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My reading of late has been short and fitful, somewhat like my sleeping pattern, ever since my dear husband passed away. I’m still in 2 book clubs, though, and have wanted to keep up with the reading for those.

When I started reading The Divorce Papers: A Novel by Susan Rieger, I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue. Initially, it brought back too many unpleasant memories of my divorce in 1979-80. But I kept reading and soon was engrossed in the unusual approach. It’s about Sophie Diehl, a young criminal attorney who gets roped into working on this very messy divorce taken on by her law firm. The entire book is written via letters, documents and email messages between the pertinent parties in this divorce (the couple divorcing, their daughter, both attorneys, her boss, and one of Sophie’s best friends). It’s a clever book. As I write this, I’m about 80% through, so I don’t even know how it ends, but I’ve enjoyed the read so far.

Recently finished Orphan Train: A Novel by Christina Baker Kline. It’s about a little known period of time (1854-1929) when orphaned children were loaded onto trains on the East Coast and sent to the Midwest to be adopted by families who needed or wanted children. Some were adopted by people who were unfit; some of the children were lucky and found good, loving homes. This is the story of one of the girls, Vivian Daly and her journey. Woven into the story is a much later period of Vivian’s life when many facts of  her earlier experiences are revealed. A very, very interesting book; there’s a love story in it too.

Since I’m a fan of Ann Patchett, it’s no surprise that I wanted to buy her most recent book, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. It’s a book of short stories, but not fictional ones – it’s a compilation of essays and articles she’s written over the course of her writing life. My favorite is the one in which she describes in intimate detail how she goes about writing a book. About the process, her thinking, and the the hard, hard work it entails. I loved every one of the stories. She is quite self-deprecating about the book – it likely wasn’t her idea to put it together as she never thought any of her essays were worth much. She wrote them to make a living. Each of the chapters (essays) has been updated and/or addended to, so she did have to put some spit and polish on all of them before sending this group to the publisher. She’s written essays for a very esoteric group of publications; some I’d never heard of. But I enjoyed the book from beginning to end.

Also just finished reading The Invention of Wings: A Novel by Sue Monk Kidd. What a story. Sometimes it’s a good thing to read the author’s notes before you read a book. I guess I’m glad I didn’t (in this case the notes were at the end of the book) because it was then, afterwards, that I read that one of the characters in this novel is fictional; the other two (sisters) were real. There’s a bit about the Quaker religion in this book too, which was different. This is a slavery story and about the beginnings of the abolitionist movement. Interwoven between the 2 sisters who make waves about anti-slavery is the poignant story of one particular slave and her hard, hard life. It’s heartbreaking in many respects, not just because of the violence and abuse heaped upon her. The book is almost a page-turner. Very glad I read it.

Also read The Four Seasons: A Novel of Vivaldi’s Venice by Laurel Corona. It was recommended to me by a friend, and I enjoyed it a lot. It has a rather unusual story line, all envisioned by the author from reading a tiny line of elaborate script from a journal at what remains of a foundling hospital (run mostly like a convent by Catholic nuns) in Venice. It said something like Antonio Vivaldi purchased “a bow for Maddalena Rossa.” That started the author’s novel journey. Two sisters are raised at the Ospedale della Pieta. One becomes famous for her violin skills; the other for her voice. One is married “out” and the other stays cloistered her entire life. Then you throw Vivaldi himself into the mix, as he really was paid by the Ospedale for his compositions and for teaching some of the residents to play instruments. It’s an enlightening story about Vivaldi himself (a priest, with a lot of questions about his piety). It takes place in the early 1700s. Fascinating story and I want to listen again in total to Vivaldi’s very famous work, The Four Seasons, as a result of reading this. I’ve heard it many times before, but it will have new meaning now.

IN THE POWDER ROOM: Our guest half-bath 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); and The Trouble with Poetry (Billy Collins).

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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