Cooking the Books – Ina Garten’s Make It Ahead

Oh, Ina, if there was a way to live your life.

Zucchini tart

For April, we picked the Barefoot Contessa Make It Ahead cookbook. Let me say first that there’s a reason Ina’s built the reputation she has–her recipes work, and they are delicious. They may not test the bounds of kitchen creativity, but there’s definitely value in a recipe for perfectly cooked beef tenderloin or a not-watery vegetable lasagna, especially if you’re looking for a centerpiece dish for a party. If you have a house in the Hamptons, friends coming over to play bridge, and just stepped out to get a bouquet of freshly cut flowers from your best friend the florist, so much the better.

Sangria is served

Jeffrey approves
Jeffrey’s going to love this!

That said, I–we–definitely had some gripes with this book. First, the majority of the recipes seem to have been repurposed from other Barefoot Contessa cookbooks. This wouldn’t a big issue except these recipes were so obviously shoehorned into the “make ahead” concept and not always in a way that made sense.

The one I kept shaking my head at was her version of bouillabaisse. The recipe instructs you to make stock (which can be refrigerated up to a day, though the recipe isn’t exactly clear at which step your stock is done) and then, 30 minutes before serving, reheating the stock and adding all of the other ingredients. That’s just…making soup.

When I’m looking for a “make ahead” recipe, I want one that can be made completely a day or more ahead (or only needs a simple garnish or a component like rice or noodles) and is either as good or better the next day. This book has those kind of recipes–the noodle pudding she describes as “a mash-up of kugel and spanikopita,” which I could have eaten a pan of by myself, chicken pot pies, even the herb-roasted fish that you can assemble completely in single-serving packets a day in advance.

Noodle pudding
Chicken liver mousse

But the oddest recipes were ones like the roasted cauliflower snowflakes where the make ahead component is just cutting up a head of cauliflower, or the cream of wheat that has you combine milk, sugar, and maple syrup, refrigerate it, then reheat it when you’re ready to actually make cream of wheat. It’s not that these recipes don’t sound good–I adore roasted cauliflower and cream of wheat is one of my favorite winter Sunday breakfasts–they just seem forced into the make ahead concept.

Someone's waiting for a treat
Lemon-ginger molasses cake

Several of the recipes also bordered on too salty. This is a difficult critique since I think most people (including me) under-season their food, but there is nothing more frustrating than spending an hour on a recipe, filling a sink full of dishes, taking a bite of your creation…and needing to follow it with a glass of water. Just watch the salt in her recipes.

Happy group

There are some great recipes, though, as long as you ignore that they’re supposed to be “make ahead.” And you’re not on a diet–more power to her, Ina does not cower in the face of butter, eggs, or cheese.

This is what we made:

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Macerated Oranges

All credit due to Chicago (and possibly global warming?), we barely had anything that qualifies as winter this year. A few days below freezing, a couple inches of snow–I only had to chip ice off my car once! I’m certainly not complaining (though watch us get a freak snowstorm next week).

Even so, by this time of year I am desperate for any fruit that 1) is not an apple and 2) actually tastes like something. Convenient then that just about every conceivable type of citrus is at its peak just in time to get me through to spring.

Sunny recipe for a sunny day
Lots of citrus and my new favorite knife

This recipe for oranges sweetened with sugar and soaked in their own juice, which I discovered flipping through Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking last month, is not only my ideal (and necessary) dose of vitamin C come mid-winter, it’s my new go-to dessert for a dinner party.

Naked oranges
Honey tangerines, blood oranges, and Cara-Cara oranges

I’ll be honest, most of the time when I have people over, dessert is at the bottom of my priority list. I can bake when I get a craving, but if I’m making dinner for friends, I’m focused on the main course. Finding a recipe that complements the rest of the menu, dealing with the intricacies of baking, and trying not to induce a food coma by the end of the meal? No thank you.

