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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 February 15th, 2012.

pineapple_upsidedown_cake

You remember the ubiquitous pineapple upside down cake from the 1950’s. With canned pineapple rings and a maraschino cherry in the center of each? With a bland-tasting yellow cake? Well, this isn’t THAT recipe, but it’s similar – using fresh pineapple and a light textured “cake flour” batter.

You know all about Thomas Keller, right? Probably the most well-known chef in the U.S. – because of his restaurant The French Laundry (in Yountville, California, in the middle of wine country). I’ve never been there – it’s still, all these years hence – almost impossible to get into. It takes reservations, but a long way in advance. And, it’s very dear to eat there – upwards of $200+ per person. A few years ago Keller opened a second restaurant nearby, called Ad Hoc. I haven’t been there, either. But Keller has published a couple of cookbooks, namely The French Laundry Cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home, and a boxed set of both: The Essential Thomas Keller: The French Laundry Cookbook & Ad Hoc at Home [Box Set] [Hardcover].

One day some years ago I read a recipe online for an appetizer soup that was in one of his cookbooks (the first one, I think). It was an almond soup (or maybe it was hazelnut), as I recall. Not finding the actual recipe anywhere, I visited my local bookstore and surreptitiously took the cookbook to a convenient chair and copied it off in cryptic notes. It was an intensely long, loooong recipe. And I’ve never made it. It looks like it would take hours to prepare. More work, likely, than I’m interested in, although the person who had made it just raved about it. So, based on that recipe, I’d decided I didn’t need to buy the cookbook – as I glanced in it, the recipes were mostly pages and pages long. Then, when he published his Ad Hoc cookbook, I thought it might be more approachable. And indeed, it is. One of my favorite chocolate chip cookies came from that cookbook. Chocolate Chip Cookies from Ad Hoc, in case you’re interested. I make them every now and then, although my favorite, I think, are Chocolate Chip Cookies from Silver Moon Bakery. But, I still haven’t purchased either cookbook. I should check my local library. Sorry, I got sidetracked there.

pineapple_upsidedown_collageSo, I decided to make this Pineapple Upside Down Cake that came from Keller’s Ad Hoc cookbook. I’d read about it online at Foodgal’s blog. I figured that Keller would have discovered the real secret to such a cake – probably a better and different topping (actually, remember, it starts out on the bottom, but then it is turned over and becomes the top after baking). And more importantly, I figured he would have found a much better (and lighter textured) cake to pair with it.

The cake as a whole isn’t hard to make, although it does have a few steps – a few more than usual. First you make a schmear. What’s a schmear? Well, in this case it’s a mixture of brown sugar, butter, honey and dark rum. That softened stuff is spread all over the bottom of the 9-inch (high sided) cake pan. You can see the schmear in the top photo above. It took a bit of doing to get it to spread out in the pan. And there’s another little aside: the recipe has you make enough for 3 pans worth of schmear. In the headnotes it does indicate that you make more than needed – I didn’t read that when I actually started making this. He said the quantity is too small to mix up well in a stand mixer.  I’ve adjusted the recipe below accordingly, hoping you can make it work – if you do it with a hand mixer I think it’ll be fine.

Anyway, once the schmear is in place you cut up a fresh, very ripe, pineapple. That took awhile – at least half and hour, I’d say to cut it properly and layer it in the pan – on top of the schmear. The pieces are overlapped slightly so it covers the entire schmear. I think I’d perhaps layer a bit more pineapple – I used about 2/3 of the pineapple, I’d guess. Just a bit more would have been good. I think I should have cut the pineapple is thicker pieces by just a little bit. I’d have liked more of that flavor as I was eating it.

Then you make the cake batter – nothing out of the ordinary here except that it uses cake flour and you need to be gentle with it to keep the batter inflated, so to speak. You don’t whip egg whites separately or anything – it’s a pretty straight-forward yellow cake. Anyway, that is poured in over the pineapple, leveled off and baked. The cake rests for 20-30 minutes before you run a knife around the outside edge and invert. The center of the cake was a little indented when it came out of the oven, so I was concerned, but it was fine once I inverted it. I served it with whipped cream and a little bit of crystallized ginger on top.

What I liked: Well, that it’s an updated version of that old-fashioned favorite. I liked the fresh pineapple, although once it bakes, it’s hard to tell it’s from a fresh pineapple. The cake has a lighter consistency (texture) than my mother’s old recipe. Maybe it needed a little caramel sauce drizzle over it too. Just a thought.

What I didn’t like: I think I expected more from it – that it would be somehow exceptional. It wasn’t. It was good, but nothing to write home about. I think my pineapple slices were just a tad too thin, too. Use most of the pineapple if you decide to make this. It certainly was pretty, though. Would I make it again? Probably not. Maybe pineapple upside down cake isn’t one of my favorites?

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MasterCook 5+ import file – right click to save file, run MC, then File|Import

Pineapple Upside-Down Cake (Ad Hoc)

Recipe By: Adapted from “Ad Hoc at Home,” via Foodgal blog
Serving Size: 8
Serving Ideas: I served it with softly whipped and sweetened cream, and sprinkled a tiny bit of finely minced crystallized ginger on top.

FOR PAN SCHMEAR:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter — (1 stick) at room temperature
1/2 tablespoon honey
1/4 teaspoon dark rum
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1 dash vanilla paste — or pure vanilla extract
Kosher salt
1 whole fresh pineapple
CAKE:
1 1/3 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
8 tablespoons unsalted butter — (1 stick) at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar — plus 2 tablespoons
1/2 teaspoon vanilla paste — or pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon milk — plus 1 teaspoon

1. With a hand mixer, combine the butter, honey, rum, sugar, and vanilla, and beat until smooth and well blended. Spread schmear over the bottom of a 9-inch silicone cake pan [I used a traditional metal pan and the cake came out just fine]. Sprinkle lightly with salt.
2. Cut top and bottom from pineapple, and cut away peel. Cut pineapple lengthwise into quarters, and cut off core from each section. Cut each piece crosswise into 1/8-inch-thick slices. Beginning at the perimeter of the pan, make an overlapping ring of pineapple slices with the curved side facing out. Make a second ring inside the first one, overlapping the slices in the opposite direction, working toward the center of the pan. Reserve any pineapple for another use.
3. Sift flour and baking powder together; set aside. Preheat oven to 350°.
4. Put butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle and mix on low speed to combine, then beat on medium speed for about 3 minutes, until light and creamy, stopping to scrape down the sides as necessary. Mix in vanilla. Add eggs one at a time, beating until the first one is incorporated before adding second and scraping down the sides as necessary. Beat in milk. Add flour mixture in 3 batches, beating just until combined.
5. Pour batter into pan and spread over pineapple. Bake for 15 minutes. Rotate the pan for even browning and bake for another 20 to 25 minutes, until a cake tester or wooden skewer inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool cake in the pan on a cooling rack for 20 to 30 minutes.
6. Run a knife around the edges of the cake, invert onto a serving platter, and serve warm. (Leftover cake can be stored at room temperature for up to 2 days.)
Per Serving: 343 Calories; 18g Fat (45.1% calories from fat); 4g Protein; 45g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 96mg Cholesterol; 147mg Sodium.

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  1. Toffeeapple

    said on February 15th, 2012:

    I haven’t made one of those for so many years! Now I rarely eat cake, how times change.
    Isn’t that so true! Although I do make cake now and then just not pineapple upside down. . . Carolyn t

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