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me_in_paris_198That’s me, on a trip, in a Paris restaurant.
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Just finished a very interesting novel, The Color of Water in July by Nora Carroll. It takes place in the upper peninsula of Michigan, an area I’ve never been to, but I have friends who live there and have been trying to get me to visit them for years, having told me (and sent photos) of how beautiful it is. The story takes place at a remote little cottage enclave on a lake. It’s clique-y, in that generations of families have kept these cottages in the family, not wanting any “outsiders” to come in. A young woman, Jess, who grew up partly with a crazy gypsy-like mother, and a loving but stern grandmother (who owns a home in the enclave) has a romance in her youth during the annual trek to the cottage, but a long ago tragedy ripples down through the years to affect her. When her grandmother dies, Jess has lots of mixed emotions about returning to the cottage. She wants to, but doesn’t. Finding papers in the house, she begins to unravel events over the course of two previous generations of family with startling revelations all along the way. Good character development for Jess, Daniel, her long-lost love, her grandmother, Mamie, and her current boyfriend, Russ. And great descriptions of the landscape of the area.

Champagne Baby: How One Parisian Learned to Love Wine–and Life–the American Way by Laure Dugas, another book I read recently. The author is very young, considering she’s written a memoir already (good for her, I say!). She was born to an old Champagne family in France, and paid little attention to anything regarding the wine business until her uncle (the CEO) offered to send her to the United States to do a 6-month tour with the vineyard’s distributor. She was fresh out of college and hadn’t really decided what she was going to do exactly. She’d be the spokesperson (brand ambassador they called her) for the family. Despite having a boyfriend, she made the leap anyway. Each chapter tells the story of her journey in America (with little language skills) or about what she learned about wine. And what she learned about long-distance relationships too. If you’ve never experienced much French wine, this would be a good introduction (she explains all about the different French wine regions and how/why they raise the grapes they do), but it’s woven into the very interesting life she led, living on a shoestring, meeting other French ex-pats in New York, and her thoughts on going to California, Boston, Memphis and other cities. When her 6 months were up, she wasn’t ready to go home. You’ll have to read it to find out what she did then. I liked the book immensely.

If you’ve been reading this sidebar much over the years, you’ve rarely seen mysteries here. Great for an airplane read, maybe, but I don’t find them (usually) gripping enough. But one of my book clubs is read a book by C.J. Box, called Open Season (A Joe Pickett Novel). Joe Pickett is a game warden in the wild country of Wyoming. He’s a good man. A family man. A good husband. AND a dogged investigator whenever anything goes awry in the hills. Usually it’s a murder of some kind. He writes a really good book that incorporates the mystery, lots of character study, some family stuff, but also a lot about the animals, the flora and fauna of the parks and land, and this one is also about an endangered species. I could hardly put it down. I’m SO glad I read this, and yesterday I visited my local library and checked out two more of his books. They’re easy reads; not overly long. But very absorbing. You’ll fall in love with Joe Pickett’s daughter Sheridan, too.

A page-turner of a book, Before the Fall by Noah Hawley grabbed me nearly from the first sentence. A small group of people take a private jet out of Martha’s Vineyard. Sixteen minutes later the plane crashes into the ocean. Two survive, a 4-year old boy and a single guy, an artist/painter, who ended up on the plane almost by happen-chance. What might have looked more like a fluke accident turns a bit sinister when you begin to learn more about the passengers on the plane, and the crew; the parents of the young boy, and a few others. Each person is scrutinized through the author’s lens and his/her culpability is analyzed. The painter and the boy form a bond because the man rescues the child and they swim miles and miles to shore. It’s just riveting. It’s not a James Bond type of thriller, but a real-life kind of drilling down into the core of each person on the plane. What I will mention, though, is that once you’ve read this, there isn’t a whole lot to discuss as a book club read, which is often the case for mysteries. Once the case is solved, there isn’t much to talk about except the characters, perhaps.

When one of my book groups gathered last week, we discussed a bunch of books that we might read for our next Sept-August “year.” We select them all, for the whole year, in advance. On the list of 18 possible ones (we’ll read nine only) was an old classic – I guess you could call it a classic – Plainsong – by Kent Haruf. Since it was published some years ago I dropped by the library, and sure enough, they had a copy. I came home and devoured it in one fell swoop. What a story. Tender, yet harsh in some respects. It tells the story of a group of small-town people (a teacher – a man separated from his wife, but he has the 2 boys who both play prominent roles in the book; a single woman caring for her aging and Alzheimer’s driven father; a young teenage girl who should have known better, but got pregnant; a couple of very old brothers, both single, struggling along with their ranch). All this takes place in a small town in eastern Colorado. I laughed. I cried. I wanted to reach through the pages to some of these characters to give them a hug. It’s a winner of a book. I may have to read more of Haruf’s books. The prose is spare, yet you can feel the anguish, the pain, the love, the caring. What a book!

 

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?

printer-friendly PDF
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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