Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I'll Bet It Was a Mistake

Sometimes I wonder how foods were invented. Who was it that dropped his dinner of raw meat into the fire and decided that, hmmm, it tasted better a little bit singed? And who figured out that if you stirred fungus into your bread, it would get all puffy? And whoever looked at a fuzzy, ugly kiwi and knew there was something to eat in there?

I think this post's recipe was somebody's kitchen mistake. Somebody got hold of Grandma's cake recipe and either missed an ingredient or forgot where they left off when the phone rang, and then stuck it in the oven and then, ten minutes before the timer rang, smacked themselves on the forehead and, "Wait! What about the eggs?!"

Then, when the whole family finished dinner and sat there feeling sorry for themselves because the cook hung her head over that messed-up dessert, I wonder if the father, who was one of those hardy eat-anything types, got up and dug into the cake pan anyway because sometimes even a messed-up dessert is better than none at all. And what the father found was some cake on the bottom and some cake on the top and a bunch of runny sauce in between. And he put it into a bowl and mulled his first mouthful and said, "Hmm, this is not so bad. All it needs is some ice cream."

And a new dessert was born. Nobody wanted to call it Cook's Mistake, so they called it Pudding Cake, to make it sound like they'd planned it that way all along.

This version, from my very spattered Betty Crocker Cookbook, is called Hot Fudge Sundae Cake:

1 cup flour
3/4 cup sugar
2 TB cocoa
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup milk
2 TB oil
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup cocoa
1 3/4 cups hottest tap water
Ice cream

Heat oven to 350'. Mix flour, sugar, 2 TB cocoa, baking powder and salt in ungreased square pan, 9x9 inches. Mix in milk, oil and vanilla with fork until smooth. Spread in pan. Sprinkle with brown sugar and 1/4 cup cocoa. Pour hot water over batter.

Bake 40 minutes. While warm, spoon into desert dishes and top with ice cream. Spoon sauce from pan onto each serving. 9 servings @ 240 cals each, not counting the ice cream.

Over on the Finished Book Pile, we have Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres. The story takes you to a Greek Island as World War II rages around Europe. This is a book for people who love following the village doctor around, as well as the village communist, the village strongman. You can cheer on the characters that fall in love, and then grip the pages in your white-knuckled hands as the war finally comes to their shores.

Either the author carries a huge grudge against Germans, or the Germans were the cruelest buggers around. At any rate, he writes a delightful story, even if the ending is lame. No cow patties.

Next up, we have Family of Strangers by Deborah Tall. Ms. Tall asked her father who he was, where he came from, what his parents were like, and Mr. Tall barely grunted out any answers at all. So Ms. Tall hunted down the facts for herself.

It's a very genealogical memoir, and that's not praise because genealogy buffs, in my opinion, are not good story-tellers. It's fascinating to dig in to dusty records and find things. But when you tell the rest of us what you found, you need to package it up nicely. No overload of details, please, i.e.: "I asked the graveyard tender about . . . and he said they are all in the back row but it turned out there were two gravestones three rows up." No thicket of characters, i.e.: "my uncle's wife's sister's grandfather's . . . "

I stuck with it, no matter how lost I got. For one thing, it read fast. Each page was like a prose poem on loss and searching (she outdid herself, reaching for imagery), lots of white space on the page. And there was some small pay-off at the end, even though her search lead to one of the most depressing places on earth.

Next up: Renato's Luck by Jeff Shapiro. About the waterworks guy in some town in Italy. I gave it the old 10% try and felt that I was in the hands of an amateur. So I moved on to:

Niccolo Rising by Dorothy Dunnett. This is part of a series that takes you Europe sometime in the Renaissance and leads you through the intrigues of shipping merchants and patron princes. Open the book and the first thing you see is a four-page cast of characters, all of them with fourteen-syllable names or titles. It was quite daunting. I gave it the 10% try, too, but gave it up. Not that you should. Lots of reviewers on Amazon praised the series for its depth and drama, but a few of them felt just like I did: "I made several attempts to penetrate this novel . . . completely baffled . . . could not explain on pain of death what I just read."

But go ahead. And good luck.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Twisting with Oliver

There are books written by fingers that fly over laptop keys and there are books written by the scritching of quill pens on yellowed scrolls.

I tend to read more of the former. But once in a while, it is good to open one of the classics. Therefore I embarked upon Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist.

I'd call it the equivalent of Eating Your Literary Carrots. I had to push myself to get through it. But a book shouldn't be ignored just because its place on the shelf has been crowded up with the recent and the exciting.

I know, vaguely (like the first lines of songs) about the musical, Oliver. My sister spent her personal monies on soundtracks of every Broadway musical she could get her hands on. So, as I read Dickens, I hunted for the places where the songs would fit in to the story. "Oliver, Oliver, never before has a boy wanted more . . ." was easy to spot. So was "I Shall Scream." I might even have found where "Oom-Pa-Pa" belongs, but I never could quite pin down the right spot for my favorite, "As Long As He Needs Me." In fact, I'm re-thinking Nancy as a lead part for glamorous actresses. The "he" that needs her is Bill Sykes, a man of unrelenting filth and cruelty. And I don't see how Nancy herself avoided being wracked by social disease, even one as innocent as tuberculosis.

The word "Dickensian" connotes stories of people living in unrelenting sadness and squalor. But Dickens' quill pen actually produced a good deal of satire. Thank goodness humans can be insufferable fools, giving the author ample material for his wry sense of humor.

As for your recipe, I bragged one evening about our yummy and easy supper of Grilled Pizza Sandwiches. She to whom I bragged insisted that she wanted to eat this wonderful thing, too, so here goes:

Grilled Pizza Sandwiches

These sandwiches call for salami, which I find unappetizing. I replace it with Canadian bacon.