Russian Tea Cakes for Women in Physics

This year I have joined the organizing committee for the Women in Physics (WiP) group.  We do things like ordering food for large groups of people to eat while they watch a movie or play games.  Occasionally we make people bring their own food, but given the lower attendance of such events, we try to provide at least a little enticement.  Our most recent addition to the WiP lineup is a weekly lunch with the ladies out in the bright sunshine, and since no one would come more than once if there were no free food involved, I volunteered to make cookies, every week.  While having an excuse to bake cookies every week is a reward by itself (because who in their right mind can resist tasting the batter, and then eating a test cookie just to make sure that bottle of arsenic wasn’t accidentally put back next to the vanilla). I also get reimbursed for all baking expenses.  Yeeesssssssss… you see the beauty of the situation: I bake as many cookies as my little heart desires, I don’t have to eat all of them, but I get to eat some of them, and now I have a whole cupboard filled with WiP-subsidized baking supplies.  It’s like my own little bakery.  In my kitchen.  And the cookies are free.

We are now on week 4 of WiP lunch in the sun.  Weeks 1 and 2 were my favorite chocolate chip cookies that I actually made all by myself this time (usually Peter makes them even when they are for something entirely unrelated to him, such as astrophysics journal club) and week 3 was peanut butter cookies.  This week is a flaky, nutty cookie that certainly scales well in the subtle category.  I followed the recipe from Smitten Kitchen but added some salt because the raw cookie dough tasted a little bland.

Russian Tea Cakes
1 cup butter (2 sticks) at room temperature
1/2 cup powdered sugar for the dough plus 1 – 1.5 cups for covering the cookies
2 teaspoons vanilla extract or Gran Marnier
2 cups white flour
1/2 teaspoon salt or less to taste
1 cup raw walnuts, toasted in the oven for 5-10 minutes and ground to a coarse meal

Make the dough:  Mix the butter until it has a nice smooth consistency.  Add the 1/2 cup of powdered sugar and vanilla or Gran Marnier and mix with the butter.  Add the flour and salt and mix until smooth.  Add the nuts and again mix until smooth.  Wrap the dough in plastic wrap or parchment paper in a block shape and refrigerate the batter for about 30 minutes so that it can be easily rolled into cookies.

Make the cookies:  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  I had to bake the cookies in two batches, so cut the cold dough in half and start with that.  Roll the dough into balls about an inch in diameter.  This is easily done by cutting the block of dough into slices and cutting these slices into even pieces and rolling each piece into a ball.  Leave about 2 inches between the cookies as they will expand slightly when baked.  Bake the cookies for 16-18 minutes until golden on the bottom and only slightly golden on top.  Let the cookies cool for 5 minutes on the baking sheet and then roll each one in the 1 – 1.5 cups of powdered sugar.  This is messy work.  Let the powdered-sugar-rolled cookies cool on a cookie rack.

Homemade Ricotta

Our local Co-op is so tiny that occasionally they don’t sell out their dairy and meat products before the expiration date.  This is a lovely thing, because a few days before the expiration date the products are put on sale for half-off.  Want to try that expensive cheese?  How about the organic bacon?  Or milk!  Wait, what?  Normally buying older milk would be down there on my crazy list with luring bunnies into my garden, but then it occurred to me that a $6 gallon of organic milk half-off is about the price of ricotta cheese.

Suffice it to say that experiment #1 was a failure: 1% milk was purchased instead of whole milk, and I neglected to account for the inherent increase in acidity in older milk when deciding how much vinegar to add.  The result?  A tasteless mass of “cheese product” that was even squeakier than cheese curds and was so densely packed together as to be most easily cut with a knife instead of scooped with a spoon.  Like all good scientists however, instead of giving up, I hypothesized the above-mentioned problem areas and went about trying to make ricotta again.  This time it was whole milk and I added only 3 tablespoons of white vinegar to the gallon of salted milk, which is how much it took for the curdling to commence.  The whole process was, I hesitate to say “fun”, um, satisfying? But I will most likely be buying my ricotta pre-made from now on (until I learn how to make mozzarella and can actually make ricotta as the cheese by-product it’s supposed to be).

What does one do with 3 cups of ricotta?  Chocolate ricotta puddings and lasagna of course!

Homemade Ricotta
(about 3 cups)
1 gallon of milk (16 cups)
1 teaspoon salt (or less if you plan to use the ricotta for sweet things)
3 tablespoons of white vinegar or more if milk is fresh

Put the milk and salt into a large pot and slowly bring the milk to a simmer on medium heat.  This will take a while.  Also, be warned: when the milk first starts to simmer it will sort of explode out of the pot if you don’t stir it immediately and turn the heat down a little, so babysit the milk once it actually reaches a temperature where it’s started to steam.  Once the milk has reached the simmer point add the vinegar 1 tablespoon at a time, giving the milk a stir after each one.  Once the milk starts to form little dense curdles of cheese you can stop adding vinegar and just wait for the curdling to finish.  Use a finely slotted spoon to fish out the curdled cheese and put it in a fine-mesh strainer or strainer lined with cheese cloth.  Let the cheese sit for 10 minutes or so in the strainer before moving it to a bowl or storage container.  The internets tell me that homemade ricotta lasts about 3 days in the fridge, but I made mine into pudding and lasagna almost immediately (after eating some with a spoon first).

