Huckleberry harvesting

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I found this unpublished post this morning, and why not? I’ll post it now. Prime huckleberry picking is in August, so plan ahead. I’m not eager to share our perfect spot, but you’re welcome to bribe me. Who knows, in the right mood, I may share.

While campering near Mt St Helens last summer, huckleberries were the motivating factor for our destination. We had heard about huckleberry fields filled with crowds of eager pickers, car lined roads to navigate, so we weren’t holding out hope that we would be successful in our goal of coming home with enough berries for a pie. But miracles do happen, and we arrived at a spot where the only other creatures in the vicinity were the black bears that live in the nearby forest (well, we didn’t actually see any… but I’m sure they were keeping a close eye on us).

Silence. We spent two days and a night here. Alone. And pick huckleberries we did! These are small, tasty berries, much smaller than a blueberry and take hours to fill a tiny container.

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Holiday Cookies. A few of my favorites.

While scanning through the many holiday cookie recipes on Pinterest, I was pondering what makes a cookie worthy of gifting. What do I want to nosh on? My criteria is relatively simple. As with any dessert, texture is extremely important. Soft, cakey, textured cookies are good. Slightly crisp and sandy is awesome too. Brightly colored dough is not appealing, although a few colored sanding sugars are nice. The taste should not be overly sweet. Buttery is good. Chocolate is crucial. Size is important. Smaller is better, a few bites is best. As with any baked goods, the best ingredients are of utmost importance… pure butter, good chocolate, real vanilla, fresh eggs, etc. Starting with only the finest, purest ingredients is key to producing delicious cookies every time.

Here is the list of cookies I have rotated in the last few years. In an effort to simplify and reduce holiday stress, I’m choosing two or three varieties this year. And due to their complexity, some of these will automatically disqualify.

Recipes are below the descriptions.

Butter Cookies. Buttery goodness. One recipe, two different cookies.
Christmas Cookies

Cut-outs. This recipe is a two for one. One batch of butter cookie dough makes both spritz and cut-outs.
Decorated Holiday Cookies

Double Chocolate Snowflakes. Soft, chocolately cookies with a cake-like interior.
Holiday Cookies

Pecan Tassies. Miniature pecan pies. A bit of work, but worth the extra effort.
Pecan Tassies

Gingersnaps. Spicy, sweet, soft. Yum.91911-153

World Peace Cookies. The name says it all. If we could all eat these every day, there would be peace in the world. If you love dark chocolate, this slightly crisp, sandy textured cookie will float your boat.
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Chocolate Chip Cookies. Made with cake flour and chunks of dark chocolate, these are small, dense, and extra special.
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THE RECIPES
Notes:
• Butter = unsalted butter, unless otherwise noted
• I like to splurge on good chocolate. Guittard, Ghirardelli, Scharffen Berger are good.
• All cookies listed are baked in a 350 degree F oven.
• It is better to underbake than overbake cookies. Take them out of the oven while they’re still a bit soft, and butter and sugar cookies should still be very light.

Christmas Cookies
Butter Cookies
2 Cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups sugar
2 large eggs
2 Tablespoons pure vanilla extract
2 teaspoons salt
5 cups all-purpose unbleached flour

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar on high speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.
Add eggs, vanilla, and salt; mix on medium speed until combined.
With mixer on low speed, add flour in 2 batches, mixing just until it’s incorporated.

Divide dough into two equal portions. Place each on a piece of plastic wrap, flatten into disks. Wrap in plastic wrap; refrigerate until firm, or at least 2 hours or up to 1 week.

Take out one disk and let it get to room temperature before putting it through a spritz cookie press. Use same baking instructions as above for cut-outs.

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Cut-outs
When you’re ready to bake, roll out the other disk to about 1/4 inch thick and cut out desired shapes. Place onto a cookie sheet, sprinkle with sanding sugars. Bake in preheated oven for about 12 minutes, or until they’re slightly golden just around the edges.

Cool cookies overnight before frosting.

Icing
For spreading:
Makes about a cup, enough to coat 1 recipe’s worth of 1/8-inch thick cut out cookies.
In a bowl, still until smooth: 3 cups powdered sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1/4 cup water
To tint, stir in food coloring, a few drops at a time.
Icing should spread evenly, and after a second, settle to make a smooth surface. If too thick, mix in a few drops of water; if too thin, stir in powdered sugar, a little at a time.
Spread icing onto cool cookies with a metal spatula. Let stand until icing is firm, about 1 1/2 hours.

