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Just finished reading 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 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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