Nectarine Jam

Now that I have successfully canned my first jam, there’s no going back.  No more cursing myself for moving across the country only because I no longer go back to school with cans of strawberry freezer jam from a certain birthday buddy on the East Coast.  No more looking lustily at the $6-8 half-pints of homemade jam at the farmer’s market and lying awake considering how much money I’d have to make before that’s not just ridiculous.  I won’t lie, canning is one of those things that requires a t-shirt and shorts, some really peppy music, and a cold drink that, ideally, doesn’t take up too much space on the counter (if you, too, have a miniscule kitchen).  In my favorite lazy move of late, I decided to make my first jam out of nectarines because, unlike peaches, they don’t have to be peeled.  Peeling fruit is like ironing, it’s great if someone else does it for you, but is not something I ever do for myself.

If you don’t want to actually can some jam you can do the whole shebang in 40 minutes and put the jam in small containers in the freezer.  Since I save my freezer space for important things like bacon, chicken stock, cookies, 4 pounds of butter, ice cubes, and the odd bag of bread crumbs, I’ll leave freezer jam to someone else.

Nectarine Jam
(Makes 6-7 half-pint jars of jam)
4 pounds of ripe nectarines* pitted and chopped
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

For cooking the jam:  In a large pot, mix the chopped nectarines, sugar, and lemon juice.  Bring the mixture to a simmer on medium heat and cook for about 25 minutes or until the juice has reached a more syrupy consistency, but the nectarines still hold some shape.  Since there’s no extra gelling agent the jam will stay loose.  You can test whether the juice has become syrupy enough by putting a dab on a plate that’s been cooled in the freezer.  Put the plate with dab of jam on it in the freezer for a minute; the jam should become a bit thicker.

For canning the jam: Follow the directions for canning from the dilly beans post.  You will need to prepare 7 half-pint canning jars.  Make sure to use new flat lids so that they seal properly.  Leave 1/4 inch of space at the top of the jars after filling them with the jam.  Process the filled jars of jam for 5 minutes in the water bath.

*Ripe nectarines can still feel rather firm and will have just a bit of give.  After feeling up and then cutting open 4 pounds of nectarines, I would say that large obvious soft spots are not a good thing but a slight overall softness is ideal.

A little bit of green

While Europe was fun, it’s good to be home.  Since we’ve been back, there’s been ferocious cooking of vegetables and eating of fresh fruit.  And when we’re not working, cooking, or re-watching all of 30 Rock, there’s the garden.  Oh the garden.  It was a bit depressing to return to little more than a patch of weeds more than half of the way through the summer.  After a constant stream of blisters, however (and some help from my parents while they were visiting last week), things are returning to normal.

There’s still so much to do before the end of the summer: make ketchup, pickle cucumbers and green beans, and dry mint for tea.  This morning I got a start on the last one by finally eradicating one of the mint patches in my garden.  Mint is ferocious.  I decided to plant squash  in its place just in case the mint comes back from the dead, since squash just needs room to spread out its leaves.  Now the mint is hanging in bunches by the back window after a good washing.  Mwahahahahha.

I’ve never collected dried beans from the garden before, but these ones in light green and dark purple were so pretty that I couldn’t control myself and I spent way too long shelling them while everyone else was busy digging.  I’m not sure what kind of bean they are.  My guess is fava beans, but I’ve never seen purple favas before.  Karina planted them in the beginning of the summer and they ripened in July while we were gone.

Paris, finally!

I wish I could have posted these photos while we were still in Paris, but the hotel we stayed at was under construction.  I mean this quite literally.  The internet was only available in the “lobby”, a temporary space between the staircase up to our room and the front door.  More like a maze, really.  And from the other side of the temporary wall came all manner of construction noises, worst being the electric saw.  Or maybe it was a jackhammer.  I’m just going to admit right here that I am actually completely ignorant when it comes to construction noises.

While the view from the front of the Notre Dame is probably more famous (we all saw that Disney movie, didn't we?) the back is altogether prettier, and I almost think more impressive. Plus, there aren't hundreds of tourists ruining the view. And did I mention that the French Gardens are lovely? I resisted the temptation to put in at least five other photos of various gardens. You can thank me later.

Many of my favorite photos from Paris of either of the Notre Dame (as in this case) or nearby (the following photo). Perhaps it's because these are some of the only shots where cars and people don't get in the way. I always wonder whether there are photos of me floating around where I'm just another tourist in other people's photos. If only facebook had face-recognition software to connect us again.

Both sides of this bridge were covered in locks with people's initials on them. How romantic!  There were also ribbons (less permanent) and at least one bike lock too.

