinch to press into the bottom of a 9×9 pan. Not the least bit difficult or time consuming. That shortbread layer is baked for 10 minutes and cooled. Then you spread a thin layer of apricot jam (I used blackberry preserves, actually, though really you want some kind of seedless variety or a stone fruit jam). Then you mix up a flourless chocolate mixture with a whole lot of walnuts in it, and spread that on top of the preserves. That gets baked for a short while and is allowed to cool. The chocolate icing is also cinchy-easy to make – some chocolate chips are melted, then you add a jot of corn syrup (for smoothing it out), a tiny jot of rum (or espresso), a tiny sprinkle of hot water and that’s done. Spread it on top of the cooled bars. Then press in 1/2 cup of chopped walnuts and kind of press them into the icing (otherwise they tend to fall off). That’s it. They don’t need refrigeration. If you have them more than a day or two I’d recommend you put them in an airtight container and freeze them. They keep in the freezer for a couple of months.

choc_bars_in_panThe recipe came from Maida Heatter’s book, The Book of Great Cookies. It’s out of print, unfortunately, but after looking online, I see that she’s got a new cookie book out – just out, actually, in March, 2011. (Do read the Amazon reviews – it appears there are some editing errors – recipes printed in wrong categories according to two commenters.) All the recipes come from her previous cookbooks. One reader suggested trying to find Heatter’s older books in used book stores instead – I’d recommend that too.  Maida Heatter is just the queen of cookies and desserts, more often chocolate. She’s authored several cookbooks. I’ve never had a failure with Maida Heatter’s recipes. Ever. That says something, although cookies are a little hard to bungle. I only own one of her cookbooks, a chocolate dessert one from 1983. And this recipe isn’t in it – I found it online at a couple of sources.

What I liked: the ease of making them; how pretty they look; and how deliciously chocolatey they are.

What I didn’t like: nothing at all. Just be a bit careful removing them from the pan – the pastry is very tender and will crumble easily – use a big spatula to get them out.

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Viennese Chocolate-Walnut Bars

Recipe By: Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Cookies
Serving Size: 32
NOTES: The shortbread (bottom layer) is very tender and flaky, so when you remove the big squares from the 9×9 pan, do use a big spatula to get each section out; otherwise you’ll crumble the shortbread too much. Keeps at room temp for a few days; if keeping long than that, freeze them in an airtight container.

CRUST:
1/4 pound butter
1/4 cup dark brown sugar — firmly packed
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour — sifted
CHOCOLATE-WALNUT FILLING:
1/4 cup apricot preserves — or other seedless preserves
6 ounces walnuts — about 1 1/2 cups
2 whole eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup dark brown sugar — firmly packed
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
CHOCOLATE ICING:
6 ounces chocolate chips — about 1 cup
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
2 teaspoons rum — or espresso
2 teaspoons boiling water
2 ounces walnuts — cut medium-fine, about 1/2 cup

1. CRUST: Adjust rack one third up from bottom of oven and preheat to 375°. In an electric mixer cream the butter. Beat in the sugar. On low speed gradually add the flour and beat only until the mixture holds together.
2. Place the dough by large spoonsful over the bottom of an unbuttered 9-inch square pan. With your fingertips press the dough to make a smooth layer over the bottom of the pan. Bake for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the filling.
3. FILLING: In a small bowl stir the preserves just to soften them and set aside. Grind the walnuts to a fine powder in a blender or a nut grinder and set aside.
4. In the small bowl of an electric mixer beat the eggs at high speed for 2-3 minutes until they are slightly thickened. Add the salt and vanilla, and then, on low speed, add the sugar and cocoa Increase the speed to high again, and beat for 2-3 minutes more. On low speed mix in the ground walnuts, beating only until the nuts are incorporated.
5. Spread the preserves over the hot crust, leaving a 1/2 inch border. It will be a very thin layer but it is really enough. Pour the filling over the preserves and tilt the pan to level the filling. Bake at 375 for 25 minutes. Let the cake cool completely and then prepare the icing.
6. ICING: In the top of a small double boiler, covered, over hot water on moderate heat, cook the chocolate until it is partially melted. Still on the heat stir the chocolate with a rubber spatula until it is completely melted and smooth. Add the corn syrup, rum or coffee, and the boiling water and stir until smooth.
7. Spread the icing evenly over the cake. Sprinkle with the nuts and press down gently with a wide metal spatula to press the nuts slightly into the icing. Let stand at room temperature until the icing is firm; it will probably take a few hours.
8. With a small, sharp knife, cut around the sides of the cake to release it and then cut the cake into quarters. With a wide metal spatula transfer the quarters to a cutting board and cut each quarter into 6-8 small bars. Place the bars on a serving dish, cover with plastic wrap, and let stand at room temp for a few hours, or overnight, before serving.
Per Serving: 154 Calories; 9g Fat (49.4% calories from fat); 3g Protein; 17g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 21mg Cholesterol; 56mg Sodium.

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  1. Nicole

    said on September 24th, 2011:

    I am always looking for a new bar cookie recipe. They are so easy to make and great for taking to potlucks, etc…
    These really caught my eye with that lovely chocolate layer. Hope to give them a try soon.

    I think I first made them around Christmastime, but they’re delish any time of year! . . . carolyn t

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