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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 aging 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, wealthy women) 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.

I’ve written up an entire blog post about this book. (It hasn’t been posted yet, but will soon.) 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 Siena (and also San Gimignano) as she disguises herself as a boy in order to continue her life’s passion – painting. Very interesting story and worth reading.

 

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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