For piping:
Makes about 3/4 cup, enough to decorate 1 recipe’s worth of 1/8-inch thick cut out cookies.
In a bowl, stir until smooth: 2 cups powdered sugar, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, 1 1/2 Tablespoons water
To tint, stir in food coloring a few drops at a time. Icing needs to be still enough to hold a line when piped through a pastry bag fitted with an 1/8-inch tip. If too thick, mix in a few drops of water; if too thin, stir in powdered sugar, a little at a time.
Let stand until icing is firm, about 5 minutes.

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Holiday Cookies
Double Chocolate Snowflakes
1 1/2 cups flour
3/4 cup cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/4 cups chocolate chips

Combine flour, cocoa, baking powder, salt
Cream butter, add sugars
Add eggs and vanilla. Mix well.
Add flour mixture and mix until a soft dough forms.
Add chocolate chips and mix well.
Cover dough and chill for at least an hour.
Shape dough into balls and roll in powdered sugar.
Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven until cookies have puffed and cracked. About 8-10 minutes.

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Gingersnaps
1/2 cup butter
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
1/2 cup molasses
4 cups sifted flour
2 teaspoons soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons ginger

Cream butter and sugar together, beat in eggs.
Stir in molasses.
Sift in all dry ingredients. Mix into dough.
Roll dough into 1″ balls. Roll in sugar (cinnamon optional).
Bake at 350 degrees for 7-10 minutes.

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World Peace Cookies (Chocolate Chunk Butter Cookies with Sea Salt)
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup (1 stick) plus 3 Tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel or 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla
5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into chips, or a generous 3/4 cup mini-chocolate chips

Sift the flour, cocoa and baking soda together.
Working with a stand mixer, fitted with a paddle attachment, or a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed until soft and creamy. Add both sugars, the salt and vanilla and beat for 2 minutes.
Pour in the dry ingredients (drape a towel over the mixer to protect yourself from flying flour) and pulse the mixer at low speed about 5 times for a second or two each time. Take a peek; pulse a few more times if there’s a lot of flour still on the surface of the dough. Mix on low speed for about 30 seconds more until the flour disappears into the dough. Work the dough as little as possible for the best texture. Don’t be too concerned if it looks a little crumbly. Toss in the chocolate pieces and mix to incorporate.
Turn the dough onto a work surface. Gather it together and divide in half. Shape each half into a log that is 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Wrap the logs in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours.
Preheat oven to 325F degree
Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.
Using a sharp, thin knife, slice the logs into rounds that are 1/2 inch thick. Arrange the rounds on the baking sheets, leaving about 1 inch between them.
Bake one sheet at a time for about 12 minutes. The cookies won’t look done or be firm, but they’ll firm up and become more sandy-crumbly as they cool.

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Chocolate Chip Cookies
2 3/4 cups bread flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 large eggs

Sift together baking soda and salt. Set aside.
Soften butter. Add sugars and mix until smooth and fluffy.
Add vanilla and eggs. Mix well. Add flour mixture and blend.
Add chocolate chips. Mix.
Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 10-12 minutes.

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Happiest of holidays to you all!

Thankful for Pie

With great honor, I am the elected family pie baker. And with Thanksgiving just days away, I’m on the hunt for my 2014 creations. Pumpkin is off the list this year, due to the simple fact that the ‘pumpkin spice everything’ craze has left me cold and nauseous.

Following are a few favorites being considered to grace the Thanksgiving table this year (I need to choose two):

French Apple Tart…

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Chocolate Pecan…

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Mississippi Mud…

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Lemon…

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Chocolate Cream…

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What’s your favorite pie?

Where have you been all my life?

Homemade pies

I’m pretty sure this is the best dessert I’ve ever made! I’m really excited to share it with you! I actually made two new-to-me desserts over Thanksgiving. The second one was a sweet potato pie. Both pies were good, but this Pear-Almond Tart turned out especially fabulous!

French Pear and Almond Tart

It’s a bit time consuming to make, but once you’ve tickled your taste buds with its deliciousness, you’ll agree it’s worth the effort.

Slice of pie

Start with a base pastry that is sturdy enough to cradle the almond filling and poached pears, yet light and flaky so it melts in your mouth. The recipe I used is from Martha Stewart, but there are steps you’ll need to take to make sure the baked crust is perfect, so read through all the recipes that follow carefully.

Start with the freshest, best ingredients. A food processor comes in very handy for the crust, but it can be done by hand too if you’re feeling energetic, or you don’t own one.

