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Just finished reading The German Girl: A Novel by Correa. It chronicles the story of a wealthy German Jewish family in Berlin, as the Nazis arrive and make life a living hell. The family is lucky (I guess you could say this) to be allowed to purchase passage on the M.S. St. Louis, a passenger liner, to take them to “the Americas.” The destination is actually Cuba. The story is told from two voices – the teenage daughter in this story, and from a current-day distant family member who is trying to learn about her ancestry. Of the 900+ passengers on the ship, only a few were allowed to disembark since the Cuban President decided he needed more money to accept them. Most families had no money left, as the Reich had taken nearly all of their assets. The daughter and her very eccentric mother were allowed to stay in Cuba.  The remaining passengers are rejected by the U.S. too, and eventually return to Europe, where most of the Jews end up dying in concentration camps. The story goes back and forth from the 1939 journey to current day as the link between the two women is slowly revealed. I had a tough time sometimes, tracking the people in this book, but the story was very riveting. It’s based on facts about the ship (see Wikipedia link above if you’re interested). A shameful chapter in history.

Recently finished reading a magnificent historical novel. Not new. Philippa Gregory has been a favorite author of mine for a couple of decades. You may remember her most famous book, The Other Boleyn Girl, published some years ago. I thought that was a really great book. I’ve read other books by Gregory, but most recently I read The King’s Curse (The Plantagenet and Tudor Novels). The time period is the 1450s to 1541, mostly under the rule of King Henry VIII, the infamous womanizer and wife/Queen-killer. The man who cursed Rome/the Pope because he wanted his first marriage annulled because Queen Catherine couldn’t produce a living male heir. And subsequently made himself the head of the church in England in order to do so. It was a Catholic country at the time. This story (it’s fiction, but woven with intricate historical detail) is from the voice of a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine, Margaret of York, later titled Countess of Salisbury, but a Plantagenet in her own right (which is key to the later events in the book). Certainly I’ve read other novels over the years that dealt with Henry VIII, but not with this much breadth of info. What a wicked, sinful man he was. And did I say tyrant. Wow.  I could hardly put it down, through its nearly 600 pages. In the author’s notes at the end, she shares relatively recent medical info that suggests Henry probably suffered from a rare problem, Kell positive blood type, which can cause miscarriages, stillbirths and infant deaths IF the mother has the more common Kell negative blood type. And that in his later years, he may have had McLeod syndrome, a disease only found in Kell positive individuals. Around the age of 40 it causes physical degeneration and personality changes resulting in paranoia, depression and irrational behavior. All of those King Henry VIII had in spades. If you read the book, you might read the author’s notes (at the end) before reading the book. If you like historical fiction (I love any book about English history) you’ll just love this one. It’s interesting, though, as I think about the many books I’ve read covering this era in English history, that each book presented its hero/heroine as the most innocent and worthy individual vying for the crown of England. I remember thinking Anne Boleyn was dealt with so badly during her life (and certainly her beheading), and yet reading this book, I completely reversed my opinion. Anne Boleyn was called a wh–e by most people during the years she shared Henry’s bed. The “curse” from the title pertains to Henry’s inability or the curse on the Tudors, that caused him to fail in producing a male heir. In any case, none of Henry’s wives should have died for it – likely it was all Henry’s fault anyway. Just read this one, okay?

Also recently read News of the World: A Novel by Paulette Jiles. One of my book-reading friends said this is one of the best books she’s ever read in her life. That kind of praise required me to read it and I just LOVED it. It’s about an old man (a widower), who was a former military captain, during the 1800s, who goes from town to town to read out loud the current news of the world (yes, there WAS such a free-lance job.) Newspapers didn’t make it to small towns back then. By chance he’s asked to take a 10-year old girl to East Texas to reunite with relatives. The child had been captured by an Indian tribe as a baby (her family was killed in the raid), raised by the Kiowa and as was often the case of such children, she wants nothing to do with leaving. So the “hero” in this story has his hands full. And yet, they learn to trust each other on the journey. Reaching the destination, there are lots of complications (of course!). This book is truly a wonderful read – I didn’t want it to end. The author has a gift of description and the severe dangers and difficulties of an old (wild) west horse and wagon journey. The relationship is tender. Now I’ve got to investigate the author’s other books, of which there are many. Just read this one, too!

