the early bird and the night owl

There is never enough time to get everything done.  Pick any day of the week, and there are several things I can list that didn't happen, that I either needed to put off for another day or indefinitely.  In the past, the attempt to accomplish things with my day has led to extremely late nights - for example, when I was sewing my halloween costume I stayed up until 4am a few nights in a row to finish it - and consequent late mornings.  Homework tends to be a more worthy reason to forget to go to bed, but that has left me waking up in the afternoon on Saturdays and Sundays (and, unfortunately, on weekdays too).

Over the past several months, I have started to shift to waking up early to get things done, something that even a year ago I would never have expected.  It's pretty awesome to get up on a Saturday have all my errands run before noon, so that I can bake and, well, do more stuff in the afternoon.

Last Saturday, I slept in, which meant I had to bake on Sunday.  Oh well.

112. Apricot Windows
These cookie bars have SO MUCH butter in them.  I was shocked when I first read the recipe and saw it call for 4-1/2 sticks of butter. Yes, that is 1.12 pounds of butter.  This mass of butter is mixed with sugar, flour, a few eggs, and yellow cornmeal (plus some other ingredients I'm probably forgetting), then spread all over a cookie sheet to make a base for these cookies.  After the base is baked, apricot jam is spread on it and more of the buttery batter is piped on the top to make a lovely lattice pattern.

It's immediately apparent, upon tasting these, that they are full of butter.  The cornmeal flavor comes out very nicely, and pairs well with the apricot, which isn't overwhelming.  My results had a kind of thick crust, because the recipe calls for a larger cookie sheet than will fit in my tiny oven, so I did the best I could with what was available.  However, in the future I will consider scaling down the recipe a little, so that these bars can be a little thinner and can have more apricot on them.  Otherwise, these were very easy to make, which was good because I had about a million things to do last weekend.


Meringue fail, again

Before I start talking about school or cookies or anything, I have to say the following:

To those of you who ride bikes:  Please wear your helmets!  One of my closest friends was hit by a car yesterday while riding his bike, and if it weren't for his helmet, his skull probably would have been just as smashed up as his shoulder and hands (which are broken).  I know protective headgear looks stupid and can be a hassle, but your brains are totally worth it!

That said, much of my energy this week has gone into caring for those close to me, and, honestly, it has been exhausting.  Phil and I spent last weekend constructing his new bed frame, friends have been traveling, other friends have been injured, yet other friends are in Qual panic... and as a result I am way behind on my own work, and on posting (which should come second, but I'm trying really hard to avoid backlogs this year).  I really hope next week will be more sane.

111. Baci di Dama
I have something to confess - I am terrible at making meringues.  This is my second attempt, and they fell just as flat as the ones I tried making last year.  Previously I hypothesized that they were underwhipped, but I'm pretty sure in both cases the meringues where overwhipped, as this batch suddenly lost all its thickness as I attacked it with my hand mixer.  Well, I guess now I know what it looks like, and have two more recipes to try and get it right.

Although they didn't look quite right, these little chocolate cookies weren't a complete failure.  The main part of these is meringue with dutched cocoa and ground up blanched almonds, and the filling is semisweet chocolate with a tiny bit of vegetable shortening.  The result was a very chocolatey, light cookie, with a bit of extra texture provided by the almonds.  I thought they were really good, and was also thrilled with each batch only needing 15 minutes in the oven, rather than the 2h required for regular meringues.


Last-minute vacationing

The transition from college to a full-time job comes with very clear expectations and limits, as far as I have been led to believe.  The long, carefree vacations most of us experience from childhood to the age of 22 or so give way to overtime and budgeting those paid vacation days to be used for maximum fun (or necessary rest).

The guidelines are not so clear in graduate school.  In the presence of the university schedule, it is tempting to stick to the oscillating pace of the undergrad life - ramping up and down between burn-out inducing work levels and no motion at all - but we are not given two to four months of the year to recover from such behavior.  Instead, we keep working.  Under successful brainwashing by our departments and advisors, we begin to feel like we cannot take time off or go anywhere to just have fun and relax.  After all, any time spent not working is time wasted on the path to a PhD, right?  Maybe a little, but it's all a question of figuring out an appropriate balance.

In the spirit of the balancing act of life (and under invitation by Phil's parents), I traveled out East for a week to have a little fun and some actual vacation before school started.  It would be boring for me to go into the details, but I enjoyed the trip, spent time at the beach in Stone Harbor, NJ, and returned last Tuesday night to a world of getting-ready-for-classes insanity.

Although I let myself go on a vacation from work, I couldn't take a break from cookie baking, and so I picked one of the simplest recipes in my book and ran with it.

These are basically Pecan Sandies by a different name.  The recipe only calls for six ingredients, and doesn't require any extra chilling time, so it was a good choice for out-of-town baking.