Basic Pie Crust (You will be pre-baking this – don’t worry I’ll tell you exactly how to do this)
(this makes a base for one 9 inch tart)

1 1/4 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/2 cup cold unsalted butter cut into small pieces
1/4-1/3 cup ice water

Place the flour, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor. Blend for just a few seconds. Add the butter and process for about 10 seconds, or until the mixture looks like coarse meal. Add ice water a little bit at a time, and run the processor until the dough holds together, but not for more than 30 seconds. If the dough is still crumbly, add a little more water.

Turn the dough out onto a large piece of plastic wrap and press the dough into a flat circle. Wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least one hour.

Remove the chilled dough and let it rest for a few minutes. Roll it out so that it’s large enough, with a few inches of overhang, to fit a 9″ tart pan (that’s the one with straight fluted sides). Cut off extra dough so that it is just to the top edge. Freeze the crust for at least a half hour, until chilled. This is an important step in pre-baking. Otherwise the crust will slip down the sides.

Preheat your oven to 350°F. When the pie crust is sufficiently chilled, line the pie crust with parchment paper, wax paper, or aluminum foil. Fill at least two-thirds full with pie weights – dry beans, rice, or stainless-steel pie weights. Bake with weights for 20 minutes. Remove from oven, cool a few minutes and carefully remove pie weights. Poke small holes in the bottom of the pie crust with a fork and return to oven (without the weights) and cook for an additional 10 minutes, until the crust is golden. Cool completely before filling. You may need to tent the edges of the pie with aluminum foil when you bake your pie, to keep the edges from getting too dried out and burnt.

Now that you have a perfectly baked tart shell, you can proceed to the filling part.

Step 1 of the filling:

Poached Pears

1 quart water
1 1/3 cup granulated sugar
4 Bosc pears; peeled, cored, and quartered
Additions: One cinnamon stick, 2 teaspoons whole cloves, black peppercorns or allspice berries, one lemon half, one split vanilla bean, 2-3 star anise, 6-8 fresh ginger slices
1. In a large saucepan, heat the water and sugar until warm and the sugar is dissolved. Add any of the additions that you wish.
2. Slide in the pears and cover with a round of parchment paper, with a small hole cut in the center.
3. Keep the liquid at a very low boil and simmer the pears until cooked through, 15 to 25 minutes, depending on the pears.
4. Remove from heat and let the pears cool in their liquid.
Optional: After poaching the pears, while the liquid is still warm, add approximately 1/4 cup dried sour cherries, cranberries, raisins, or dried currants and let them plump.
Store the pears in their liquid in the refrigerator, in a covered container, until ready to use. Remove the pears from the refrigerator a few hours prior to serving, and re-warm them gently in the liquid, if you wish. The pears will keep for up to 5 days.

Now, lets put it all together…

Pear-Almond Tart
Recipe from David Lebovitz
8 servings

NOTE: If your almond paste isn’t very fragrant with the smell of almonds, add a drop or two of pure almond extract to the filling. You don’t want to dump a spoonful in, which would overwhelm the pears, but a tiny bit highlights the almond flavors. You can use canned pear halves packed in light syrup, and drain them well, in place of the poached pears, if you wish.

6 ounces almond paste (this is sold in most grocery stores, just make sure you pick up the one without sugar added)
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons flour
3 ounces butter, salted or unsalted, cubed, at room temperature
1 large egg, plus one egg white, at room temperature
a few drops almond extract
1 1/2 teaspoons rum, Calvados, or kirsch

3 poached pears, cored, drained and blotted dry, then cut into 1/2-inch slices
One pre-baked 9-inch tart shell, at room temperature (see above)

1. Preheat the oven to 375F. Set the pre-baked tart shell on a baking sheet.
2. In a stand mixer, or by hand, beat the almond paste with the sugar and flour, until smooth. Some almond pastes may be drier than others. If yours is dry, just mix until the almond paste is finely-broken up.
3. Gradually beat in the butter, until smooth, then beat in the egg and the egg white, the almond extract, and the liquor.
4. Spread the almond filling evenly over the tart shell
5. Fan the pears out evenly over the almond filling, then press them in slightly.
6. Bake the tart for about 40 to 45 minutes, or until the almond filling between the pears has browned.
7. Cool slightly before serving, or serve at room temperature.

Oh yeah, the little pitcher nearby in my image is a bit of the sauce from poaching the pears. Just before serving the tart, reduce the juices by boiling for a few minutes in a pan and serve alongside. Pour a little, or a lot of it onto the tart… ooh and ahh over your masterpiece! Celebrate the happiness of your tastebuds!