Apart from the modest accommodations, the hotel location was pretty much perfect.  We took an overnight train from Florence to Paris, so by the time we arrived at 11am, I was ready to reach our final location.  Fortunately, the hotel was a mere block from one of the largest metro stops in downtown Paris.  If only we didn’t walk in the wrong direction for a block or two first.

This meal consisted mainly of meat and cream. Not my favorite combination, but everything was tasty, albight a bit heavy, nonetheless. The plate of meat is finely sliced veal. The bowl of what looks like a cappuccino is a sort of creamy chestnut soup that was scrumpious as a dip for the bread.

We bought metro tickets and never really used them because, for the most part, the weather was so fantastic that there was no reason not to walk.  I had a Paris bucket list, and completed almost everything:

  • See the Louvre.  Here’s a life-saving tip: buy your tickets at one of the large metro stations (like the one conveniently one block from our hotel).  There was no line to get inside the Louvre with pre-bought tickets.  I repeat, no line.  Outside in the hot sun people lined up for hundreds of feet outside the glass pyramids, sweating, and looking rather miserable.  Unfortunately, I did not complete the other museum on my bucket list, the Museum de Orsay, because we did not buy tickets first and I flatly refused to get sunburned waiting to get into a nice air-conditioned building filled with art where I would promptly fall asleep.
  • See the Eiffel tower.  Given my disdain for standing in lines, we did not attempt to walk or take the elevator to the top.  We did walk around the gardens nearby and ate our lunch under the tower’s shade.  It threatened thunder storms the whole way back to our hotel.
  • See the Notre Dame.  I won’t lie, it was a bit of a let-down after the Duomo in Florence, as I tend to prefer colorful artsy to dreary grey.  However, as I didn’t get to see inside the Duomo and I did get to see inside the Notre Dame, it may get bonus points.
  • Find a number of delicious looking restaurants and bakeries from various food blogs.  E.g. du Pains et des Idées (bakery with rum raisin snails that made me seriously consider becoming an ex-pat), L’As Du Fallafel (dare I need to explain that one must order the falafel?), and Breizh Cafe (Breton crepes and cider).  Plus another restaurant, Les Enfants Perdus, where the waiters were attentive and the music was in English and Bob Dylan-esc.  Pretty classic.  Or maybe I was just missing home by that point.
  • See the catacombs.  Epic fail.  But that’s ok, because instead we saw the Luxembourg gardens.

Token photo of the Louvre. Notice all the people standing around outside the pyramids. That was not us. We went in the secret entrance for people with tickets. Perhaps they could improve their labeling (the secret entrance was hard to find), or maybe I just need to learn French. Either way, it was a brilliant choice for a hot sunny afternoon (not that you could tell from the clouds).

We caught four (!) glimpses of the Tour de France as it circled the garden next to the Louvre. The tour circles the garden something like nine times, but we only stayed for four of them because it was so hot, and we had no idea what color went with which person. The excitement was contagious though. I don't often cheer for sports I know nothing about, but when you're in Paris and it's the tour de France, why not?

There is still so much left to see, and perhaps more importantly to eat, but I have no plans to stay safely in California forever, now that I have finally hopped across the pond.

A rum raisin snail and apricot-filled something or other from du Pains et des Idées.  The rum raisin snails were my favorite pastry for the duration of our stay.  We probably ate one daily.  The snails from this bakery were the best.  The rum finally came through.

This building wins the award for prettiest exterior. I guess I just like plants. Notice the Eiffel Tower in the background.

From the bottom looking up, and not from the top looking down. The Eiffel tower was impressive, but I think my greatest appreciation is for the majestic and unique skyline it provides from a bit further away.

The View from Tuscany

The rest of the details of our July trip to Europe are long overdue.  To begin, a couple more photos of Italy.  My real reason for being in Florence was to do a bit of work with an astronomer there.  The view from the observatory where we worked was lovely; on one side Florence was spread out below, including the omnipresent Duomo (the feature that guarantees you don’t get lost while walking around the city). And on the other side, the Tuscan countryside rolls all the way to the horizon, complete with ancient monastery in the distance and a recreation of a middle ages castle being built by rich Americans on the next hill over.  I could have stayed there forever.

The view from the observatory with telescope domes in the morning sun.

For some reason, on the road up to the observatory, there was a tent surrounded by 5 or 6 cats. Every morning they were there, sunning themselves in the bright light, and every afternoon when I walked down the hill again they were gone. I like to think it was an orphanage for abandoned kitties, but I'm really not sure what was going on there.

View from the observatory in another direction, including olive trees, old Tuscan buildings, and far-away hills in the blinding morning light.

There is only one thing I regret from our entire trip in Europe: not having enough time to return to the fanciest restaurant we dined at in Florence to have another dish of fresh buffalo mozzarella.  This mozzarella was beyond words.  We were served two round soft-looking white pieces, each about the size of a child’s fist.  The outside of each mozzarella ball had a thin skin that kept the whole magical creation together, but the inside melted into a creamy heaven.  Somehow the creaminess was light enough to eat plain, and for once the perfectly ripe cherry tomatoes didn’t steal the show (always a risk with me).