Leaving the College Cafeteria Behind


Photo by Foodistablog/Flickr CC

To try wonton plum shortcakes, click here for the recipe.

I did a lot of cooking this summer. The goal: being able to decently feed my housemates and myself this year at college, now that we'll have a kitchen with more than a mini-fridge and microwave. The past three years I've been eating at Vassar's two dining halls (with the occasional in-room can of tuna or cup o'noodles). Both are good, probably better than most college cafeterias, but cafeterias anywhere can only provide so much. Eating out options are pretty decent, too (and have gotten better over the past few years, as some restaurants have expanded, or moved closer to Vassar), but that can get expensive, and without any real grocery stores nearby, the options become limited.

That's one reason I was looking forward so much to living in the senior housing, where apartments come with their own kitchens. The other reason--aside from a vague and pretty formless desire to eat a healthier variety of stuff--is just that I really love good food. Vassar seems to have a fair-sized population of fellow food lovers (I've heard rumors of a campus recipe-sharing website, and the do-it-yourself stir-fry station in one of the cafeterias was always popular), which makes it even more fun when people actually want to hear about the things you've cooked or come over for dinners.

When I was home this summer, my mom told me to eat all the extra fruit lying around the kitchen before it rotted, so I decided to make some desserts. One night earlier in the week I'd made an Asian chicken salad with wonton crisps for dinner. So with uncooked wonton sheets left in the fridge, while scanning through the results on the Food Network for "plum" (a randomly picked in-season fruit) and "dessert", I decided to take a look at the recipe for the odd-sounding Wonton Plum Shortcakes.

It's one thing to have a million delis and grocery stores only blocks away at home in Brooklyn, but at school the nearest Stop & Shop is a drive away, pretty much out of reach without a car.

On the way home from an afternoon in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, I stopped in Park Slope so I could pick up some very ripe black plums from a bodega on 5th Avenue. We had everything else--the recipe is shockingly simple--and so that night while Mom and Dad were making dinner I set to trying this out. Within maybe 10 minutes, tops, I had everything set and ready to put together when we were done with the main course.

Things kept occurring to me during the whole prep time--how little space we'd probably have once I got to school, and how we'd have to make sure to get staples that are always there at home (vanilla extract or flour) and a very established pantry. I could only hope we'd have a fridge. It was also funny having to consider other people's tastes. I'm lucky to be living with friends who all eat fairly similarly, with at least one exception: My whole family loves olives, but two of my housemates hate them. I was sure even something like what brand of a product to buy--Hellman's vs. Miracle Whip, say--would also expose differences.

Also, it's one thing to have a million delis and grocery stores only blocks away at home in Brooklyn, but at school the nearest Stop & Shop is a drive away, pretty much out of reach without a car--which neither I nor my roommates have. On the plus side, I was looking forward to being able to take full advantage, finally, of the farmer's market on the Vassar campus every Thursday--all the produce that wouldn't have made sense to buy before is now going to be a nice addition to the fridge.

Time is also a consideration--as of now my roommates and I have decided on each cooking one dinner for everyone a week on whichever day works best, and then having people fend for themselves or rely on leftovers for other meals. When one of us is constantly at dance rehearsals, the other at literary magazine meetings, and yet another commuting in and out of New York City two days a week for an internship, more than one night a week might get tough.

When I brought the plates out to my parents at the table, it felt and looked as if I'd really made some sort of chi-chi dessert, as opposed to cutting up some fruit and squishing it between baked, week-old wontons. It also tasted good. The plums were really fresh and a little tart, and the spicy sweetness of the ground ginger played off their flavor well; the wontons were thin enough to provide crisp without overwhelming the dessert with biscuit-y chewiness, and the whipped cream tasted excellent homemade (I'm rarely a fan of it), with a hint of vanilla. The contrasts--cold and warm, soft and crunchy--all came together well.

I did change a few things from the recipe. I ended up letting the plum slices "marinate" in the sugar and ground ginger, and then at the end drizzled some of the mixed up sugar/ginger/plum juice on top of the last layer of whipped cream--it looked nice and helped bring out the ginger flavor. I also replaced some of the white sugar with brown (I tend to prefer its flavor). One minor issue I had concerned the crispiness of the wontons--I don't know whether I brushed too much butter on them or didn't bake them long enough, but in the future I won't let the recipe's fast-burn warning scare me quite as much.

It's such an exceedingly uncomplicated recipe that it feels like it could sustain any number of variations--the addition of chopped walnuts or honey came to mind. It certainly satisfied my need for something sweet, not that it stopped me from baking a peach and blueberry pie two days later. I've since had the opportunity to make the recipe at school, and found that it was just as easy, minus a few minor hiccups.

The first batch of wontons crisped too quickly, and by the second batch we'd run out of butter. I had to use a little olive oil as a replacement. The plums were also a little under-ripe, so I tried adding a little more sugar and letting them sit a bit longer. Also, if I hadn't brought my electric whisker with me, I'm sure I wouldn't have bothered making the whipped cream, and would have tried to buy some instead. Nevertheless, in terms of the time and effort involved as compared to the outcome, there couldn't be anything simpler.