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Just finished The Letter by Kathyrn Hughes. It’s a very intricate tale. At first it’s about Tina, a battered wife [at which point I paused and wondered if I wanted to read any further, but I’m glad I did]. She tries to get the courage to leave her husband. Then enters the letter she finds in a suit pocket in the thrift shop where she volunteers. It’s old – sealed and stamped, but never mailed. Then you learn about Crissie, decades earlier, a young pregnant girl who is sent off to Ireland to a distant relative by her father, then to a rigid (meaning horrible) convent [the book takes place mostly in Manchester, England and in rural Ireland]. The letter is addressed to her. Jump forward decades and William, the adopted child Crissie gave up, tries to find his birth mother. William meets Tina in Ireland [a serendipitous moment] as she’s trying to find the woman to whom the letter is addressed. This book is the #2 best seller on Amazon at the moment. It’s a riveting tale and I really enjoyed it.

Read Grace Unshakled, by Irene Huising. From Amazon’s page, it says: “In the year 2025, 17-year-old Grace Duncan finds herself in shackles because of her faith in Christ. An obedient daughter and stellar student, doing time in jail was never on her mental radar, despite the changes in religious laws [this takes place here in the United States] over the past few years. Through twists and turns in circumstances, Grace and a small band of Christians in Newport Beach, California begin a journey to discover what it means to follow Christ with unwavering faith in the midst of increasing persecution. Facing the potential loss of all her hopes and dreams, would Christ be enough?” We read this for one of my book clubs, and it’s a scary thought about what it could mean if we take God out of our country. The author is a friend of a friend and she attended our book club meeting to share about how she came to write this book. I don’t often share my faith here on my website, but this book made me stop and think about the direction our government is going, removing more and more our ability to worship God. Or to worship in any religion. Will this book ever make waves in the book world? Probably not. My copy may be a pre-edited version, as it contained numerous typos and formatting errors. But they didn’t detract from the subject, just the cosmetics. The book doesn’t come to a resolution; in fact it leaves you hanging, as some books do. It was intentional (obviously), but left me wondering about the “end of the story.”

Also just finished reading The Muralist: A Novel by Shapiro. It tells the story of a young woman, an artist, who was part of the U.S.’s WPA mural project from the 1930s-40s (she is fiction, the WPA is not). As with so many artists, even today, they live in abject poverty through much of their lives. This woman, though, had family in France, desperately trying to escape before Hitler’s henchmen rousted them into concentration camps. The story, a bit of a mystery but not of the mystery-genre, is about Alizée Benoit, this young painter, who slightly captivates Eleanor Roosevelt’s help. It also skips into current time when the painter’s great-niece uncovers paintings she believes were painted by her aunt. The painter had disappeared into thin air in 1940, and her relative tries desperately to find out what happened to her. It’s a really good story including such Abstract Expressionist painters as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner well-woven into the narrative. It keeps you guessing right up to the end. A good read. The author also wrote The Art Forger: A Novel a few years ago.

Read 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) – 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 Margaret of York (a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine),  who was 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 first!

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, on December 5th, 2008.

panettone slices, hot out of the oven
You’ve all seen the big, tall cylindrical boxes of panettone available around holiday time, right? I think our Costco even carries them. And until a few years ago I’d never tried it – because I reasoned – how could any bread be good when it’s made in Italy, shipped across the ocean and kept for likely several months before I buy it. I mean – bread I bake here at home is stale within a day or two, so how could this be any good? Then we were given one as a gift, and I let it sit for a few more months before I finally said, okay, gotta open this thing up, so I can tell the gifter “thank you.” I wanted to be able to say I’d at least tried it. Well, I was quite amazed. It was actually very good. A drier kind of crumb, but still it was quite tasty. It wasn’t stale (how do they DO that, I wonder?), just a bit on the dry side. Then we went to Italy a few years ago and lo and behold I had it there, and it was delicious. And not all that much different than the one I’d had that was shipped across the ocean.

But, I’d never considered making it. Although there are recipes out there, I just wasn’t convinced I’d be successful. Besides, I didn’t have an appropriate pan anyway (I thought). Then, earlier this week I was readiing Baker’s Banter. Detour here to explain. Those of you who are bakers will likely know all about King Arthur Flour. I’m a big fan of their products. I do buy the flour sometimes at my local markets, and I order things from their catalog now and then too. They have superior products, both food and non-food items. They test things. They have a test kitchen. And the bakers who work there in the test kitchen maintain this wonderful blog. There are a couple of people (maybe three?) who provide posts for the blog. They include copious photos. Lots of instructions. And usually very fun stories about what they do. If you are a baker, you definitely should read their blog, updated every day or two.