More oranges, and a growing pile of peels
Orange carcasses and their juice
No vitamin C deficiency here

These oranges, on the other hand, are dead simple and the most refreshing end to an indulgent meal. While it looks particularly pretty when you can mix up different colors and flavors of citrus (I used blood oranges, Cara-Cara oranges, and honey tangerines), it’s just as delicious with good, juicy, standard Navel oranges. Serve it alone or alongside a few biscotti to soak up the juice (or over a thin slice of Marcella Hazan’s ciambella). Perfection.

Perfect winter dessert

Macerated Oranges
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So long, 2015!

It’s been quite a year. More travel than I ever imagined, growing and cooking delicious food, taking (and teaching!) my first paella class, starting a new group of like-minded foodies…As December 31 comes to an end, here are a few of my favorite moments from the past year.

One of my favorite pictures of the trip
First crawfish boil in New Orleans in January.

Feathers fly

Beachy keen

The only acceptable icy slushy white stuff I want to see
The only acceptable cold slushy white stuff I want to see on a beach in Aruba in March.
Mashed and infused
Garden chive flower vinegar.
Sarma
My favorite meal this year–Sarma in Boston in April with some of my favorite people.
Paella, ready for eating
Barcelona paella class in May.

Sant Pau Hospital

Yes, the bottom rack is a little overdone
Slow-smoked ribs to kick off summer.
London calling
London calling.
Tower Bridge
London’s Tower Bridge in July.
Talking
Teaching a sold-out class in August.
Digging in
Sharing what I learned about paella in Barcelona with my class in Chicago.
Tomato season
Glut of garden tomatoes.

Start to finish Eiffel

Paris by night
Paris by night in August.
Good people and good stories
First meeting of Cooking the Books in November. Can’t wait for the next one in January!

And no reflection on the year would be complete without mentioning the passing of my grandpa. I think about him often and wonder who I’ll send my paczki to this year…

My grandparents

Cheers to an incredible year past and a promising new year to come!

Browned Butter Vanilla Ice Cream

Every year on November 1, the Internet collectively explodes in a shower of “new/favorite/best make-ahead pumpkin-apple-cranberry-turkey-roasted-vegetable-mashed-potatoes-oh-and-don’t-forget-the-cocktails” recipes. And almost every year, I’m about three weeks late on sharing anything for the holiday, but not this time! This time, I have ice cream. Ice cream…with butter in it. You’re welcome.

Browned butter ice cream

This is not just any ice cream, but my new favorite best ice cream that’s perfect alongside a slice of warm apple pie. And yes, you can make it ahead, though I can’t guarantee you won’t need to make a second batch before Thanksgiving. In fact, best be safe and plan on making two batches.

All you need for amazing ice cream

Can I confess something? As crazy as everyone goes over salted butter caramel, I wish it wasn’t so sweet. And was maybe a little more salty. And a smidge more buttery. This ice cream is all that. It’s that toasty, nutty, caramelized flavor I love from the butter (incidentally, the same flavor that makes these my favorite chocolate chip cookies and these my favorite brownies) but without the toothache. And with just a little bit of vanilla? Perfection.

Butter
Browned butter
Vanilla bean innards

And while I’m stirring the proverbial hornet’s nest, I’ll argue that this is better than even the best vanilla ice cream alongside apple (or any) pie. Vanilla ice cream is so often the default with dessert because the flavor is somewhat neutral and doesn’t compete with the pie for center stage; here, the browned butter actually complements and elevates the flavor of a perfectly browned pie crust and juicy, cinnamon-y apples (or pumpkin, pecan, sweet potato–whichever is your pie of choice come November 26).

When it comes to styles of ice cream, I prefer just milk, sugar, cream, and flavorings (aka Philadelphia-style, aka the style that Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream has made so popular) instead of the more common egg-based custard. This allows the flavor of really good milk and cream (and, in this case, really good butter) to stand out. Plus I don’t end up trying to uncurdle half a dozen egg yolks (vanilla scrambled eggs are decidedly un-tasty) or trying to figure out what to do with the half-dozen leftover egg whites.

