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me_in_paris_198That’s me, on a trip, in a Paris restaurant.
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Just finished reading a book called Maude by Donna Mabry. It’s a true story (but written as a novel) about the author’s grandmother, Maude. It takes place from the early 1900s to her death in the 1960s. She lived a hard, hard life (mostly in Detroit), and there’s information that even takes me back to things I vaguely remember about my own grandmother’s life. I was fascinated. I won’t say that I couldn’t put it down, but I looked forward each night to read what was going to happen next. It’s hard to tell you much about the book without revealing too much of the story – I won’t call it a happy book, because there is much sadness within its pages, but you admire Maude for what she did, the role she played, her inherent grit. But I wanted to smack her 2nd husband! A good read, though.

While I was on my 3-week trip to Europe, I read 5 books. Of them all, Sgt. Reckless: America’s War Horse by Robin Hutton, was by far the best story, a true story about an American Marine. Many books have been written about Sgt Reckless, this rather nondescript, small Mongolian mare that was purchased by American forces in Korea in the height of the war. She was reared as a race horse, but she spent her career as an heroic soldier for our military, saving countless lives as she willingly delivered munitions from one place to another. Everyone who came in contact with her loved her. She became a regular soldier, mostly so they could requisition food for her. Sometimes she survived on next to nothing to eat. She aimed to please, and please she did, as in one 24-hour period she ferried ammunition up steep slopes (too steep for soldiers to climb) and she did it all by herself. When the Marines unloaded her cargo, she immediately worked her way down for more. She knew what she was supposed to do. She was highly intelligent, amazing many people over the course of her life. If you love animal stories, you’ll love this one. Have a Kleenex box nearby.

When I load a book onto my Kindle, I don’t keep a note about where or how I heard about it. Did someone suggest it to me? Did I read about it on amazon’s site? I wish I kept track. Hence I don’t know why I ordered Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy’s Daughter by Sara Taber. Probably the title intrigued me. And the book was interesting, I’ll give it that. Sara Taber grew up in places all over the world as her father, actually a spy, but commonly called a diplomat for the State Department, wherever he was stationed. Much of the book is about her inability to fit in. She was always the new girl in school, or the neighborhood. She was shy. Didn’t have a lot of self-confidence. She lived in Taiwan, Washington, D.C., The Hague, Malaysia (Borneo) and Tokyo. I probably missed a couple in there. She learned to love moving. She adored her father, and some of the story is about his career, though she only learns as a teenager what he really did for a living. Part of the book is her coming-of-age story, part angst about herself and yet she eventually finds success as a writer. And she is a very good writer – a kind of lyrical style. She repeats herself a bit too often and a few words were repetitive throughout. But overall, it was a very interesting read.

For years I used to read a travel column in the Los Angeles Times by Susan Spano. She wrote wonderful stories about her travels. I envied her life. One time she visited Paris for awhile, writing a series about eating and living in France. When that series ended, she didn’t want to come home. So she stayed. And she wrote for other publications. She’s written several books (one on divorce [hers] and another on divorce from the man’s point of view). This book, French Ghosts, Russian Nights, and American Outlaws: Souvenirs of a Professional Vagabond compiles some of her newspaper stories and she weaves in some new ones as well. She’s quite an outdoors woman – loves climbing mountains. I certainly admire that about her. One of the stories was so cute I read it aloud to my group of traveling buddies as we sat around in our Lyon, France flat having a glass of wine one evening. If you enjoy travel writing in general, you’ll enjoy reading this one.

Another really riveting story, one I could hardly put down, is The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam. My friend Joan recommended this one to me. Most likely  you’ve never read anything about Chinese immigrants living in South Vietnam during the war there, right? Neither had I. And you have to keep track of who is who, and the politics of the time. The Vietnamese don’t like Chinese people, so there’s that going on. The Chinese man runs an English school somewhere near Saigon. He has a right hand man who may or may not be what he appears to be. The Chinese man has a son who gets himself into trouble. Oh, webs woven every which way. As I said, I could hardly put it down. Will make a very good book club read.

And lastly, and probably my least favorite, but it certainly tops many charts for its pulp factor, The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty. The premise, a letter written by the husband, is found by the wife, supposedly to be opened after his death, but he isn’t dead, and she opens it anyway. Out springs Pandora’s box. It’s like Peyton Place on steroids. Oh my gosh. How much calamity can happen in a few pages? I wasn’t impressed, but it made for a good airplane read, I suppose.

IN THE POWDER ROOM: The guest half-bath in my house has a little tiny table with a pile of books that I change every now and then. They’re books that might pique someone’s interest even if for a very short read. The Art of Travel, a collection of essays about traveling (it’s not a how-to), gathering a variety of stories of some historic authors and where and why they traveled; The Greatest Stories Never Told; and Sara Midda’s South of France; also Forgotten Bookmarks: A Bookseller’s Collection of Odd Things Lost Between the Pages (just the cutest book – with a miscellany of things – letters, grocery lists, notes, reminders, confessions the author discovered hidden inside the books he purchased for his used bookstore).

 

Tasting Spoons

My blog's namesake - small engraved sterling silver tea spoons that I use to taste 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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