A late 'Merry Christmas', and then I'm off to Chicago

Well, this is yet another week away from the cornfield. I worry a little about the plants I've left behind, but two of the three are cacti, and the third is ivy, so hopefully they'll all be alive when I return.

Although I've been unable to water my plants on a weekly basis, I have been able to do plenty of baking and cooking, repeating the potato cheese bread I made over Thanksgiving and whipping up plenty of cookies for my family. After all, this week the calories don't count. Or, at least, that's what I tell myself as I promise to start swimming laps with my friends in January.

And, in keeping with tradition, I made my own project cookies, or, at least, something from the book. So in addition to all the other junk food we already had, we now have gingerbread white chocolate blondies (26). These are basically like chocolate chip cookie bars, but with all the gingerbread spices: ground ginger, cloves, cinnamon... and, of course, lots of molasses. Oh, right, and white chocolate instead of semi-sweet. Tasty.

I shared a bunch of these with my family, and I'll be taking the rest with me to Chicago tomorrow to share with my friends.

So why am I going to Chicago tomorrow? The reason is simple: I'm going to attend this conference. It's a conference for Christian Graduate students, which is very exciting to me because when I went to Urbana (a conference in St. Louis) as an undergrad, I felt left out from the focus because of my academic aspirations. After all, working in a lab or teaching Physics isn't an obvious way to do God's work. But it still is what I'm called to do right now.

I am excited, but I'm also a little concerned. Graduate students tend to be too smart for their own good, and so I worry that people will be too concerned with facts and searching out knowledge instead of wisdom. We'll have to see, though. I think that I should definitely pray instead of wasting my energy worrying.

We'll have cookies again next week, on or slightly before schedule, depending on when I decide to do my next leg of travel.

In the meanwhile, safe travels to all and I hope you're having great vacations!


Singing a Beauuuuutiful Ballad...

My friend Alex uploaded a video of me singing at the Physical Revue onto YouTube.

So here, for your viewing (and hopefully listening) pleasure, "A Summer in Urbana"


Snowed in, but that's ok too

What is this? I'm baking and I'm *not* stuck in the middle of a cornfield? Yes, that's right. However, I find myself a day ahead of schedule as I'm stuck in the middle of a large snowdrift instead.

I left Champaign on Wednesday to get closer to home, and stopped over in Ann Arbor to visit friends, and to eventually drive a friend to the airport so she can go to Germany for break. But my car was stuck in the snow today and the roads were in all kinds of bad condition, so she rescheduled her flight (and consequently, I rescheduled my triumphant homecoming) for Saturday.

Having little to do, we decided to call it an early cookie day!

These cookies are called Pfeffernüssen (25), which, in German, means pepper nuts. These cookies are flavored with molasses, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, and, as their name indicates, black pepper. There are no nuts involved, apparently their name has more to do with what they look like. Oh, right, and they're covered in powdered sugar.

Unlike the chocolate crackled cookies I made a few weeks ago, there is only one layer of sugar on the outside of these cookies, and boy was it fun to cover them: the instructions called for putting confectioner's sugar in a paper bag, dropping a few warm cookies in, and then shaking them until they were covered. Good times.

I was really looking forward to making these cookies, as pepper in dessert foods is an unfamiliar idea to me, and I find that I am not disappointed. The pepper is not especially strong, but it sits well with the other flavors so that these aren't just some lumpy gingerbread cookies. Even with slightly burnt bottoms (which I think is a side effect of the pan I chose to use), I think these cookies are going to stay in my top ten favorites.

In other news, I'm proud to say that I made it through my first semester of grad school, while being able to maintain this project. This means we're in for another 3 years of cookies, so those of you who are around me on Sundays or Mondays, look forward to lots of new interesting things (actually, my family should also expect some good stuff over vacation, since I can do some of the smaller batch things). I may even start talking about things other than my baking experiments, but we'll have to see.


One blessing after another

Last night was a very fun time: The physics first-years got together for a Secret Santa exchange. I don't think I've remarked in this blog about how tightly knit the first-year community has become, but last night was further proof of it. Typically when Secret Santa things happen, the gifts are not too creative, and people just end up getting random things. When our group did it, we had to write poems to make others guess who the present was for, and the gifts themselves were creative and well-thought-out. I got a Higgs Boson, which made me VERY happy because I am in love with weird plushies. And physics. The thing that makes the Higgs so cute is that it's really heavy for a plushy, which is good because it's supposed to be a really heavy particle. Apparently my giver (who wouldn't reveal himself...) got it from here. Fantastic times.

My friends also are super amazing and got me a bunch of cookie cutters, a mixer, a cookie press, and so on, which made me really happy ^.^ I'm really glad that I've been able to share this project with them, and that it makes Mondays good enough to encourage me to do more.

And so more I did today, with not one, but TWO different recipes.

I'll start with the more simple one, and a pointless anectdote.
When I was a teenager, my grandma would always make rum balls for my dad, for my mom, for my dad's parents... and I, being the straight-laced, boring kid I was, knew there was alcohol involved and never tried them. But some afternoons I would be at home, searching the fridge for a tasty snack, and I would see them there, covered in cocoa powder and confectioner's sugar, beckoning, beckoning, just beyond the bars... Oops that's some Sweeney Todd sneaking its way in... but anyway, after I turned 21 I tried them and they are SO GOOD. Thus, when I was going through my cookbook for a cookie recipe and stumbled on a rum ball recipe, I knew I had to make them (23).