Winter Journey by Diane Armstrong. Have you ever read about forensic dentistry? I sure had not, so I found it fascinating reading. It’s a debut novel for the author, and what a story. Halina, an Australian, with Polish roots, specializes in this obscure profession as a forensic dentist, and is asked to go to Poland, to help identify bone (and tooth) fragments, to put to rest a sad event in the story of this small town, when many, many people (Jews) were murdered. Was it the Nazis? Or was it the local townspeople who disliked the Jews. What a tangled web of intrigue, including Halina’s own mysterious past. I really enjoyed the read. The author does a great job of developing the characters (which I always like). This is no light read if you consider the subject matter, although it IS a novel (but based on fact). Nor is it a spy thriller – it’s more just an historical novel with lots of interesting people throughout. There’s a romance thrown in too, and a whole lot of angst about the discoveries found in the mass grave. But, the subject expanded my knowledge about forensics.

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr. I just LOVED this book. I’ve never been much of a fan of Caravaggio’s paintings, although I’ve seen plenty of them (many are extremely large) in museums around the world. His paintings were dark, often with dark subjects. But as with many of the old masters, occasionally some obscure work surfaces, perhaps credited to another artist, even, that turns out to be one done by “the” master. In this case, Caravaggio. Although this book is written as a novel (with dialogue, etc.) it’s historical through and through. It begins with two young women art scholars, in Italy, who are asked to do a research project. One thing leads to another, and to another. All true.  If you enjoy books about art – I learned some things about the paint and the canvases of the time – you’ll be intrigued as I was.

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 October 21st, 2008.

pear crisp with vanilla brown butter

Last week was my turn to take desserts to my evening book group. One dessert isn’t enough for our group, so two is about the minimum. I had some cookie dough to make up into cookies, so those went along as well. I also made the applesauce spice cake with caramel icing, since it’s become such a favorite lately. I cut it up to serve about 16, and there were two skinny pieces left. I thought I should round it out with a fruit-type dessert. Apples would have been the obvious seasonal choice, but I had read a recipe recently over at Smitten Kitchen that looked absolutely fabulous. For pears. In a crisp. Yum.

FYI: Our group read The Falling Man by De Lillo. Quite a book. I didn’t particularly like it (a fictional account of a man and the people within his sphere of influence in the aftermath of his escape from the Twin Towers on 9/11). It’s a dark book, but the discussion was very lively as we analyzed the symbolism and the meaning behind some of the characters and their actions. The reviewer did an excellent job focusing our discussion and ferreting out the important details.

Anyway, this pear crisp is absolutely wonderful. If you enjoy fruit crisps, like pears, then this dessert is for you! You can make the topping ahead of time, and I’d think you could make the brown butter a few hours ahead too, if you want to bake this close to serving time (the best). Smitten Kitchen served it with fennel ice cream. Now, you have to be a regular blog reader to know about David Lebovitz (the American who lives in Paris and recently wrote an ice cream cookbook, The Perfect Scoop, the absolute best ice cream cookbook ever). I’ve made several of his ice creams, but knew I didn’t have time to make it for this event; therefore, I served it with vanilla ice cream instead. I wasn’t altogether sure my book group would appreciate the nuances of fennel ice cream anyway. But next time I make this (oh yes, I’ll be making this again and again in years to come) I will make the fennel ice cream. Smitten Kitchen raved about the combination, so that’s good enough for me to put on my to-do list!

The pears (either Anjou or Bartlett) need to be firm-ripe. This is important – too ripe and I’m sure the pears will disintegrate during the baking, and become mealy and granular. Mine were two full days resting on my countertop, and they were still quite firm. I tasted them and they were seemingly a bit under-ripe for eating out of hand, but they were PERFECT in this crisp. The pears held their shape, but released their sweetness and flavor.