Berry season, sweet berry season

Oregon Strawberries

fresh strawberry jam

If you’re planning a trip to Oregon, a great time to visit is early June when the strawberries are in season. The sweetest berries ever are grown in Oregon. Thanks to the long mild spring and early summer climate, strawberries are sweet, red,  juicy and delicious. Lots of rain, cool nights and warm sunny days seem to make for perfect strawberries. The berries stay on the vine and ripen slowly, allowing the sugars to increase before harvest. Keeping up with the short, fast paced strawberry season is challenging, but I did manage to turn a flat of Oregon Hood strawberries into a few dozen jars of jam before they disappear. It’s a good thing berries can be preserved in so many forms to prolong their edible lives.

I’m adapting to a new summer schedule, or actually, absence of a schedule. Even our doggies are sleeping in a bit later. They run around outside all day and are completely worn out by night time. I didn’t think this was possible for Bleu, our overactive border/aussie mix puppy. There’s finally hope for my ability to catch up on much needed sleep. I’m not a morning person, so it was a little disconcerting when I first realized we had adopted a morning puppy. If Bleu had the ability to whistle, that’s what he’d be doing each and every 6 am. Since whistling is not an option, he pounces on us wagging his entire body, as if to tell us it’s the most amazing day ever, and we need to get up so we don’t miss a second of it.

Meet Bailey (left) and Bleu. Sister and brother from another Mother. Bailey has never met a person she doesn’t love, but doesn’t love dogs (she tolerates her brother). Bleu is suspicious of everyone, with the exception of his pack and a few other people he’s accepted as friends, but he loves dogs.

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I made these berry tarts a few months ago long before berry season started. You can make the shells days in advance of the custard filling. I like desserts that allow me to do things in steps so they seem much less time consuming. The custard can also sit covered in the fridge for a day or so. Just add the freshly washed fruit, and whatever other toppings float your boat, just before serving. In my opinion, raspberries are even better on these than. Because of their delicate, soft texture and hollowness, they’re easier to eat than strawberries.

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Start by making the tart shells. If you find this is enough baking for one day, you can freeze the shells for later use. If you’re feeling energetic, continue on…

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Unlike a pie shell, a tart’s shell texture is more like a shortbread cookie. It has to be sturdy enough to cradle its contents without crumbling.

Create the custard filling.

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You can freeze the tarts at this stage for several months. But don’t wait that long, cause you’ll miss out on the fresh berry season.

The original recipe for these tarts was taken from the Miette cookbook written by the owner of Miette Pastry Shop based in San Francisco. I’ll be visiting them next month to do a little sample tasting.

Fresh Fruit Tarts with Pastry Cream
Makes ten 3 1/2 inch or two 7-inch tarts

(a slightly modified recipe from Miette pastry shop in San Francisco)

Pastry Shells:
3 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup cold unsalted butter, cubed
2 large egg yolks
6-8 Tablespoons heavy cream
1. Combine the flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer. Mix on low speed for 30 seconds using your paddle attachment. Add the cubed butter and beat until the mixture is as fine as cornmeal (about 5 minutes).

2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and 2 tablespoons of the cream. Add this to the flour mixture in the mixer bowl and mix it all until just combined. Add more cream 1 tablespoon at a time until the dough comes together into large chunks. Gather the dough into a ball, pat it into a disk and wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

3. Divide the dough to make the portions you need and pat gently into disks. Roll out each dough disk on a lightly floured surface to about 1/4 inch thick and 1 inch larger in diameter than the pans you’re using. Drape the rolled-out dough into the tart pans, gently pushing it into the bottom edges and against the pan sides to make a strong, straight shell. Trim the edges flush with the top rim of the pans. Prick all over the bottom with a fork and place them in the freezer for 30 minutes.

4. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Bake the shells for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown. Cool in the pan, remove and cool completely on a wire rack before filling.

Pastry Cream:
2 cups whole milk
1/2 vanilla bean
7 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

1. Pour the milk into a medium saucepan. Use a sharp knife to slit the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape the seeds into the milk. Throw in the pod. Heat until almost boiling (bubbles will begin to form at the edges). Remove from heat, cover and let steep for 1 hour.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar and cornstarch until smooth. Set the bowl on a kitchen towel or nonskid surface and whisk the egg mixture while pouring about 1/2 cup of the hot milk into the mixture to temper. Gradually pour in the rest of the milk, whisking constantly. Pour the contents of the bowl into the pan and turn the heat to medium-low.