Now, these rum balls aren't exactly my grandma's recipe, but they are incredibly good. And very easy to make, if any of you want to try. Basically what you do it make brownies, then smash them up and add a quarter cup of rum. Mix them together and then form 1" balls that you roll in coarse sugar (I used cane sugar, becuase everything else was too fine) and refrigerate for a couple hours. So if you were ever that person who liked to smoosh your brownies together and then eat them, you are totally in luck. These are brilliant. And delicious. Try them.

While I was making the rum balls, my friends came over to help me make stained-glass sugar cookies (24). And boy, did I need all the help I could get. For some unfortunate reason, the recipe proportions were off, and we ended up with a dough that was far too dry. An egg and a couple tablespoons of butter later, we were good to go.

So while the dough was chilling, we set out to crush 14 ounces of Jolly Ranchers, while lacking the appropriate tools to do so. I regret to say that two of my plastic bowls were broken in the process, but I'm not too destroyed by the loss, as the cookies are awesome.

In order to make these cookies, you make something like a basic sugar cookie dough (although I suggest using less sugar, as the centers are basically pure sugar), roll it and cut out your shapes, then cut out smaller shapes from the center. Sprinkle crushed hard candy into the centers and bake for about ten minutes. The candy melts to fill the space, giving a lovely stained glass effect and leaving you with cherry, watermelon, apple, grape, and blue raspberry flavored centers. A warning, though: the purple jolly ranchers don't make very pretty centers, as they are kind of brownish.

So if you want to try something a little out of the ordinary from your usual Christmas sugar cookies (and if your friends just got you a dozen new cookie cutters ^.~), try this! It looks really good and tastes nice. I'm looking forward to seeing the reactions of the other physics people on Monday.

Miscellaneous thrills

Last week was a skipped my usual update.. why? Because of a million things to do as the semester was wrapping up. So instead of doing the problem sets I had due on Wednesday, I made these ginger palmiers (22) instead.

Yes, they look kind of funny. They've got funky brown syrup baked on them, after all. This recipe was.. interesting. I had to buy premade puff pastry, which makes up the bulk of these cookies. Some serious work was required, though: I had to make a syrup out of molasses, brown sugar, ginger, and probably a couple other things I don't remember, and cover the pastry with a mix of white sugar, pepper, cinnamon, and again things I don't recall before rolling it up. The syrup made an awful mess, but went really well with the puff pastry. In fact, I was surprised at just how much people liked these cookies, since I think they perhaps weren't the best.

Also this past week, the Physics department had their yearly talent (or lack-of-talent?) show, the Physical Revue. By some fortunate happenstance, I've become friends with a third-year student who plays piano fantastically, so we rewrote the lyrics to a Jason Robert Brown song and performed it. It went awfully well, especially considering that I've only ever sang (and acted) by myself in front of bunches of people I don't know maybe two or three times in my life. I had been nervous about singing all afternoon, which was odd because I knew I could do it, and then when I finally got to it everything worked out. I suppose that is why I need to practice extra when any kind of performance is coming up. All this also means I need to pick up a new composer so I can have more song ideas for the future.


First snow, more cookies!

You will notice that I am backlogged again. Life as a grad student is a little hectic, especially when all my exams happen at the same time. But the cookies continue to happen.

With one week left before Thanksgiving break, I decided I didn't want to go grocery shopping anymore, and chose my recipe based on what was in the cupboard. Fortunately, I had just made an interesting Greek dish with lemons, so I had lemons to zest, and sugar cookies to make (19)!

These cookies were actually very good - I didn't quite have enough lemon zest (which, as I think I've mentioned before, is just the yellow part of the peel) but the flavor came through nicely. One of the issues I usually have with sugar cookies is that they are too sweet. These cookies were sweet, but the lemon balanced them out and brightened up the day. They currently hold the #1 spot on Noah's top cookie list.

Several of my friends have remarked upon the fact that I'm pretty committed to this every week thing. The way I figure is that if I let myself have a week off, I'll take another and another until I just quit this project entirely. So in that spirit, I made sure to bake something before leaving Chambana for Fall break. Usually I try to bake something in a large enough batch to share with something like 40 people, but this time my goal was to be rid of my wares by the time I left on Sunday afternoon. Thus, I decided to make brownies (20). It turns out that, with the exception of my grandmother's buttermilk brownie recipe, this is the first time I've ever made brownies from scratch, and I was very pleased with the result. This whole melting chocolate and then mixing it into the dough is a new thing for me, but I think it's something I'll try to incorporate into other experiments in the future.

So this past weekend, after driving for hours and hours to get back to the cornfield, I thought it would be nice to do something with more chocolate in it. And so I made what the book calls crackle cookies (21). Basically, these cookies have dutch cocoa and bittersweet chocolate in them, and after mixing the dough together I separated it into balls, which I rolled in granulated sugar and then in powdered sugar. The double layer of sugar was supposed to keep the powdered sugar white and pretty. I realized as I took a batch out of the oven that my cookies matched the outdoors, as we had our first real snow yesterday. I also realized that the sugar on the bottom of the cookies melted and solidified, so the bottoms are a little crunchy, but not burnt. This recipe, I've decided, is one of my personal favorites - eating these cookies is like eating a brownie without the mess (and, of course, with the added danger of asphyxiating on powdered sugar).

In other news, while I was at home over Thanksgiving, I pulled out a recipe I'd been meaning to try and made potato cheese bread. If you like to make bread, this is something I really recommend: although it was a bit of a chore to knead the cheese into the dough, the result was totally worth it. It was also very much worth it for me because I sort of made a friend do the hard part (well, she needed to learn how to knead dough so she can make her own bread in the future).

Alright, I think that's all for now, but expect interesting things over the next month as I get out molasses and cookie cutters and suchlike ^.^


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