The bong of the bell of the buoy in the bay...

Last week was spring break, and in response to the way small-town living makes me stir crazy, I got out of town.  More specifically, Phil and I drove out to Pennsylvania so I could meet his family.

Having lived exclusively in the Midwest and in South Florida, I am familiar with nothing but extremely flat terrain.  Yes, I've traveled through places with mountains, and I've even been through Pennsylvania a few times (the most recent trip involving a night spent at a Red Cross shelter in North East, PA), but I've never been into any of the cities nestled between the mountains.  It's no surprise that there's significant altitude changes even in these cities, so that the roads are riddled with hills and all kinds of twists and turns, but this was a fun novelty for a flat-lander like me.

Since we were already all the way out East, we took a day trip to Baltimore to see fun historical things.  And the Chesapeake Bay.  I didn't realize how much I missed the smell of the ocean (I used to live in an apartment right off of Biscayne Bay) until the scent of salt and rotting seaweed assaulted my nose.  This whole being landlocked thing is starting to get to me.  I'm definitely going to have to get back into sailing this summer, even if it's in some tiny local lake (0.03% the surface area of Lake Huron, oh well).

But that is entirely off topic for a cookie blog.  The point of posting is because I made more cookies when I returned from PA, and the result was really delicious.

90. Cashew Caramel Cookies
At first glance, these cookies look like they took a lot of work to make.  It turns out that this assessment is far from true: these cookies are just like peanut butter cookies, except they have homemade cashew butter and chopped cashews in the dough in lieu of peanut butter and peanuts.  Oh, right, and they're topped with caramel.  To make cashew butter, one simply has to put cashews through a food processor until finely ground, then add oil and process again until the mixture is smooth.  The caramel topping is not the homemade stuff I talked about before, but a mixture of heavy cream and soft caramel candies.  All in all, these cookies are delicious and simple, with a nice flavor combination of salt from the cashews and sugar from the topping.  I think the topping may make it a bit too sugary, however, and so in the future I may try making these again without any caramel.  I expect they'll still be delightful.

As far as other things go, the Midwest is behaving as usual for springtime, which means yesterday's high is today's low, and probably in a couple days the opposite will be true.  This means that I, like everyone else I know, find myself possessed with a strong desire to be outside as much as possible when it's warm and sunny.  It's days like these that make me a little sad to work in dark rooms with lasers.

To compromise, I end up reading articles about the relationship between scientists and the general public.  The guy who wrote the article I link here has some interesting things to say about how the broadcasting of the LHC collisions gets the public involved with physicists' emotions, but I'm not sure emotions are enough to garner public support (or funding, which is kind of the important thing for such an expensive project).

Most people don't really understand what scientists do or why they do it, and I think education is much more valuable than a weak emotional connection when it comes to removing the Ivory Tower branding that continues to be placed on "pure" scientific research.  Science museums and University outreach programs (including Saturday Morning Physics lectures at various universities including Michigan and Illinois which are aimed at the general public) are a helpful source for such education, but they require some starting interest so that people actually show up to learn.  Even with such programs, the specialization of research topics makes distillation of those topics to a non-scientist's knowledge level a formidable challenge.  And let's face it, people like Carl Sagan, who popularized astrophysics in the 70s and 80s and had a successful research career, are extremely rare.

I'm going to cut myself off before I end up writing a full essay, but I invite you, whether you are a scientist or a layperson, to consider this issue.  I'd love to hear what you think about it, and what you think might help to mend the situation.


50.29% -- I still have a long way to go

Last weekend I made recipe no. 88, which puts me just past the halfway mark on my cookie baking project!  Unfortunately, as the post title indicates, I've still got a solid year-and-three-quarters remaining, which seems like a long time when I look back over the same amount of time pointing in the past.

Let's recap a little.