So, here’s the gist of the recipe – first you make the topping (which has some ground up almonds in it), which needs to be made ahead and chilled (so it doesn’t cook too fast in the oven). Then you make the browned butter with fresh vanilla bean. Then you peel, core and cube-up the pears, mix it up with some pear brandy and the browned butter and pour that into a baking dish and top with the crumbs. Bake. This recipe is not difficult at ALL. But it’s unique for a couple of reasons – the browned butter adds a real depth, a nuttiness to the pears. And the pear brandy helps accent the pear flavor too. It’s baked for about 40 minutes or so, and you’ll want to serve this warm if possible. But, I’ll have to confess – there were leftovers that I brought home. Oh my goodness was it ever good! One morning I was in a rush to get somewhere and had a small little bowl of it for breakfast. It’s fruit, right?

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Pear Crisps with Vanilla Brown Butter

Recipe: Gourmet, October 2007, via Smitten Kitchen blog
Servings: 6 (I think more)
Cook’s Notes: Make sure your pears are firm-ripe. Be sure to watch the topping that it doesn’t burn (mine got a lot browner than it should have but it didn’t alter the flavor at all). If you bake it mid-oven or lower it will be better than in the top half. The recipe is for individual gratin dishes, but I made mine in one very large baking dish which made for easier transport.

TOPPING:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole almonds — with skin
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 stick unsalted butter — melted, cooled
PEAR FILLING:
1 whole vanilla bean — split lengthwise
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
3 pounds pears — about 6, Anjou or Bartlett, firm ripe
2 tablespoons pear brandy — or eau-do-vie

1. TOPPING: Pulse together the flour, almonds, brown sugar and salt in a food processor until nuts are finely chopped. Add butter and pulse just until blended. Coarsely crumble in a shallow baking dish and chill at least one hour.
2. BROWN BUTTER: Scrape seeds from the vanilla bean and place in a small heavy saucepan with the vanilla bean pod and butter. Heat and cook under low heat until butter is browned and fragrant, about 4 minutes. Don’t overcook or it will burn.
3. Remove vanilla bean and set aside (you may let it dry then add it to your sugar bin). Preheat oven to 425 F.
4. FILLING: While butter browns stir together sugars, flour and a pinch of salt in a large bowl. Peel and core the pears and cut into cubes (about 1/2 inch), then add to the dry mixture and stir to combine.
5. Add browned butter to the pear mixture and mix thoroughly. Spoon the filling into gratin dishes, or one large casserole and sprinkle the chilled topping on top, mounding it slightly in the middle (the individual gratins only). Place on a shallow baking pan and bake for 30 minutes, in the middle of the oven then rotate the pan and continue baking until the topping is golden brown and the filling is bubbling, about 10-15 minutes. Remove to a wire rack to cool. If using one large baking pan the baking time may be longer, but watch that topping doesn’t burn.
6. TIPS: The topping can be made in advance, chilled and covered, for up to two days. The crisp can be assembled (but not baked) one day ahead and chilled, covered. Bring to room temperature before baking.
Per Serving (assuming only you and 5 special friends eat it all up in one sitting): 740 Calories; 41g Fat (48.5% calories from fat); 12g Protein; 86g Carbohydrate; 9g Dietary Fiber; 52mg Cholesterol; 103mg Sodium.

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  1. Cindy H

    said on October 22nd, 2008:

    This looks and sounds wonderful!

    I have some vanilla pods which are going begging, and I might have to give this one a try!

    It’s a good excuse to buy another kind of brandy, too! ;o)
    Thank You!

    Cindy H
    http://www.jbkpottery.com

    Cindy – I hope you DO try it. I just ate last of the smidgen of leftovers. Those pears were oh-so good. There is no question I’ll be making that again. . . Carolyn T

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