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Just finished reading The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes. What a WONDERFUL book. It opens up a shameful part of America’s past, but one you might not have heard about before this. In the late 1800s thousands of Chinese workers were brought to the West Coast to help with a variety of construction projects and a myriad of other things where laborers were needed. Many settled, married and made a new life for themselves. But suddenly the white population didn’t want them here anymore and they summarily ordered them ALL out of our country. This book chronicles a young Chinese girl, who was on a ship that was supposed to take her family to China, but the ship’s captain decided en route to dump them all overboard, to drown. The girl’s father knew it was going to happen and in order to save her, he threw his daughter off the ship as they were passing Orcas Island (in the San Juan Islands west of Seattle). She was saved. The book switches from that time to current time as a woman is rebuilding her family’s home on Orcas and finds a beautifully embroidered silk Chinese robe sleeve hidden under a stair step. The book is about that sordid past and the young girl’s descendents, and about the woman who is rebuilding. Stunner of a novel. Good for a book club read, I think. It has a reader’s guide at the back with good questions for book groups.

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 Breads, Brunch, on December 20th, 2012.


Here’s another of those – TRUST ME –  recipes. When I tell you these are worth making, please just do it, right? Do you like vivid orange flavors? And chocolate? This positively is a match made in heaven. And they’re super easy too.

Muffin Tips:

(1) don’t over-mix the batter; and (2) bake to 205° internal temp (use a thermometer for that part)

A group of women was coming to my home to attend a cooking class, and each time we meet, the hostess (me this time) provides beverages (hot and cold) and some breakfast sorts of things (croissants maybe, fresh fruit, occasionally champagne) and a bread – perhaps banana bread or muffins. Even cookies. I had nothing particular in mind, but turned to one of my favorite little tiny cookbooks. What I’ve learned over the years is that every recipe in this book, Muffins: Sixty Sweet and Savory Recipes… From Old Favorites to New is reliable. Written by Elizabeth Alston,

Our daughter Sara, and her 15 & 7/8 year old daughter Sabrina

Our daughter Sara, and her 15 & 7/8 year old daughter Sabrina

it’s out of print, but you can still find it in a used book store. And if you click on the link there, you’ll find some used copies for a penny (plus shipping, of course). I bought it for myself in 2003, when it was new (along with the companion book about Scones – Biscuits and Scones: 62 Recipes from Breakfast Biscuits to Homey Desserts). I also gave these to my daughter Sara, because she and her daughter love to bake. She was telling me a few weeks ago that it’s her go-to cookbook for anything close to a muffin (there are all kinds from savory to sweet, and biscuits too). What’s good about this one is that every single recipe I’ve ever tried (and Sara says the same thing) has been exceptionally good.

choc_orange_muffins_batterLooking online to see what other people thought, I found several versions of this recipe, all with a few little changes. Never did find the exact recipe, so I stuck with Alston’s original, using yogurt as the dairy (you can use buttermilk too).

You might be skeptical at the amount of orange zest in the recipe – 12 muffins require the zest from 2 oranges. My oranges were very large, so I probably had more than usual – about nearly 3 tablespoons that I got using the microplane. And it uses 3 ounces of bittersweet chocolate. I rarely use anything but the best chocolate (SharffenBerger in this case), and the bittersweet is worth seeking out. I did NOT use chocolate chips, and I’m glad I didn’t because they’re too sweet and too uniform – it’s nice to have dots of larger pieces of chocolate. You know you’re eating a really good chocolate that way.

choc_orange_muffins_coolingThe muffins are standard as far as mixing – cream the butter and sugar, add eggs and beat until light and fluffy. Add the yogurt,  orange juice and zest, then the dry ingredients are gently stirred in with the chocolate at the last. There are two secrets to making muffins: (1) don’t over mix the batter – just stir until you don’t see any errant streaks of flour; and (2) bake them to EXACTLY 205°. In my oven that took 18 minutes. I used my fantastic Thermapen thermometer to test them and they were 204.9° exactly. Perfection. I cooled them in the muffin tin for about 10 minutes, then carefully used a plastic knife to release them and let them cool to room temp. And I’m absolutely guilty as heck – I ate one while they were still barely warm. Oh – my – gosh.  Was it ever good. Ideally bake them within an hour of serving, when the chocolate is still almost molten, but not quite. As it was, I made them the day before and kept them in a ziploc bag overnight. Reheat them if you’re going to make them ahead – but not for long as they would dry out, I’m sure.

What’s good: oh, the orange flavor and the chocolate. As they say, those are two flavors that are marriage material. Loved the intense orange flavor – much more orange-y than usual in a baked good – but it wasn’t over the top (as in bitter). And the irregular pieces of chocolate were such a sweet surprise as you eat it. Definitely a make-again muffin.

What’s not: absolutely nothing at all.

printer-friendly (Cute PDFWriter) PDF

MasterCook 5+ import file – right click to save file, run MC, then File|Import

* Exported from MasterCook *

Chocolate Orange Muffins

Recipe By: From “Muffins” by Elizabeth Alston (2003)
Serving Size: 12
NOTES: If you use a mini-muffin tin, you’ll get 36.

1 cup sugar — (I used about 7/8 cup)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter — softened
2 large eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk — or plain, unsweetened yogurt
1/4 cup orange juice — freshly squeezed
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon orange zest — (I used about 2+ T because the oranges were large)
3 ounces semisweet chocolate — chopped in irregular small pieces

1. Preheat oven to 400° (200° C). Lightly grease a 12 cup muffin pan, or line with paper liners. May also use mini-muffin tin (if so, use shorter baking time)
2. In a medium bowl, mix flour, baking powder, and baking soda.
3. In a separate mixing bowl, with an electric mixer, cream together butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in the eggs one at a time and continue mixing until the mixture is light and ribbony. Add orange zest, orange juice, and buttermilk (or yogurt). Use a spoon to add the flour mixture and stir it in just until mixed and there are no streaks of flour. Add the chocolate pieces and stir just until combined. Divide batter into muffin cups.
4. Bake for 15 to 25 minutes in the preheated oven (to an internal temperature of 205°) or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean. Let muffins cool in the pan on a wire rack for at least 10 minutes before removing from the pan. (My batch of these took 18 minutes. Do NOT over bake them or they’ll be dry. If making ahead, reheat them gently and for a short time.)
Per Serving: 244 Calories; 9g Fat (32.3% calories from fat); 4g Protein; 38g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 51mg Cholesterol; 118mg Sodium.

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  1. hddonna

    said on December 21st, 2012:

    Oh, Carolyn! These look so good! I love muffins, I love chocolate and orange together, and I am definitely going to make these. Not this week–the freezer is stuffed with homemade breads and cinnamon rolls for Christmas–but as soon as I can find an excuse to do so! And I’m going to put that book on my wish list. It sounds like a real winner. Does it have a recipe for butter rum muffins, by any chance? I used to play music at a local coffee shop, which has since closed, and they served wonderful butter rum muffins. I have yet to find a recipe for them.

    I’m sure there isn’t a butter rum muffin in it. Have you searched on the internet for one? My only suggestion about the choc orange muffins is that they really are best just after baking, allowed to cool for 20 minutes or so. I want to try them again with cake flour. A friend made them last week and about 3-4 hours after baking the insides were still fairly light, but the outside edges were already getting hard/stale. Even with cupcake papers. I want to make them again with some kinds of changes. But they’re fabulous as is within minutes out of the oven. Let me know how you like them. My friend used just 1 T. of orange zest it was NOT enough. Use 3 if you can. . . carolyn t

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