Simmering
Thickened
Cream cheese
Blending

By the way, once you’ve melted the three sticks of butter and used the one tablespoon of butter solids in the ice cream, for the love of god and all that is holy, save the rest of the butter. It’s clarified butter (though with a slightly toastier flavor than what you’ll get in a jar at the store) and is spectacular in so many things. Like, oh, say, apple pie filling. Or a pan of roasting vegetables, or stirred into mashed potatoes. Or for basting your turkey. As if the ice cream itself wasn’t reason enough to make this, you have a great ingredient for the rest of your dinner too. You can thank me later.

Love this ice cream container
Perfect scoop
Browned butter ice cream

Browned Butter Vanilla Ice Cream Continue reading

Peach-Plum Pie + Extra Flaky Pie Crust

Out of all the season transitions, summer-to-fall seems to bring the most incongruous pairings at the market: peaches and pumpkins, corn and apples, blueberries and plums. But when I have a bunch of end-of-season peaches languishing in the fridge from the market two weeks ago and come home with a 30-pound bag of plums because, well, I’m me, I need to figure something out PDQ. It’s a good thing peaches and plums share common ground with all the good fall spices–cinnamon, cloves, brown sugar, brandy–in one of my favorite pies.

I love these colors
Peach-Plum pie

Any discussion of pie also has to include my new favorite pie crust. If there was a graph to measure the likelihood of pie based on “How badly I want pie” and “How much energy I want to spend” (…I had a whole witty thing here but it started to involve terms like “inverse proportionality” and “negative slope” and then I was looking for graph paper and made a literal pie chart in Excel and started debating if it was more appropriate as a bell curve and getting high school math class flashbacks. Let’s just pretend this paragraph was as infinitely clever as it was in my head. But I’m still including the pie chart.)

Pie chart

In any case, sometimes I’m just too lazy to get out eggs and vinegar and baking soda and ice and pastry cutter and a bowl, and then I don’t have pie (and for those who say “food processor!”, I hate cleaning the thing more than I like using it). And no pie on account of laziness is sad. This recipe is flour, butter, salt, water, a pastry board, and my hands and feels like markedly less effort. Less effort required=more pie.

Butter, lard, flour, water, salt
Butter, lard, flour
Flattened fats

The method is somewhere between traditional pie dough (cutting the butter into the flour until it’s in small bits that turn into small layers in the dough when it’s rolled out; also known as a short dough) and puff pastry dough (many, many thin layers of butter are created through many, many rounds of careful rolling, folding, and chilling; a.k.a. laminated dough).

Fraisage/short dough
Crumbles of butter, flour, and lard

In this process, big chunks of butter get mashed into the flour with your hand, creating large flakes (a variation on a technique called fraisage–my French lesson for the day) followed by a few rounds of rolling/folding to create more flaky layers. It’s even easy to work with as an all-butter crust, which has always given me trouble because the butter gets soft so quickly. I still like using a bit of lard in place of some of the butter for flavor, though.

Nice big butter piece
Laminating

The beauty of this method is that it’s nearly impossible to overwork, rolls out beautifully, and creates the flakiest pie crust I’ve ever had, a delicious, edible lovechild of traditional pie crust and puff pastry. Which is to say, it’s really, really good.

As for the filling, it’s is based on one of my favorites from a few years ago. Peaches were such an obvious addition that I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me sooner. As much as they’re a sign of summer, peaches are also the perfect fruit to transition to fall as they work so well with all the flavors associated with the season: cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cardamom, brown sugar, brandy. This recipe has them all, plus streusel. Everything is better with streusel.

This smells so good
Simmering
Sweet, spiced chutney to thicken the pie

For whatever reason, peaches and plums aren’t a fruit combination I see much, but it’s a shame as they work so well together. It’s definitely a pairing I’ll be using more often.

Pretty fall colors
This is going to be good
Peach-plum pie

(And as for that 30 pounds of plums? There’s been plum gin (of course), plum-vanilla vodka, Chinese plum sauce, pickled plums, plum jam, plum cake (more on that next week), and, of course, pie.)

Extra Flaky Pie Crust and Peach-Plum Pie Continue reading

Vive la Madeleine

What dessert or sweet treat defines Paris? The internet is littered with lists, debates rage, and more often than not, the macaron is crowned king (or queen, perhaps not an enviable role given Paris’ history). I would argue the madeleine, quietly observing from the wings, deserves its moment to shine.