In this recipe, finely chopped toasted pecans are added to a mixture of flour, salt, butter, brown sugar, and egg yolk to make a crisp, melt-in-your-mouth cookie with a flavor reminiscent of pecan pie.  In the interest of not storing random extra ingredients, I omitted the pecan halves that were supposed to be placed in the center of each cookie, which left them somewhat lacking aesthetically.  However, I found the toasted pecans made these taste really good, and I enjoyed the texture as well.


Variations on a theme

The summer semester has finally ended here at the U of I, which means this area is going to be more of a ghost town than usual for another week or two until the new graduate students move in, followed shortly after by hordes of new, confused freshmen and their equally-confused parents, and then by all the other returning students.  College towns are strange: they have a transient population of some 30,000 students who leave in May and return in August.  In between, on-campus restaurants struggle to draw in customers, and the graduate students who live here year-round take the time to enjoy the quiet.

Those same graduate students are moving into new apartments at this time of year.  I've already helped a couple friends move this summer, and am hopefully done with that, so the next interesting thing for me will be helping my boyfriend furnish his new apartment.  I've been keeping an eye on a do-it-yourself furniture blog, Knock Off Wood (where a woman in Alaska provides plans and detailed instructions for how to build nice furniture, which ends up being significantly less expensive than buying it), and hopefully that will be a good resource for putting together a bedframe or some bookshelves or something.  I shared this website with Phil a while ago, so it's actually his idea to build furniture for his apartment, but I'm excited to get to help, since I love building stuff.

I also (obviously) enjoy baking, which brings me to this week's cookie.

109. Coconut Macadamia Shortbread
It may seem surprising that I've made two coconut cookies in a row, but I did this on purpose: both this recipe and last week's recipe call for cream of coconut, which goes bad after a while, so I figured it would be a good idea to use it while it's guaranteed to be good (the rest will be going into piña coladas).

These cookies are not completely your basic shortbread.  The expected quantities of butter and flour are present, but this recipe calls for granulated sugar rather than confectioners' sugar.  The cookies are flavored with ground toasted macadamia nuts, finely shredded coconuts, coconut extract, and cream of coconut.  There's quite a lot of the first two flavoring ingredients in the cookies, and so I find that these do not quite have the usual shortbread texture, although they certainly have the usual shortbread richness.  And they taste very strongly of coconut.

The dough here was chilled, rolled out (with some extra unnecessary instructions involving more time in the refrigerator), and cut using whatever I had with a scalloped edge, which ended up being my Linzer Cookie Cutter.  These were brushed with egg white and sprinkled with more coconut before being baked.  The coconut on top gets toasted nicely in the oven and looks pretty, too.

Overall, I have to say I like these cookies, although I don't see myself going out of my way to buy cream of coconut for them.  I also have to confess that the dough for these tastes REALLY GOOD, and for once I don't have to worry about salmonella, as shortbread doesn't have any egg in it.


Cicadas and humidity

Few things evoke old summer memories like the crescendo of the cicadas' drone in the dizzying heat of the late afternoon.  When I was young, I attributed the noise to electricity: I thought that was the noise transformers made when it was very hot outside.  After all, what else could explain that unceasing, unvarying buzz? (Keep in mind, this is before vuvuzelas became internationally known).  It still baffles me that an insect only an inch or so long can make such a loud noise.

I missed that sound when I lived in Florida, where we had the heat and humidity of a Midwestern summer for a good 3/4 of the year.  With my assortment of experiences, I suddenly find myself associating summer with a tropical location, and it becomes entirely appropriate for me to bake and eat cookies that are largely made with coconut.

108. Coconut Cream-Filled Macaroons
This strikes me as a somewhat redundant recipe, as I made coconut macaroons nearly two years ago, and was impressed by their simplicity and tastiness.  This recipe went and kicked up the coconut several notches, first through the addition of coconut extract to the macaroons, and second through calling for a cream filling.

The cream filling is both appalling and kind of good at the same time.  It's made with butter, vegetable shortening, confectioners' sugar, cream of coconut (usually used for making piña coladas), and more coconut extract.  This fatty and sweet concoction goes between two macaroons to give a nice texture contrast (after all, the macaroons are basically coconut held together by egg whites), but the flavor is exactly the same in all parts of the cookie.  I found this a little bit disappointing, as I could have enjoyed the taste of coconut without setting myself up for diabetes and a heart attack.  Plus, I'm always of the opinion that each separate part of a cookie needs to add both flavor and texture contrast to be successful.

That said, I think I'll be sticking with the macaroon recipe sans filling (although I may try them with mini chocolate chips sometime...)

Oh, and a quick side note:  this recipe called for unsweetened shredded coconut, which is not available in most grocery stores.  To get around this, I used sweetened coconut and omitted all the sugar.


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