Saturday, February 25, 2012

Living Here and Now - Jelly Cookies

Sometimes, all you need is to breathe.  Whenever I procrastinate, inevitably now, it’s the food blogs.  I read through archives of one blog at a time, learning about others’ daily lives and happiness.  I dream of the day when I, too, can cook such beautiful food that others gush over, take photos before the sun sets and purchase fresh ingredients, bursting with flavor and color.  That’s the magic, isn’t it?  But that’s not my life.  Although I have been fortunate enough to move into an apartment with a kitchen, my scheduled day tends to end at 7pm or later.  Classes, research, robotics, biomedical engineering society, badminton all crowd in and leave me wanting food I can eat now, or at least, soon.  


I’m not a good cook.  I don’t instinctively add savory spices (I possess two right now, the cheapest iodized salt and pre-ground black pepper money can buy), rarely have a mise en place ready before the (cheap) vegetable oil is smoking hot, often fail to remember to salt things and haven’t a clue what herb goes best with carrots.  I’m a much better baker, having turned out dozens of cookies, several birthday cakes and more tarts and pies than I can count.  I even recently learned to make calzones, and jumped for joy when I pulled a pizza out of my dinky, wobbly, apartment oven. 

The ingredients I use are the cheapest possible.  My cooking and baking are crammed in between everything else I do, and quality tends to suffer, or something else will have to give.  I’m envious of those people who live through food, like Shauna and her family, of Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef.  She seems to be such a sweet and lucky person, surrounded by friends and family, liberated from everything that held her down and fully immersed in her passion for food.  As a college student, especially studying something like engineering, I definitely don’t have that luxury.  

Stop and smell the rosy raspberry jelly :)

But today, as the computer’s clock hit 2:58 pm, I realized with a start that I was wasting my own life away.  Badminton practice is held at 3:00 pm on Saturdays, and even if I sprinted out the door immediately, I’d already be 15 minutes late.  And I was still wearing my pajamas.  Where does the day go?  I’d gotten up around 11:00am.  What did I do?  I made a quiche, ate lunch at about 1:00pm.  What then?  I really had no answer, other than just reading through Shauna’s lovely archives.  It was then that I realized I had to wake up from my dreams of what I wished my life could be, and enjoy the life I have now.  I’ll only be an overstressed engineering student once, without utility bills to pay, without taxes to worry about (yet) and without a commute that requires any more than a 15-minute walk (I live on campus).

I had just learned a method of meditation, where you sit and concentrate on breathing.  Only that, nothing more.  Effectively, you try and do nothing, just to be aware.  It’s more difficult than it sounds.  But the packet stated that meditation taught mindfulness, being present, living in the moment where you are.  You don’t need to think about what you managed to finish today, what you’ll need to do tomorrow, in 3 hours, 10 minutes from now.  Living life here and now, the complete opposite of taking life for granted.

These cookies are an example of living life here and now.  Listen to the sound of your bags and cups and spoons, feel the cool, yielding dough, notice the jewel tones of your jelly.  Inhale the sweet, warm breath from the oven when you take them out.  Crisp, buttery cookies, tender within and topped with tart raspberry jelly, they’re also tiny.  Each batch only makes around 20 cookies.  Pay attention, or they’ll be gone, and you, too, will wonder where they all went.

Start with many...

Jelly Cookies recipe borrowed from my boyfriend’s father
Makes about 20 cookies

1 cup 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
cup sugar
½ cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1 egg yolk
½ teaspoon vanilla extract*
About ¼ cup jelly of choice (I loved the raspberry I used here)

1 medium or large mixing bowl
1 wooden spoon (for creaming butter and sugar)
1 rubber spatula (for scraping bowl)
cup dry measure
1 cup dry measure
½ teaspoon measure
1 tablespoon measure
2 cookie sheets (I made do with 1, in two batches)
Parchment paper for lining


1. Cream the butter and sugar, then add the egg yolk and vanilla.  Mix in the flour until the dough forms a nice, cohesive ball.

2. Refrigerate for at least a half hour.**

3. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.  Preheat the oven to 350°F and roll the dough into balls with indents.  I happen to think they look like little bowls.  Fill each indent with about a half teaspoon of jelly.

