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Am just starting News of the World: A Novel by William Morris. 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 requires me to read it. It’s about an old man, during the early, old wild west times, who goes from town to town and people pay him money to read the newspaper to them. (Imagine, there WAS such a job.) By chance he’s asked to take a very young girl to Texas to reunite with her family. The child had been captured by an Indian tribe as a baby, raised by them, and she wants nothing to do with leaving. So the “hero” in this story has his hands full. Reaching the destination, there are lots of complications (of course!).

Just finished 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.

Recently finished reading 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.

Also just read Eye On the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, by James, McGrath Morris. Each year my AAUW book club reads something related to Black History Month. This is a biography of a woman you’ve probably never heard of, Ethel Payne, and about her life-long journey in journalism, struggling to keep her head above water financially, but staying true to her purposes of telling the truth about the black stories and black racism of the day. Sometimes biographies aren’t all that riveting, but I found this one to be so, and I savored each new chapter. We had a really good discussion of the book, and the ups and downs of Payne’s life, especially during her years as a Washington reporter. You’ll not be sorry to have spent the time reading this book. It’s well-written, as well. I was thrilled when the author, Morris, left a message here on my blog, thanking me (and my group) for reading his book.

Also read H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. This one has been on the best seller list. It’s a memoir about a woman who takes on a personal challenge of taming a wild hawk. Prior to reading this book, I knew next to nothing about the entire subject of hawking, or taming any of the big, wild birds. The book is equally about the writer’s inner journey. She’s a consummate writer, and every page was a joy of words, for me. My only problem is my own – I found it hard, the more time that went by, and the more time the writer spent trying to tame this bird, to scream out “let the bird go.” Perhaps it’s because I spent time in Africa in 2015, seeing animals in the wild, that I felt more for the bird than I did with the writer’s discontent with herself and the taming process. Little did I know what a hard job it is to tame a hawk. I actually didn’t finish the book. It was a book club read, and highly recommended by several of our members. And I ended up not being able to attend the meeting as I had a cold. So perhaps there is some great ending to it that would have made me feel better. I haven’t gone to the end to find out. I just had to stop reading it. But I’m not NOT recommending it. If nothing else, read it for Macdonald’s sublime proficiency with words.

Also read George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution, by Brian Kilmeade and Dan Yaeger. Here’s what it says on amazon: When George Washington beat a hasty retreat from New York City in August 1776, many thought the American Revolution might soon be over. Instead, Washington rallied—thanks in large part to a little-known, top-secret group called the Culper Spy Ring. He realized that he couldn’t defeat the British with military might, so he recruited a sophisticated and deeply secretive intelligence network to infiltrate New York. I won’t exactly call this book a riveting read, but it was interesting. Relating facts that few people knew about, this Culper Spy Ring. It’s a little chunk of American history researched in depth by the authors. An interesting read.

Also read The Little Paris Bookshop: A Novel by Nina George. If you’re an avid reader, you probably have the same kind of longing as I do for a quaint, independently owned bookstore right around the corner. So few exist anymore. This novel is about a very unusual book store, and book store owner. In Paris. On a boat/barge. It’s not a typical book store, and the writer takes you on a journey of discovery about (likely) her own lifetime of book reading. You’ll learn all about a variety of existing books and why they’re a good read. But it’s all cloaked in a story about this book store and the owner. And the customers. Very fun. I’m reviewing it for one of my book clubs next month.

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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