I began this project while I was living at my dad's house after finishing my undergraduate education.  Since then, I have moved to Central Illinois, started graduate school, taken and taught many classes, passed my Qualifying Exam (praise God), joined a research group, and so on.  Of course, there's a lot of other details to be filled in, but I don't want to make this post too long...  Jumping to the present: this semester is getting closer to its end, and although I am now looking at switching research topics, things have progressed very nicely for me since July 2008. The next large chunk of time will hopefully not be as exciting, as I hope to settle down into a good project and start churning out results as soon as possible (This is naive optimism on my part.  Experiments kind of just go slowly all the time).

All that said, let's take a look at this weekend's project.

89. Rosemary Butter Cookies
I had been looking forward to making these ever since I made Cornmeal Thyme cookies last summer, when I discovered that herbs in cookies aren't a bad idea at all.  These are a basic log cookie - that is, the dough is made, formed into a long log and frozen for about an hour, and then sliced into 1/4" thick pieces to make individual cookies - the only difference here is that before being cut each log was washed with egg white and rolled in sanding sugar.  These cookies are your typical mix of butter, sugar, and flour, with about a tablespoon of fresh rosemary added to give them a very distinct flavor.  For those of you who aren't familiar with rosemary, it kind of tastes like pine needles.  Or, I've been told, gin.  The rosemary blends well with the large amounts of butter in the recipe, so that although the taste is unusual, it is not overwhelming.  I think I may hold onto this recipe just for its novelty.

In other news, it's spring break this week, which means the undergraduates are all gone, leaving campus eerily empty.  Tomorrow I will follow suit and make my escape to Pennsylvania for the rest of the week.  The drive is going to be pretty long, but since we're going in a stick shift car, I won't be able to drive, and can instead scramble to make Bonita's second sock.


How to make your own caramel

I know I've complained before about how I am not fond of caramel.  It's usually too sweet, and the way it sticks to everything is just not pleasant.  The solution: make your own (with salt, which makes all sweet things taste better)!  This is actually the topping recipe from the turtle brownies I made a couple weeks ago, so perhaps I should start with my cookie project update.

87. Turtle Brownies
Do not let the picture fool you - although the brownies here look dry, they were actually quite moist and delicious.  These are basic brownies covered with a mix of homemade caramel and toasted pecans.  Honestly, I think these were really delicious, although my friends complained that they got too much of a sugar rush.  That would be the fault of the caramel, which is basically a supersaturated sugar syrup that is boiled until the sugar caramelizes (more information at the end of the post).  I didn't think this was a problem, though, so I intend to make these again sometime as summer approaches.

88. Rugelach Fingers
These little bars were a big hit in my office: the top and bottom layers are a flaky cream cheese pastry dough that was rolled out to be very thin (which was kind of a big hassle), and the filling is a mix of semisweet chocolate, currants, toasted walnuts, orange zest, cinnamon, and sugar (plus some butter and corn syrup to hold it together).  As I said, it was kind of annoying to roll this dough out to be so thin, but the result is visually and gustatorily pleasing, the latter especially after the filling flavors had a day to mingle properly.

And now what I promised: how to make caramel:

  • 1 C sugar
  • 1/3 C water
  • 1/3 C heavy (whipping) cream
  • 1 t vanilla extract
  • 1/2 t coarse salt
Bring sugar and water to a boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring until sugar has dissolved.  When this mixture begins to boil, stop stirring and cook until medium amber (5-7 minutes).  You'll want to have a wet pastry brush available to wash down the sides of the pan to keep crystals from forming, and can swirl the pan occasionally while the sugar is cooking.

Remove the mixture from heat and immediately add cream, vanilla, and salt.  Stir with a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula until smooth.  Take care of this quickly because the entire mixture will begin to thicken as soon as it starts to cool.

From here you can add pecans and pour it on top of brownies, or pour it out into a pan or something and let it cool in the refrigerator for ~30 minutes before trying to cut it.

That is all for now, work has got me very busy these days with some stuff I'll probably discuss once I get it figured out, and I've got a couple long-term projects running that I expect to also talk about when they're done (one involves leaving lemon peels soaking in vodka for 80 days, which should be ready right in time for summer).


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