4. Place them on the prepared cookie sheet/s about 2 inches apart (they expand a little) and bake for about 10-15 minutes. 

5. Allow to cool briefly, then enjoy!  Cool them completely on a wire rack, if you can prevent yourself from munching them all as they come out of the oven :)

Beautiful little indulgences.
* I would love to substitute with almond extract, particularly with raspberry, peach or cherry jelly. 
** The dough can probably be left in the fridge for a few days without harm. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Better Than Drugs - Cheese Straws

Never allow me to buy cheese crackers again.  These were so simple, so easy to work with, so quick to form and bake and so darned delicious that I cannot imagine simply purchasing cheese crackers again.  Hydrogenated oil, too much salt, a sour taste that makes me wonder if the crackers went bad?  No thanks.  I'd rather these instead, a light, crispy, buttery, cheese-speckled, mildly garlicky and thoroughly addictive snack.  Only five ingredients, and the dough came together in a moment.  I didn’t have a rolling pin, and that didn’t matter.  I just patted it into rectangles, cut and baked, and out came these dreamy little treats.  

Unbaked, they were amazingly easy to handle.  Afterwards, they were sturdy; not a single one broke in transit.
Deb of Smitten Kitchen published the recipe back in 2009, and I only realized the day I wanted to make them that they required a food processor.  Luckily they turned out just fine using my little knife to chop the cheddar shreds extra fine and my hands to form the dough.  I decided on adding garlic at the last moment.  I wasn’t sure that black pepper was the best choice for cheddar, and I had no red pepper flakes.  I also wanted a flavor that was distinctive and complemented the cheddar, but without overwhelming it.  I’m pleased to announce that it was a good decision.

Cheese Straws adapted from Smitten Kitchen
Makes about 40 short straws (About 4 inches long)

1½ cups shredded cheese*
3 cloves garlic, peeled
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, softened**
¾ cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt

Sharp knife and cutting board
1 medium bowl
¼ teaspoon measure
¼ cup dry measure
½ cup dry measure
Flour to dust work surface
Cookie sheets and parchment paper to line (I used 1, and baked in two batches)


1. Finely chop the shredded cheese and finely mince the garlic cloves.  Toss the cheese and garlic into the medium bowl.

2. Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Line a cookie sheet (or 2) with parchment paper.

3. Add the butter, flour and salt to the cheese and garlic.  Using your fingers, rub the whole delightful mess together until it forms a dough. 

4. Dusting the cutting board or a nice, clean, flat surface with a little flour, roll or pat the dough into a rectangle (I had a small surface, so I worked in batches).  Using a sharp knife, cut the rectangle into strips and gently lay on the cookie sheet.  If the strips break, they can be patched together without harm.   

5. Bake the cheese straws at 350°F for about 12-15 minutes, until lightly toasted.  Cool them completely, and try not to eat them all right away.  Enjoy!

I can just imagine munching these during finals week; they're little crunches of happiness.  Food for thought :)

*Deb originally called for extra-sharp cheddar.  I had some mild cheddar that I’m convinced was made by mistake, it was so bland, and used a mixture of half mild and half sharp cheddar.  I’m betting pepper jack would be amazing.

**I used salted.  It worked just fine as I reduced the salt to ¼ teaspoon.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The One - Banana Muffins

With bioelectricity homework due tomorrow, I'm starting to flip out a touch.  I barely understand circuits, have not yet managed a single class without falling asleep (the late afternoon time slot doesn't help) and worry about my other classes while concentrating hard to understand the professor.  In addition, there is an analysis due Wednesday that requires software only available in the biomedical engineering lab, which closes at 5:00pm, and I have classes just about all day tomorrow.  Not to mention that biofluids homework is due soon, and I spent all today working on research and robotics....  

Let me take a break.  I'd rather briefly dream about the banana muffins I made, last night.  I made these for breakfast and snacks this week, and I must say, they're quite worth a dream or two.

This is it.  I've found it.  I've been looking for it since the very beginning, and I finally have it.  My one, the banana muffin.  Not the banana loaf, since it doesn't quite have the crusty top I'm still looking for, but this is the muffin.  Soft throughout, not too greasy, full of banana flavor (that my bananas were generously brown-speckled didn't hurt, either) and improved with time.  I've tried this recipe before, but I used softened rather than melted butter.  This time, I went back to the original recipe at Simply Recipes, having once again found it from 17 and Baking.  These banana muffins are beautiful and simple, and there is nothing more to say.