A little bump

Delicious and beautiful and delicate as they are, macarons are also known for their fussiness and fanciness; they have a notorious reputation for tempermentality should you take on the challenge of making them yourself. Madeleines are confident in their simplicity, needing nothing more than a dusting of powdered sugar or basic sugar glaze.

Madeleine prep Lemon sugar

Madeleines, like Paris, have a bit of je ne sais quoi about them, just enough to make things interesting, but not intimidating if approached with the right attitude. Madeleines are, in fact, very approachable and not particularly complicated–you probably have every ingredient in your cupboard or fridge.

But they require a bit of dedication and a dedicated pan (madelelines are not madeleines if they’re baked in cupcake tins), a little patience, and some home-cook magic to create their iconic little bump. Madeleines also will not wait for you; once baked, their window of perfection is short, and it’s really best to cede to their schedule for the best experience–you’ll really be glad you did.

Whisk until right before your arm falls off Adding butter

The buttery, lemony, sweet little cakes themselves are pillow-soft but sturdy enough to stand up to a dunk in a cup of tea (memorably so, if Marcel Proust is any authority). If you look at a macaron sideways, its delicate shell might crack and crumble. The madeleines traditional shell shape is their one nod to decoration, but even that is relatively simple by necessity–too intricate and the detail is lost or they stick to the pan.

Flour-y shells Post rest

On the other hand, maybe the madeleine is best left out of the spotlight to be enjoyed by those who know what to look for. Maybe it doesn’t need a chain of ultra-high-end stores, fancy boxes, or a cult following, but just a pretty little plate and a pot of tea at a beat-up wooden table surrounded by friends and good conversation. Sounds like perfection to me.

Odd man outPerfect petite madeleines

And simply because no discussion of the madeleine would be complete without it:

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.

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Brownies for my Grandpa

Almost two weeks ago, my grandpa died. I’ve been debating writing about this for a lot of reasons, but if this blog is about anything other than food, it’s about family, and he was an important part of mine. It would be selfish of me not to share what I can of him with the world.

My grandparents

There are many, many things that made my grandpa a great man, but they can all be distilled down to one undeniable truth–he loved people, especially his family, and people loved him. Sometimes–well, let’s be honest, often–that love, and his sense of humor, was kind of goofy, a little teasing or sarcastic, possibly, occasionally crude (though never crass or dirty; he (almost) never swore), but always unique to him–even if the joke itself wasn’t unique. I wouldn’t be surprised if my grandma’s (lovingly) rolled her eyes at the same joke for the entire 63 years they were married.

Three weeks before he passed away was Paczki Day, Fat Tuesday. I hadn’t planned on making any, or shipping them overnight to Cleveland where there’s no shortage of good paczki to be had. Still I found myself frying up two dozen golden little donuts filled with my homemade jam that Sunday night, tucking them safely into boxes for their journey. My grandma brought one to my grandpa in the hospital, leaving instructions with his nurses to microwave it a little; paczki are better warm. She told me later that he called her that night to tell her to thank me and that it was delicious.

60th wedding anniversary

I was lucky enough to see him the next weekend and despite how simply not like my grandfather he looked–there’s something that twists your heart and makes you feel so old when you realize the people you always, always knew to be big and tall are not so much anymore–the eye-roll-inducing humor and good spirit remained, for which I could not be more grateful. We chatted for a bit and I asked again if he liked the paczki and he said he did, joking he gained four pounds just from one. I reminded him I could make and ship him anything he wanted, cookies, or maybe brownies. “Ooh, brownies…” My grandpa, as my mom later reminded me, loved chocolate.

Two weeks later, as I prepared for another trip to Cleveland, this time to be with my family and celebrate my grandfather’s life, his “Ooh, brownies” kept ringing in my ears. And so, again, I found myself in the kitchen mixing and baking when I should have been packing and sleeping. Somehow the brownies were more important than anything else at that moment. There’s comfort in sharing food with loved ones, especially during a hard time, but making and bringing those brownies with me was purely selfish–it was the last thing my grandpa asked me for and what kind of granddaughter with a food blog and a penchant for cooking for an army would I be if I didn’t deliver?

