reclaiming campus

The past couple weeks have been a whirlwind of graduation visits, students' final projects, exam proctoring, and giving people space so that they can get their last insane push of work done before not having that kind of work at all for a while.  Final exams here are over at the end of the week, and I am looking forward not only to seeing my friends more, but also (especially?) to the fact that most of the undergraduates will leave campus and not come back until August.

It's not that I think undergrads are awful - it's just that in the summer when many of them are gone, graduate students get the opportunity to take ownership of campus.  We can go to Green Street (the C-U equivalent of South U for my Ann Arbor friends) for lunch at noon without encountering long lines and equally long waiting times.  We can have picnics on the Quad, be it Engineering or the regular one.  It's possible to ride one's bicycle to the gym without encountering straggler pedestrians in every bike lane.  With such a drastic reduction in the university's 40,000-odd crowd, those who stay are granted the chance relax and breathe a little.  Oh, right, and the outdoor pool is open all summer, which has nothing to do with undergrads at all but makes me immeasurably happy.

At the Big House for Tony's graduation.
It seems my family doesn't understand the grad student summer very well: when I was home a couple weekends ago to see my little brother graduate, I had to field various questions along the lines of "So what do you think you'll do for summer break?"  For me, there is no summer break.  Yes, I might get a break from teaching, but I have already completed my required classes and spend my working time doing research.  The end of the semester changes nothing.  However, I'm hoping that the extra time I'll have from not teaching will allow me to complete this start-up project I've been working on for so long.  With that out of the way, I will be able to focus on the weighty task of finding a prelim topic (more on that in another post).

Throughout all this, I have continued with my baking endeavors.  I confess that I've started looking forward to the completion of this project, as the various ingredients have increased my grocery bills, sometimes significantly, and the time commitment has begun to feel just a bit onerous.  Do not fear that I will cut this off abruptly, I am committed to completing my cookie project on time.  I have learned so much about baking in the past 34 months and although I tire of this project, I still look forward to what I will learn in the next seven.

147. Coconut Cookies with Passion Fruit Curd
Living in Illinois, it can be kind of difficult to find something so tropical as passion fruit puree.  In general, I look for ingredients first at Meijer, second at Strawberry Fields, and then I start going to specialty stores.  I ended up finding passion fruit pulp at what should be my default third store to check, World Harvest.  This is a little Pakistani-owned shop (the owner is a great guy) close to campus that stocks ingredients from around the world.  And so, frozen fruit in hand, I rejoiced in the fact that I would finally be able to try this recipe.

The cookies themselves were amazingly easy to make.  I had most of the ingredients on hand, including unsweetened coconut flakes, which I found at the grocery store some time ago on the same shelf as carob chips.  The dough was kind of sticky, so I found it was important to pay attention to the chilling instructions in the recipe, and to use large quantities of flour to roll them out and cut them into circles.  Funny story: all my round cookie cutters were too big, so I ended up using a shot glass - well, a measuring shot glass, for tablespoon measurements and the like - to cut the cookies.  After baking, the result was a strongly coconut, already tasty cookie.  I guess these were supposed to turn out kind of crispy but maybe I undercooked them a little, as they turned out a little soft.  Honestly, though, I think I prefer the chewier texture.

As the cookie name indicates, passion fruit curd serves as the filling here.  The curd is made with passion fruit pulp (the recipe called for puree, but I'm not sure with this fruit that there's much of a difference), lemon juice, sugar, butter, and egg yolks, as well as a couple other non-flavoring ingredients.  The result was both sweet and sour, with a custard (curd?) texture to it.  If it weren't so rich, I probably would have just attacked the curd with a spoon and not bothered with the cookies.

I managed to behave myself and constructed these sandwich cookies as directed by the recipe.  Together, the passion fruit and coconut were AMAZING.  There are some tropical flavors I really don't like - papaya, for instance - but these flavors made a fantastic mix.  Given that I have half a bag of passion fruit pulp left in my freezer, these cookies will definitely be making a return appearance this summer.

148. Cakey Chocolate Chip Cookies
I mentioned above that I recently traveled to see my brother graduate.  Well, that weekend was an insane 67 hours of driving, visiting, celebrating, and not getting much sleep.  I left Champaign at 6:30am on Friday and returned at 1:30am on Monday, with no time in between for baking cookies.  I toyed with the idea of skipping the week's baking entirely, but I've been very strictly following the one recipe per week rule I set when I started, and decided that I could give an hour to make a recipe I was saving.  It was a little disappointing to have to use this now, as I kind of hoped to save it for the very end, but as I flipped through my cookbook before bible study, I realized that no other available recipe would allow me to have cookies ready to share with my small group.

These cookies have slightly less butter in them than standard chocolate chip cookies, and have more white sugar than brown sugar.  This makes them more dense and a little more dry, but not dry in a bad way.  I'm not sure if I would describe these specifically as being like cake, but it's probably the closest comparison.  I was very impressed by these cookies, and I think they might actually be my favorite iteration of chocolate chip cookies from this book (there are 3 total).  It's possible that I may have to compare them side by side, but I liked these, and so did my friends.  As a side note, since I've been making very fancy stuff lately, I brought these into my office and one of my labmates scoffed at their simplicity.  I told him if he had a problem with it, he didn't have to have any cookies.  So there.

149. Prune Rugelach
Some recipes take a long time from start to finish.  The best ones typically don't call for much active time.  This specific recipe falls somewhere in between.  It was necessary to prepare the dough the night before and chill it, and to soak the prunes in brandy overnight.  The next afternoon, I rolled the dough out into very large circles, spread the pureed prunes on them, followed by white bread crumbs and sugar, and then rolled the wedges up.  These had to chill for two hours in the fridge before being baked for 40 minutes.  From start to finish, this meant about 24 hours with approximately 2 hours active time.

I realize that you're probably thinking that prunes are old people food.  Indeed, they are high in fiber, but they also taste pretty good.  The brandy soak really perked up their flavor, although most of the alcohol evaporated away during the baking process.  It was important that this filling was very sweet, as the dough involved is a simple cream cheese and butter dough with no sugar in it.  Once baked, this dough was delightfully flaky and lent a fantastic richness to the whole recipe.  Overall, I found these cookies to be better than expected, and had a difficult time keeping myself from consuming several of them.

You may also notice that there is some mysterious jello in the picture above.  This was a recent experiment, where I made French Lemonade jello shots.  As a result of wasting time on Pinterest, I stumbled on a blog whose writers make cocktails into jello shots, and so I had to try making some.  You can check the blog out here: Jelly Shot Test Kitchen.

Alright guys, that's all I've got tonight.  I hope those of you in the Midwest are staying cool with this latest heat wave, and that you all stay safe with the subsequent possibly severe weather.

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