Banana Muffins slightly tweaked from Simply Recipes
Makes about 12 muffins

3 ripe bananas
cup butter, melted
¾ cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 teaspoons cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
1½ cups all-purpose flour

1 large mixing bowl
1 fork for mashing bananas (optional)
1 rubber spatula
¼ teaspoon measure
1 teaspoon measure
½ cup measure
12 cupcake liners or butter and flour for your pan


1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Butter the cupcake pan.  I actually buttered and floured my pans, which worked great.  However, it was messy and wasted a fair amount of time and flour, and depending on how much time I had, I would really just butter.

2. Mash the bananas* and mix them with the melted butter.  Add the sugar, egg, baking soda, vanilla, cinnamon and salt and mix until thoroughly combined.

3. Add the flour and gently fold just until there are no streaks of flour left.

4. Fill each cupcake cup almost all the way up and bake at 350°F for about 20 minutes.  Allow to cool for about 5 minutes, then cool them completely on a wire rack.  Enjoy! 

Note:  I microwaved the butter to melt it first, then used a fork to mash the bananas.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Desperation Bread - Cornmeal Cakes

Over the past two weeks, I've slowly settled into my beautiful apartment.  I'm getting used to cooking for myself, living twice as far from campus as before, and timing my life to the somewhat unstable bus schedules.  Last night, I even helped my friend to make dinner, surrounded by more friends in their apartment.  The stew was spiced and stuffed with vegetables, followed by a perfect pasta dish with sauce made by yet another friend.  We finished with a famous pumpkin pie and vanilla whipped cream made by my boyfriend's father.

One thing I'm not used to, however, is not being able to buy food whenever I like.  With a meal plan on campus, all manner of emergency edibles are available to you.  These items can be bought for cash as well, but I am loath to pay so much for mediocre quality.  In particular, bread.  I’ve learned to bake soft and fluffy Chinese bakery bread, and have since become reluctant to eat simple carbohydrates that I don’t love.  Bagels from NYC (even the airport) overshadow any from the grocery store, and the plastic-bagged limp loaves whimper rather than speak to me.  Sadly for my bread cravings, though, I had run out of flour the day before.  Unwilling to give up and inspired by my corn muffins the weekend before, I started to fiddle.  

Bright and sunny cornmeal always makes me a little happy.

Cooked like pancakes, these little patties are crisp outside and barely tender within.  They’re very sturdy and hard to overcook, since they’re pretty dry to begin with.  However, they’re crumbly and a little hard to handle until cooked.  I made them on Thursday, again last night and once again this morning to photograph, and I think I’ve come up with something edible that doesn’t require a lot of ingredients or time.  They don’t keep very well, drying out a little and losing their crisp edge, but I would definitely still eat them (after a full day of classes, a remarkable number of things are appreciable).  I think they’d be great just crumbled and toasted like cereal, actually.  I’ll try this out as soon as my cereal runs out.

Cornmeal Cakes straight from the flames of It’s on Fire!!!
Makes around 6 tablespoon cakes

1 tablespoon salted butter, melted (if using unsalted, add a pinch of salt)
½ cup cornmeal
¼ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons milk

1 small mixing bowl
1 fork for mixing
¼ teaspoon measure
1 teaspoon measure
1 tablespoon measure
½ cup measure
1 frying pan (I used my small pot, since, um, it’s the only item I have)
1 frying spatula
Oil or butter for frying


1. Melt the butter, probably in the bowl in the microwave.

2. Mix in the cornmeal, baking powder and sugar.  Add the milk and mix completely. 

3. Heat the pan to medium and add some oil or butter to heat.

4. Pack the tablespoon measure with the cornmeal mixture and gently drop into the hot oil.  Press lightly with the spatula to flatten if desired.  Allow to cook for one minute, then flip and cook for two more minutes.  Enjoy while hot!

They make a good quick breakfast when you're running out the door.
Note: The cakes may fall apart.  At that point, I think they’re best used as cereal.