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Just finished reading The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes. What a WONDERFUL book. It opens up a shameful part of America’s past, but one you might not have heard about before this. In the late 1800s thousands of Chinese workers were brought to the West Coast to help with a variety of construction projects and a myriad of other things where laborers were needed. Many settled, married and made a new life for themselves. But suddenly the white population didn’t want them here anymore and they summarily ordered them ALL out of our country. This book chronicles a young Chinese girl, who was on a ship that was supposed to take her family to China, but the ship’s captain decided en route to dump them all overboard, to drown. The girl’s father knew it was going to happen and in order to save her, he threw his daughter off the ship as they were passing Orcas Island (in the San Juan Islands west of Seattle). She was saved. The book switches from that time to current time as a woman is rebuilding her family’s home on Orcas and finds a beautifully embroidered silk Chinese robe sleeve hidden under a stair step. The book is about that sordid past and the young girl’s descendents, and about the woman who is rebuilding. Stunner of a novel. Good for a book club read, I think. It has a reader’s guide at the back with good questions for book groups.

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 Breads, Brunch, on March 10th, 2012.

blackberry_lemon_thyme_muffins

The minute I spotted this recipe I knew I wanted to try it. Fresh thyme in a sweet muffin? It sounded so interesting. Plus some fresh blackberries, which are available in our markets almost year ‘round now. And lemon – we have an abundance of them on our trees, although in this case it was only the zest that was needed. The recipe is in the most recent issue (March, 2012) of Bon Appetit.

blackberry_muffins_collageSince I love to bake, it was a no-brainer to try this – read the recipe through first (something I often forget to do) – and begin. The crumble topping (cake flour, butter, fresh thyme baking powder, sugar and an egg yolk) is made first and chilled (even a day ahead is okay). The muffin batter has several steps – and in fact this particular batter requires lots of stand-mixer time – 2 minutes of just butter, 2-3 minutes once you add sugar, another 3-4 minutes once you add the eggs and vanilla. Then everything slows down – you add the buttermilk, then the dry ingredients. What it made was a really, really light batter

Meanwhile, the blackberries are halved – that’s not something I’ve ever done before I must admit – and you actually want some of the berries to macerate a bit in the batter to give it some dark berry color. The berries are just folded in, then plopped into lined muffin cups. The recipe indicated using those fancy paper liners – the tall, waxed paper type that makes a very large muffin. I just used regular muffin liners and my regular muffin tin. The chilled crumble is sprinkled on top (about a tablespoon per muffin) and into a 325° oven they went for 40 minutes. I ended up with quite a bit of topping leftover – I suppose I should have made 18 muffins, or even 20 of them so I used up all of the crumble. Don’t know exactly what I’m going to do with the rest of it. It’s too nice to throw out . . . any ideas for me, kind readers?

Since I now have a Thermapen Instant Read Thermometer (wow, is that thing a real beauty – expensive – but it does register temp within about 3 seconds) I use it at any and all occasions. I quickly looked up online what temp the interior is supposed to be of a baked sweet muffin – it said 210°, and at 40 minutes that’s exactly what they were. They cooled in the tin for about 10 minutes, then I took them out and onto a rack while I baked the remaining 4 muffins (the recipe makes 16).

My DH has just planted a new herb garden for me – in two deep and long raised flowerboxes that sit outside on a short wall in our patio, and we have new, tender thyme in one. I chopped up two teaspoons of it (one went in the crumble topping, the other in the muffin batter itself – next time I’d add more).

What I liked: well, I liked the thyme. A lot and I’ve upped the amount in the batter by half (from 1 tsp to 1 1/2 tsp). Loved the blackberries. I’d also add just a bit more sugar. Maybe because an insufficient amount of the topping ended up on top (where there was some sugar) the muffins were just a bit too savory. I’d have to try them again to know for sure. I’ve increased the sugar in the recipe below or serve with a sweetened butter. I liked the silky cake-like texture (from the cake flour and all the long mixing). I also liked that each muffin had just 11 grams of fat! Surprising, when there was a cube of butter in the batter and 3/4 of one in the crumble.

