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Just finished reading 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 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 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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