Nothing says love like fattening up your family

There isn’t enough time or space or simply the words to share my memories of him, but it’s the little things I keep thinking about and telling anyone who will listen. How he made me his specialty of bacon scrambled into eggs when I had chicken pox as a kid. How we’d always go out for Italian food when he and my grandma were in town and he’d always joke with the waiter about how he was on a fixed income before placing his usual order of veal parmesan and a glass of “white zin.” His voice in the back of my mind as my car crapped out the week he died: “You should’ve bought a GM. When’s the last time you got the oil changed? And maybe take it to the car wash once in a while.” The pride in his voice echoing through the hall as I walked across the stage to get my Master’s degree: “You go, girl!!”

My graduation

My sisters and I are so lucky, not only to have had him as an incredible grandfather and for the limitless love he gave us, but for how we’ve benefited from how he and my grandma raised their first born, my mom. My aunt said in her eulogy that my grandpa raised his daughters to be independent (and, among other essential life skills, to know the power of duct tape; how to use a lawnmower and a snow blower; and to appreciate a good power tool). Through my mom, how she’s lived her life, made her own way, my grandpa’s lesson came to me. I know he was so proud of her just as he was proud of me. And I could not be prouder to be his granddaughter.

Mom and Grandpa, dancing
Mom and Grandpa, dancing. He loved to dance.

Thanks, Grandpa. I made you some brownies.

Brownies with Walnuts
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Salted Pecan Squares with Bourbon and Chocolate

Believe it or not, there are actually two things better than eating a dessert that includes chocolate, nuts, and booze. One: using said dessert to help raise nearly $900 for a local food charity. Two: catching the look on this cutie’s face while she was chowing down on one.

Should I? Yep.

How did I learn this? The Hideout’s Soup and Bread dinner. Every Wednesday from January to the first day of spring for the past four years, The Hideout, a funky little bar and music venue in Chicago, hosts a community dinner where six or seven people (chefs and home cooks alike) each volunteer to make different kind of soup–the night I was there choices included roasted tomato, chicken and dumpling, sausage and artichoke, and French onion. The dinner is open to anyone and everyone, and is “pay-what-you-can” with the money going to that week’s chosen charity (usually food-related).

Circle of pecan bars

Since I couldn’t get there early enough to contribute a soup, I was happy to find out they welcomed other treats too. What better excuse to try a bar version of one of my favorite Christmas cookies? With bourbon. And chocolate. I found a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated that was perfect–a salty, nutty shortbread-ish crust topped with a gooey, caramel-y layer flavored with bourbon and vanilla and studded with pecans. As for the chocolate (my own variation), well, if you’re going to gild the lily, you may as well gild it with chocolate.

Crust is almost ready Whisking in the butter Three components

By the time I got to The Hideout around 6, dinner was in full swing and it was packed! I had no idea how many people to expect–20 maybe? It was nasty and snowy and just generally the beginning of February in Chicago and who wants to go out in that? A whole lot of people, it turns out, filling every seat in the place. It reminded me so much of big family dinners–everyone loud and happy and brought together by the promise of a good meal, the kind that warms you up from the inside out.

I barely had time to set my tins down before the bars started disappearing, and they were completely gone within the hour. People must have enjoyed them, if the woman who rolled down her car window and yelled “Your pecan bars were great!” at me as I was leaving was any indication (thank you lady in the car, that made my night!).

Pecan bars Soup and Bread at the Hideout Nothing like a bowl of soup on a snowy night

The best part though? To quote the email I got on Thursday: “We raised an amazing $849! That definitely surpassed our expectations and we’re thrilled to put the donations to use in our Consumer Choice Food Pantry, and for those in need of emergency food.”  A little sugar buzz never hurts to open wallets.

If you’re looking for a good dinner with good people for a good cause, check it out. I’m hoping to go at least once more before they’re over for the season, so you never know, there might be pecan bars to go with the soup and bread!

Snowy day, great for baking
What’s better than soup, bread, and pecan bars on a day that looks like this?

