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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 July 30th, 2012.

wattleseed_ice_cream

Ever heard of wattleseed, or wattle seed (one or two words, you’ll see it both ways)? It’s the seed from a specific type of Australian acacia shrub. It’s not a variety grown anywhere but Australia, otherwise I’m certain we’d have  wattle seed on our spice shelves.

wattleseedflowersMy daughter-in-law brought me a very small package of  several Australian herbs and spices some years ago after a trip, and I’d planned on using all of them, but we had a bug infestation in my pantry, and they loved the wattleseed and everything else in the other packages too.

So it wasn’t until we visited Australia a couple of years ago and I sought out some wattleseed (not on every grocery store shelf, I discovered) that I now have some to try. I’d intended to make something with it right away, but I stored it in a jar and promptly forgot about it. The picture at left was taken near Hobart, Tasmania, and shows my DH’s hand holding the acacia flowers out in the sunlight. The seed pods from this shrub were and still are harvested by the Aboriginal people in Australia. They use it in a variety of cooking methods – in a drink – in stews. Eventually non-Aboriginal people discovered the interesting flavor profile it has, and began using it in other (mostly dessert) dishes.

ground_wattleseedWhen we were in Australia we ate some wattleseed gelato. Oh my goodness, was it ever good. Tasting it, it conjures up hazelnut and vanilla  on my taste buds. It has tiny dark and light flecks in it which look something like the tiny seeds in a vanilla bean. It’s the kind of mottled color of ground coriander (see picture at right), but bears no flavor resemblance. Some people taste chocolate and coffee in it too. I’ve not found any source for ground wattleseed here in the U.S. (although I read somewhere that any U.S. grown wattleseed is poor quality and not worth buying – I haven’t found it in any case). Here’s a link if you’re wanting to buy this from Vic Chericoff, the man who really put wattleseed on the world culinary map in the 1980’s. Maybe one of our friends will visit Australia sometime soon and I’ll be able to ask them to buy it for me – although as I mentioned, we had trouble finding it. My DH was so patient with me – we walked all over a farmer’s market in Melbourne trying to locate some – finally did at a butcher shop, of all places. They said they used it for a particular kind of seasoned roast.

Anyway, after all that info about wattleseed, let’s get to the recipe, okay? The only recipe I had was wattleseed ice cream which I researched a couple of years ago after we returned from Australia. Going online I also found a recipe for a cake, which I made, and will post here in a few days – it was kind of like a pound cake using wattleseed and citrus. There aren’t lots of recipes for the spice, surprisingly. There is a short list here, and here. You may not remember a post I did from our trip to Australia about the ANZAC biscuits – I wrote up a recipe provided by our Aussie guide’s sister who brought a plate full of them to our tour bus when we stopped near where she lives in New Zealand (they’re cookies developed during WWII to ship to soldiers at the front because they’re sturdy and because they couldn’t get eggs and butter during the wartime shortages, yet they’re still very popular today). Anyway, I did find several wattleseed ANZAC biscuit recipes.

Some years ago Emeril made wattleseed ice cream on one of his Food Network shows, and it’s his basic recipe I used, although I did make a couple of changes. Vic Chericoff mentions Emeril’s recipe on his website and makes suggestions like not adding vanilla, as he feels it’s redundant since wattleseed has vanilla undertones all by itself. He also doesn’t think you should strain the custard mixture of all the wattleseed segments because they add a lot of color and interest to the ice cream. I used a really fine-mesh strainer and most of the seeds still went through it, which was fine. Usually you strain the ice cream base because you want to remove any possible egg “stuff.”

When you use wattleseed, you want to extract as much flavor as possible, hence adding the ground wattleseed to the cream you scald helps accomplish that. Other than wattleseed, the base mixture is very similar to every other egg-based ice cream base you’ve made. In my case I poured the base into a plastic bowl, nestled it into a bigger bowl filled completely with ice, then I added another bowl on top filled with ice – all this to chill it faster. And chill it below 38°. Chilling the base as fast as possible doesn’t allow for as many ice crystals to form (makes for smoother ice cream).

So, after making the ice cream base – and chilling it quickly, I made it in the ice cream machine. Since it was so cold, it only took about 40 minutes. I scooped it out into a quart-sized plastic container and froze it. When I served it about 3 hours later it was still slightly soft and smooth in the middle – made for easier scooping.

Serving it to our friends Cherrie and Bud, who have never been to Australia, and had never heard of wattleseed, they were blown away. I mean blown away by the taste. Dave and I relived our Australia visit too.

What I liked: well, there’s no question I like this stuff or I wouldn’t have run all over in markets throughout Australia trying to find wattleseed! Good. Tasty. Ah yes. I have just enough to make one more wattleseed something and it will be ice cream. Wattleseed has such a unique flavor spectrum. It’s worth seeking out somehow. Any of your friends going to Australia? Get them to buy you some! Buy me some too, okay?

What I didn’t like: well goodness – nothing at all. Loved it! As long as you can find wattleseed!

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Wattleseed Ice Cream

Recipe By: adapted from Emeril Legasse (food network)
Serving Size: 12
NOTES: Don’t serve this with anything too powerful in flavor as you want to taste the wattleseed. If you don’t have wattleseed, don’t even make this ice cream – it’s just a vanilla type plain ice cream base but it’s a neutral flavor so the wattleseed nuances will shine through.

2 cups half and half
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup fat free half-and-half — [I used Trader Joe’s]
2 tablespoons ground wattleseed
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon wattleseed extract — [optional – I don’t have this ingredient]
1 cup sugar
1 pinch salt
5 large egg yolks

1. In a nonreactive saucepan, combine the half-and-half, cream and fat free half and half, powdered wattleseed, vanilla, wattleseed extract (if using), sugar, and salt, over medium heat. Bring the cream to the boiling point to scald it. Remove from the heat.
2. Beat the egg yolks in a large bowl. Add the cream mixture, about 1/4 cup at a time, to the beaten eggs, whisking in between each addition, until all is used. Pour the mixture into a saucepan, and cook, stirring, over medium heat, for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the mixture becomes thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve (optional).
3. Chill the custard mixture in a bowl with ample ice to bring it down in temp (below 38° which is the temp for standard refrigeration) if possible. Pour the custard into the ice cream machine and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for churning time. Scoop into a plastic container and freeze solid, about 3-4 hours.
Per Serving: 225 Calories; 14g Fat (57.0% calories from fat); 3g Protein; 21g Carbohydrate; 0g Dietary Fiber; 131mg Cholesterol; 58mg Sodium.

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