Thursday, June 9, 2011

English, Prison, and Cookies... OH MY!

My favorite class of my last semester was a very unusual one. While it was technically titled English 326,Community Writing and Public Culture — The Portfolio Project was anything but your typical English class.

In addition to weekly seminars that never failed to produce stimulating and unique group discussions, every member of the 14-person class partnered up with an incarcerated youth or high school student from East Detroit to work on a creative writing or art portfolio. We all also joined the Prison and Creative Arts Project (PCAP), an organization dedicated to bringing creative outlets to youth facilities and prisons.

Through this course and student organization duo, I met some of the most selfless and inspiring individuals I have ever met. I was exposed to the criminal justice system for the first time when I paired up with a 17-year-old youth at a juvenile facility outside of Detroit. I “gallery-sat” and helped watch over and sell beautiful works of art created by many very talented prisoners.

Throughout the semester, aside from our work with the youths, our only other assignments were weekly readings and journal responses to either the reading or our work. The final project of the semester was a to create something creative that would capture the experience and its effect on us. Thinking of the many baking blogs I was already following, I knew this was the perfect opportunity to try my hand at one of the decorating techniques I was equally fascinated and frightened by — decorating cookies with royal icing.

I obsessively read and re-read everything I could find about decorating with royal icing. Three blogs were most informative:  bakeat350, iambaker, and sweetopia. All three offer incredibly helpful tutorials, tips, and recipes.

I decided my cookies would each feature one word that related to my portfolio class and/or PCAP. I then formulated a list a words, deleted or replaced all words that seemed too long (and too difficult for a novice decorator to write on a cookie), and put the list aside to start making my cookies.

To make up for my total lack of supplies — no rolling pin or cookie cutters, I used a plastic cup to roll out my dough AND cut out circles! I shaped the rest of the cookies with a knife.

Rolling out dough with a Relay for Life cup!
The baked cookies also had to dry on a makeshift cooling rack: a ripped up paper bag spread out on the second oven rack.

The next day I made a batch of royal icing following the simplest recipe I could find and filled up a piping bag. Th
en, I very slowly and nervously started to outline my cookies. Little by little, I became comfortable with what I was doing and the fear faded away and I started having a lot of fun piping lines around the cookies’ edges.

Look at that intense concentration!
When I finished outlining, I poured the unused icing back into the mixing bowl and thinned it with another tablespoon of water. This icing went into a plastic squeeze bottle and was used to flood the cookies. Then the leftover icing went into the mixing bowl yet again where it was dyed sky blue and then used to fill the remaining spaces in the cookies. There has got to be an easier way to do this!

On the third day of the PCAP cookie decorating extraordinaire, I unsuccessfully tried to use the thinned out sky blue day old icing to draw designs on a couple of cookies. It didn’t take me very long to realize this wasn’t working, but I had run out of powdered sugar and none of the convenience stores within walking distance carried any — Disaster!

When I finally got my hands on some more powdered sugar and made a fresh batch of sky blue royal icing, I drew on the words and remaining pictures and then they were done! Here are a few completed cookies:


I presented my project following a potluck dinner with the class at our professor’s house — I told you this wasn’t an ordinary English class! My talented classmates’ projects included poetry, music, art, and chocolate ├ęclairs. I presented each of my cookies with a brief explanation for the word or picture choice (i.e. courage because the work that we do isn’t easy and we need it) and let everyone take home a cookie of their choice.

Here is my professor with his favorite cookie from the bunch — Balance

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