Salted Pecan Squares with Bourbon and Chocolate
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What’s Cooking Wednesday: Cookies and parties and tiny pies

My head is a bit all over the place this week. I’ve been trying to get a head start on cookie-making, planning cookies for baking this weekend, plus thinking about what I’ll be bringing to a cookie swap hosted by one of my local spice shops. I promised myself I wasn’t going to overdo it on cookies this year–the problem is picking my favorites! Biscotti, pecan tassies, peanut butter blossoms, chocolate snowcaps, maybe one or two others, and then I’m cutting myself off.

Boxed up

I’m also thinking about what to make for my holiday party. Salmon, definitely; red pepper dip, likely; the rest of the menu is still in draft mode. As with the cookies, I keep having to reign myself in–but there’s so many recipes that sound so good! I figure as long as there’s plenty of wine (mulled and non-), beer, and perhaps some of that plum gin (which should be just about ready), I should be pretty well set.

Finished smoked salmon

I also realized I never shared with you my two contributions to my mom’s Thanksgiving table. I made tiny versions of Smitten Kitchen’s cranberry pie in tiny mason jars that were completely adorable and essentially the fall version of sour cherry pie (and we know how much I love sour cherries). I also contributed some pretty amazing (if I say so myself) Parker house rolls.

Baby pies in baby jars

Perfect rolls

Even with all the cookies and parties and food and planning, I’m not quite feeling like it’s really the holiday season yet. Maybe once I pick up a tree and do my decorating (and figure out how to turn on my new fireplace! I’m inordinately excited about that part) and do my annual viewing of Merry Christmas Charlie Brown! it will sink in.

Happy baking season: The perfect chocolate chip cookie

It’s kind of adorable when cookie recipes say “Cool completely before serving.” Who are they kidding, really? They’re lucky if the dough makes it to the oven before disappearing by the spoonful in the name of “taste testing.” And let’s be honest, a warm cookie oozing chocolate may be one of life’s small perfections. “Cool before serving”–bah, humbug.

It's all worth it

So starts December, month of cookies and baked goods coming at you from every direction. (I know, we’ve barely finished the last bites of turkey and pie. Time flies when you’re having fun eating all the things.)

Simple ingredients
Butter, browned

I’ve said before I’m much more a fan of savory than sweet (pretty obviously so if you look at my recipe archive), but I’ll make an exception on occasion. And an exceptionally good chocolate chip cookie is just one of those occasions.

Add the egg
And we whisk

These cookies also happened to be the first use for the 6.5 pound bag of bittersweet chocolate I brought back from Paris. While you can of course use whatever chocolate you like, I’ve found I like the less-sweet dark chocolate. And while chips are traditional, I also prefer chopping up a big chocolate bar instead. I love how the pieces end up in varying sizes so I get a mix of nice chocolate chunks along with shards that melt into thin chocolate layers throughout the cookie. If you can find these fun little coin shapes, use them, or simply chop up a thick chocolate bar (I like Trader Joe’s Pound Plus bars).

This smells exactly like caramel Flour goes in Don't over-mix

And of course chocolate chip cookies require nuts (preferably walnuts). If you leave them out…well I just don’t know why you’d do such a thing (barring a deathly allergy, in which case you get a pass).

More good stuff It is physically impossible not to sneak a bite at this point Nearly cookies

What I absolutely love about this recipe though is the browned butter. I know, browned butter has become as irritatingly trendy as pumpkin spice or the cronut (a terribly obnoxious word that will keep me from ever eating one, by the way), which is unfortunate as toasty brown butter just so damn good. Honestly after you mix the butter with the sugars, salt, and vanilla, it smells exactly like the best caramel on earth. (I will not admit to pretty much huffing the dough as I was stirring it. Nope.) And then come the aforementioned chocolate and nuts, and why are you still reading? Go. Make cookies. I won’t tell if you eat them before they’re cool.

Best chocolate chip cookies

(I also won’t tell you that it’s super easy to freeze this cookie dough in balls so you can bake one or two cookies at a time, because do you know how good frozen cookie dough is? Just trust me, the cookies will be even less likely to make it to the oven.)

Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies
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