What I didn’t like: really nothing – all the flavors were delish, and the cake so very tender. I might add some toasted walnuts? More vanilla?

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Blackberry, Lemon and Thyme Muffins

Recipe By: Adapted from Bon Appetit, March 2012
Serving Size: 16
NOTES: Can be made 1 day ahead. Store cooled muffins airtight at room temperature for up to 2 days. If storing longer, freeze, individually wrapped in foil and in a sealed plastic bag.

CRUMBLE:
1 cup cake flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter — (3/4 stick) chilled, cut into 1/4″ cubes
1 large egg yolk
MUFFINS:
1 cup all-purpose flour — plus 2 tablespoons (for blackberries)
1 cup cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter — 1 stick, room temperature
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons lemon zest — finely grated
1 1/2 cups blackberries — fresh, about 6 ounces, or frozen, thawed, drained, halved lengthwise
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme

1. CRUMBLE: Whisk first 5 ingredients in a medium bowl. Add butter. Using your fingertips, rub in butter until pea-size lumps form. Add egg yolk; stir to evenly distribute and form moist clumps. (Crumble should resemble a mixture of pebbles and sand.) Chill for at least 1 hour. DO AHEAD: Can be made 3 days ahead. Cover and keep chilled.
2. MUFFINS: Preheat oven to 325°F. If making standard-size muffins, line 16 1/3-cup molds with paper liners.
3. Whisk 1 cup all-purpose flour and next 4 ingredients in a medium bowl.
4. Using an electric mixer, beat butter until pale and creamy, about 2 minutes. Add sugar and continue to beat until well incorporated, 2-3 minutes longer.
5. Whisk eggs and vanilla in a small bowl to blend; gradually beat into butter mixture. Continue beating until light and fluffy, 3-4 minutes. Combine buttermilk and lemon zest in a small bowl; gradually beat into butter mixture. Add dry ingredients; beat just to blend (do not overmix).
6. Toss blackberries and thyme with 2 tablespoons flour in another small bowl; fold into batter, gently crushing berries slightly to release some juices.
7. Spoon about 2/3 cup batter into large paper muffin molds, or divide between prepared muffin pans. Top each large muffin with 2 tablespoons crumble or each small muffin with 1 rounded tablespoon crumble.
8. Bake until tops are golden brown and a tester comes out clean when inserted into center (or to an internal temperature of 210°), about 50 minutes for large muffins and 40 minutes for standard-size muffins. Let cool in pan at least 20 minutes, then transfer muffins to a wire rack to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Per Serving: 267 Calories; 11g Fat (38.0% calories from fat); 4g Protein; 38g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 67mg Cholesterol; 308mg Sodium.

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  1. hddonna

    said on March 10th, 2012:

    These look delicious! One suggestion for using up your extra crumbs would be to make a little fruit crisp. If you have extra berries you could use those, otherwise pears, apples, whatever. I’d add a smidgen of sugar and a teaspoon or two of flour to the fruit if it was juicy, plus any suitable spice if desired, then put in a ramekin, and topping, and bake–maybe include a few nuts. Apricots with almonds would be yummy. I usually go for fruit crisps with oatmeal in them, but I think it would be delicious with this sort of crumble topping, too. I’ve actually made extra topping on purpose when making apple crisp and found that I could make little apple crisps in ramekins on demand. I baked the topping on a cookie sheet and stored the crumbs in an airtight container. Since it was already baked, I could cook little apple crisps in ramekins in the microwave in no time at all, and the texture was perfect.

    Those are all such great suggestions, Donna! Thank you. But, I gave the crumbs to one of the ladies who came to my home the next day (I baked them for a game day at my house) who thought she’d try making these. So the crumbs are gone! . . . carolyn t

  2. Toffeeapple

    said on March 10th, 2012:

    Perhaps you could use the left over crumble to top some Rhubarb before you roast it??
    An interesting recipe but, as I rarely bake, I shall never taste them.

    Thanks for the idea – but I gave the crumbs to a friend – I’d made them for my Scrabble group that was meeting at my house – my friend just LOVED the muffins and wanted to make them – so I gave it all to her. . . carolyn t

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