3. Cook, whisking constantly until the mixture thickens and comes to a slow boil, about 2 minutes. Immediately strain the cream through a fine-mesh sieve into a clean container. Discard the vanilla bean. Let the pastry cream cool to room temperature, for about 10 minutes, then whisk in the butter until it’s completely incorporated.

4. Cover the pastry cream with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the cream to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until well chilled, at least 1 hour and up to 3 days.

Final assembly: Divide the chilled custard among the shells evenly. Top with blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, or your favorite fruit. Make sure to wash the fruit just before placing it onto the cream filling so that it stays firm and fresh.

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Next up: blueberries. Ready. Set. Start your tarts.

Chocolate Pie

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This is one of the first cream pies I’ve ever made. Unless I count the grasshopper pie from high school home economics. Gasp!

Depending on what’s in season, my favorites are blueberry, strawberry, peach, and pecan. But today, because chocolate is always in season, and there’s a very long week of have-to’s — hours of driving my daughter to school and dance classes, work, meetings, cooking dinners, washing dishes, doing laundry and dog walking — a chocolate cream pie is chilling in the fridge to keep us happy.

Remember, dark chocolate is a superfood! Have you thought of having cocoa-enriched chocolate pie as part of a healthy skin routine? According to Medical News Today, German researchers found high-flavonoid cocoa increases hydration, decreases skin roughness and scaling, and helps to support women’s skin against UV damage. (Sorry guys…I’m sure the benefits for men are similar, but the research was on chocolate loving women.) The research found that women who consumed high-flavonoid cocoa every day had smoother, moister skin after just three months. That’s a study I’d have gladly volunteered for!

This pie requires a pre-baked crust, which has always challenged me. The crust always ends up slumping down in the plate or folding into itself. I tried something new this time, and it worked splendidly. It involved a package of dried black beans. Here’s how you can pre-bake the crust without having it change shape:

Preheat the oven to 350°F. When the pie crust is chilled, line it with aluminum foil (or you could use parchment paper). Fill about 2/3 full with pie weights (I used dried beans, but rice or actual stainless steel pie weights also work). Bake the crust with the weights for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, cool slightly, remove the weights by pulling the foil liner out. Using a fork, poke holes in the bottom of the crust and return it to the oven, this time without the weights, and bake for another 10 minutes or until it’s golden brown. Cool completely before adding the filling.

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Chocolate Cream Pie

  • 2 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup cornstarch
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 8 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 1/4 cup chocolate shavings
  • 4 Tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1 cup heavy cream

Combine above ingredients in a large saucepan; cook over medium heat, whisking until thickened, 7-8 minutes. Whisk in chopped bittersweet chocolate and unsalted butter. Pour into a pre-baked 9-inch piecrust. Chill until firm, 4-5 hours. Top the pie with whipped cream and the chocolate shavings.

cakey chocolate chip cookies

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Spring turned back to fall this week. Every afternoon my daughter comes home from school stressed out. With the end of the year approaching, teachers are cramming in loads of work. I always said I wanted to be one of those moms who would have homemade treats ready when my kid(s) came home from school. It’s how I grew up. If I came home to an empty house, it most likely meant my mom was visiting with neighbors nearby. I would hear her laugh before I saw her. When I was older, if she had to be away, she left a note on the counter letting me know where she was. It makes me sad to think of all the young kids who come home to empty houses every day. I have the privilege of being able to work at home, and the flexibility to bake cookies with my daughter. I feel very fortunate!

Let’s bake cookies!

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This is my favorite chocolate chip cookie. They’re made with bread flour, which is responsible for their soft, cakey crumb. Just out of the oven, the pockets of dark chocolate melt deliciously in your mouth.

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Cakey Chocolate Chip Cookies

Ingredients
2 3/4 cups Bread flour
1 Teaspoon baking soda
1 Teaspoon sea salt
1 cup (2 cubes) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 Teaspoons pure vanilla
2 large eggs
2 cups dark chocolate pieces or chips

Directions
Sift flour, baking and sea salt together in a smallish bowl. Set aside. Place softened butter in the bowl of an electric mixer (or hand mixer). Add sugars and blend until smooth and fluffy. Add vanilla and eggs and mix well. Add the flour mixture and mix until combined. Add chocolate chips and stir by hand. Chill in the fridge for 1 hour. Roll into balls and place on a cookie sheet two inches apart. Bake in a preheated 350°F. oven for 11-12 minutes. The cookies will still be a bit soft. Leave them on the cookie sheet for a few minutes before transferring to a cooling rack.

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I hope you have a fabulous Memorial Day weekend!