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Just finished 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.

Read Grace Unshakled, by Irene Huising. From Amazon’s page, it says: “In the year 2025, 17-year-old Grace Duncan finds herself in shackles because of her faith in Christ. An obedient daughter and stellar student, doing time in jail was never on her mental radar, despite the changes in religious laws [this takes place here in the United States] over the past few years. Through twists and turns in circumstances, Grace and a small band of Christians in Newport Beach, California begin a journey to discover what it means to follow Christ with unwavering faith in the midst of increasing persecution. Facing the potential loss of all her hopes and dreams, would Christ be enough?” We read this for one of my book clubs, and it’s a scary thought about what it could mean if we take God out of our country. The author is a friend of a friend and she attended our book club meeting to share about how she came to write this book. I don’t often share my faith here on my website, but this book made me stop and think about the direction our government is going, removing more and more our ability to worship God. Or to worship in any religion. Will this book ever make waves in the book world? Probably not. My copy may be a pre-edited version, as it contained numerous typos and formatting errors. But they didn’t detract from the subject, just the cosmetics. The book doesn’t come to a resolution; in fact it leaves you hanging, as some books do. It was intentional (obviously), but left me wondering about the “end of the story.”

Also just finished reading 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.

Read The German Girl: A Novel by Correa. It chronicles the story of a wealthy German Jewish family in Berlin, as the Nazis arrive and make life a living hell. The family is lucky (I guess you could say this) to be allowed to purchase passage on the M.S. St. Louis, a passenger liner, to take them to “the Americas.” The destination is actually Cuba. The story is told from two voices – the teenage daughter in this story, and from a current-day distant family member who is trying to learn about her ancestry. Of the 900+ passengers on the ship, only a few were allowed to disembark since the Cuban President decided he needed more money to accept them. Most families had no money left, as the Reich had taken nearly all of their assets. The daughter and her very eccentric mother were allowed to stay in Cuba.  The remaining passengers are rejected by the U.S. too, and eventually return to Europe, where most of the Jews end up dying in concentration camps. The story goes back and forth from the 1939 journey to current day as the link between the two women is slowly revealed. I had a tough time sometimes, tracking the people in this book, but the story was very riveting. It’s based on facts about the ship (see Wikipedia link above if you’re interested). A shameful chapter in history.

Recently finished reading a magnificent historical novel. Not new. Philippa Gregory has been a favorite author of mine for a couple of decades. You may remember her most famous book, The Other Boleyn Girl, published some years ago. I thought that was a really great book. I’ve read other books by Gregory, but most recently I read The King’s Curse (The Plantagenet and Tudor Novels). The time period is the 1450s to 1541, mostly under the rule of King Henry VIII, the infamous womanizer and wife/Queen-killer. The man who cursed Rome (the Pope) – he wanted his first marriage annulled because Queen Catherine couldn’t produce a living male heir. And subsequently made himself the head of the church in England in order to do so. It was a Catholic country at the time. This story (it’s fiction, but woven with intricate historical detail) is from the voice of Margaret of York (a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine),  who was a Plantagenet in her own right (which is key to the later events in the book). Certainly I’ve read other novels over the years that dealt with Henry VIII, but not with this much breadth of info. What a wicked, sinful man he was. And did I say tyrant. Wow.  I could hardly put it down, through its nearly 600 pages. In the author’s notes at the end, she shares relatively recent medical info that suggests Henry probably suffered from a rare problem, Kell positive blood type, which can cause miscarriages, stillbirths and infant deaths IF the mother has the more common Kell negative blood type. And that in his later years, he may have had McLeod syndrome, a disease only found in Kell positive individuals. Around the age of 40 it causes physical degeneration and personality changes resulting in paranoia, depression and irrational behavior. All of those King Henry VIII had in spades. If you read the book, you might read the author’s notes (at the end) before reading the book. If you like historical fiction (I love any book about English history) you’ll just love this one. It’s interesting, though, as I think about the many books I’ve read covering this era in English history, that each book presented its hero/heroine as the most innocent and worthy individual vying for the crown of England. I remember thinking Anne Boleyn was dealt with so badly during her life (and certainly her beheading), and yet reading this book, I completely reversed my opinion. Anne Boleyn was called a wh–e by most people during the years she shared Henry’s bed. The “curse” from the title pertains to Henry’s inability or the curse on the Tudors, that caused him to fail in producing a male heir. In any case, none of Henry’s wives should have died for it – likely it was all Henry’s fault anyway. Just read this one, okay?

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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