Okay, so I was reading the blog and they did a long, detailed explanation all about panettone bread. How they’d devised the recipe, what works and why. It was a very interesting read, just by itself. Then and there, I decided to try making this – in my old, dented, but trusty tube pan. The King Arthur recipe was for what they called American-Style Panettone (with the fruitcake kinds of fruit). If any of you have been long-time readers of my blog, you already know I detest usual fruitcake. Can’t abide it. I have yet to make my Bishop’s Bread this year (the one that contains walnuts, maraschino cherries and chocolate chips rather than that icky glaceed fruit stuff). Bought the cardboard pans the other day, but haven’t made the bread itself. I will in coming days. But in the write-up about this panettone, they mentioned another recipe they’d worked on for apricot and crystallized ginger panettone. Wow, that sounded good, I thought. The first recipe calls for an ingredient most people won’t have – Fiori de Sicilia. It’s a vanilla-like essence (means flowers of Sicily). I bought a small bottle of it from King Arthur some years ago to make a sugar cookie (that I’ve not blogged about, but I should). If you don’t have it, don’t not make this because of that. Just add a bit more vanilla instead.

If you click to the Bakers Banter printable recipe for either one, you’ll have a choice of volume or weight (choose weight if you have a kitchen scale). I used the recipe from the American-Style Panettone, but the fruit ideas from the ginger and apricot one. The two recipes are different – in both the sponge and the bread recipe itself, so you choose. I went with the first one, but I added more fruit (golden raisins, some chocolate chips, chopped walnuts, the ginger . . . and I soaked the dried apricots in dark rum). I hoped for a nice bread to make our morning toast.

panettone dough rising in a tube pan

The recipe is not difficult, but it’s certainly more verbiage than a normal recipe. So I’m not going to write it up in total – I’ll just point you (above) on the way to find King Arthur’s recipe. I followed it to the letter – including choosing the version “by weight,” meaning that I measured every ingredient by weight on my kitchen scale, rather than volume. And really, I repeat, it is NOT difficult to make. You start with a biga (a sponge) the night before which I left below my cabinet lighting for the full 12 hours. Then you combine it with other bread ingredients, mix up using your bread machine or stand mixer with dough hook. It is a very sticky dough – nothing like a traditional loaf. Except for sprinkling just a bit of flour on my granite countertop to mold it into the form that will fit in the tube pan, I stuck with the recipe exactly (well, except for the fruit additions). Then it was allowed to rise. That takes awhile, what with all the fruit in it. You’ll want to do this on a day when you’re going to be around home since you can’t just go off and leave it all day. A few hours in strategic places, yes. All day, no. It does take the better part of 24 hours, but well worth it.

The verdict? What do you think by looking at the photo? This reminds me some of Stollen (which I used to make every year when I baked bread for extra money back years and years ago when my daughter was a baby). Probably Stollen is the German version of Panettone, or vice versa. They’re very similar in texture, but very different in shape. I’m sure there must be a story about that – probably something to do with the Pope’s hat, or something. You think? No, after searching at wikipedia, it’s nothing like that. There are several legends about the bread, but one specific baker decided to make the shape we know, rather than a loaf style. Soaking the fruit in wine is not the custom (oh well, I did anyway, in rum). The traditional panettone is filled with just lemon zest and citron. The perfume in my kitchen was just lovely from the rum.

Here’s the fruit I added to the dough:

  • 2 ounces crystallized ginger, minced in tiny pieces
  • ½ cup chocolate chips
  • ½ cup walnuts, chopped
  • 2/3 cup dried apricots, minced with scissors then soaked in about ¼ cup rum (drained after soaking 30 minutes) and tossed with about 2 T. of flour

If none of this interests you, be sure to buy a ready-made Italian panettone loaf this year and try it. Last year I bought one that contained a few bits of chocolate. It was good; that’s why I added chocolate to the panettone I made yesterday. Since making this was so easy (but I’m not intimidated by yeast breads, either) I’ll likely do it again.

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  1. PJ Hamel

    said on December 7th, 2008:

    Carolyn, looks WONDERFUL. Glad the recipe worked out for you. I don’t like those icky fruit peels and candied stuff, either; that’s why I use golden raisins, apricots, and dried pineapple, and maybe dried cranberries. But ginger – YES! Next time… Happy holidays! PJ Hamel, King Arthur Flour baker/blogger

  2. Joan Landers

    said on December 12th, 2008:

    Carolyn, thanks so much for sharing some of this wonderful panettone with us. It was absolutely wonderful!!!!

    Am so glad you enjoyed it. We’re down to our last two small pieces. I may have to make it again – and give you a couple more samples so Tom can have at least one or two pieces. . . . Carolyn

  3. Mimi

    said on December 11th, 2009:

    I love panetone and yours looks scrumptious!

    Thanks, Mimi. It really was good, and I’ll be making it again this Christmas. . . carolyn t

  4. Joanne

    said on December 13th, 2009:

    Coming from an Italian home, we are usually given MANY loaves of panettone during the holiday season. I love the texture of it, although I don’t like the ones with the glaceed fruit. I prefer the plain versions or the chocolate chip ones. This looks excellent, however! Crystallized ginger and dried apricots are two of my favorite dried fruits/spices. Delicious.

    The chocolate chips, dried apricots & crystallized ginger are favorites of mine, too, that’s why I made it with that combination. . . carolyn T

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