Baking With Vanilla

When you’re searching for the best chocolate chip recipe out there, you have to try different forms and variations of ingredients: creamed butter vs. brown butter, chocolate chips vs. chocolate chunks, vanilla extract vs. vanilla beans. There was a co-op in Connecticut where I lived that had two vanilla beans in little baggies for $3.89! I don’t know what magic allowed that to go down, but I wasn’t asking questions. It was time that I tested out the real deal.

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Vanilla beans are super cool because the flavor lies in these tiny seeds that are inside the bean. To get to them, I made a slit with a small knife, trying not to cut all the way through to the other side. Then I could open it up and scrape out the seeds with the blunt side of the knife.

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Inside, the seeds are pasty and oily, and have a strong vanilla aroma. Depending on the size of the vanilla bean, you could use half of the seeds for one batch of cookies and save the rest. If you find yourself with a dried out vanilla bean, just wrap it in a damp paper towel and put it in the microwave for 20 seconds!

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When I tried the chocolate chip cookies with this vanilla bean, I could definitely tell a difference between them and cookies I’d made with vanilla extract. These cookies were almost floral from the vanilla bean, with a sharper vanilla flavor that’s only hinted at in vanilla extract. Surprisingly, it turns out I don’t prefer to use vanilla beans to vanilla extract. For me, the flavor was a little too intense, and did not provide the nostalgic, homey chocolate chip cookie taste that I was looking for. If you’re looking for a more complex, interesting flavor, however, vanilla beans are a great choice. Plus, they make everything look speckled, and therefore much cooler.

Don’t Get Pancakes at a Place Called egg

This is a story of lessons learned in New York City, featuring two NYC brunch spots, and my large appetite for sweet things biting me in the butt.

When my friend Ally was back in town for the weekend, we had an excuse to do brunch. Back when I was exploring Williamsburg and the Mast Brothers chocolate factory, I spotted this quintessential Brooklyn brunch spot, further proving its hipster-dom with its name: egg (all lowercase). It looked quite chic judging by the interior: glass doors, white walls. I made a mental note for trying another day.

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Luckily, Ally was down to try out egg on the lovely 50° December weekend she was around.

I had arrived early, so I put our names down and took a stroll. It looked like we made it right on time. After we sat down at 9:30, the strollers started rolling in with their entourages. We ordered, and were given fresh beignets to share.

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Sad looking, but pretty good.

The interior was in fact cute, with wooden benches along the wall, paper tablecloths, and crayons for drawing. I ordered pancakes and one egg. This will come as no surprise to most, as I have a particularly strong breakfast sweet tooth. Ally got Eggs Rothko: “Easy-cooked egg in a slice of Amy’s brioche and topped with Grafton cheddar”.

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Ally reported making a good choice on her brunch. One bite into my pancakes, and I regretted everything.

The pancakes were flat and rubbery, as if they’d had their life beaten out of them – which I guess they did. Something in between a pancake and a crêpe, but nowhere near the satisfaction of either.

This was the universe telling me to work on my self-discipline when ordering breakfast. An apparent oversight, ordering something other than eggs at a place called “egg”was not my best brunch move. But I learned my lesson and am prepared to tell the tale.

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It was real, egg. Illustration by Ally H

Onto bigger and better things.

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In the Lower East Side of Manhattan, there’s a place called “Egg Shop”. Now at least I’d heard good things about this place, and bothered to check that the Yelp reviews weren’t terrible.

My OG brunch buddy Megan and I met up there this morning to do what we do best: eat good food.

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The interior was super cute, and surprisingly small, which partly explains the average wait time of 40 minutes at most hours. Side bar: you can often tell if a restaurant is good if it doesn’t take reservations. Did I make that up? Possible….but we think it’s legit.

I came close to ordering the French toast, but I recalled the last time I tried ordering sweet breakfast – !!red alert!! no bueno! I instead went with the Reformer + avocado: egg whites, feta, spinach,and heirloom tomato on multi-grain bread. Megan got the Pepper Boy: soft scramble, gruyère, bell pepper, maple cured pepper bacon, and caramelized onion aïoli on a panini roll.

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It was SO GOOD. I quite barely finished both halves of mine, and was grateful for the knife and fork at my seat to help in the mess. The first thing I tasted was the avocado – smashed to spready-lemony perfection. I thought the sprinkling of Maldon salt on the bread was fairly comical, and would probably been more useful on the egg whites, but I really, really enjoyed this sandwich. Megan loved hers, too. I would say that I’ll try the French Toast next time, but there are so many other egg sandwich possibilities to try first.

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Takeaways:
1. Read Yelp reviews for a general overview of a restaurant before assuming it’s good based on its interior design.
2. Don’t order anything other than eggs from a place with egg in the title.

Easy Udon

When I was in college, I would often buy a pack of dry udon noodles and miso soup pouches to keep in my room. When I was hungry, I could make a quick snack…though I somehow found it acceptable to cook the noodles in the microwave for a couple minutes…#college.

Questionable choices aside, I still find myself in time binds these days, trying to find a fast way to dinner before I fall asleep at the kitchen island scrolling Google for recipes. This is definitely an easy dinner to keep in your back pocket, and also fast if you have a few things prepped or hanging out in your fridge to add. I made it up off the cuff and it came out great. You’ll be nourished and full by the end of it.

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Grab some things in your fridge – I had purple kale (I could eat that stuff raw, and I did), tofu, mushrooms, chives, radish microgreens (spicy), and ginger and lemon for flavor.

 

I sautéed the mushrooms and tofu instead of cooking them into the broth, because I didn’t want them to get too soggy.

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I used chicken broth for the soup with lemon and ginger root for extra flavor, but miso paste is a great thing to have on hand for any time you want to make a quick broth for noodles, or a flavor addition to a dish. Boil the noodles as it says to on the packaging. Once you have the noodles, combine them with the broth and other flavor-aids (ex: soy sauce). If you’d like, you can add everything else you gathered to the pot, or add to individual servings. That’s what I did, because 1. soggy, and 2. aesthetic. Amirite?

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If you end up using tofu, don’t forget to drain it before frying.

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Next time, I’ll be using miso paste for a more exciting broth. Go crazy and add what you like, and season as needed!

Day in the Life: Food52

The new year at work has already graced us with lovely people and food. While I’m embracing my job/opportunities with renewed energy this year, I’m enjoying capturing the essence of every day in a quick snap or two. Take a look at what we’ve been up to!

Right before we broke for the holidays, Union Square Events graced us with their presence AND a wide variety of stunning savory and sweet tarts for lunch. There was a mushroom & winter vegetables tart, quiche and smoked fish, pistachio, sablé, fig and grapefruit, roasted apple, gingerbread, and milk chocolate toffee, and more. It was really quite overwhelming, but a lovely break from the day, getting to chat with the chefs of Union Square Hospitality Group and enjoying their delicious meal for us. We’re so spoiled!

We were shooting some pretty platters for the Shop, and our chef made crab cakes for the occasion (we didn’t end up using the shot with the crab cakes). We turned them into a healthy lunch with salad and vinaigrette. Aesthetically pleasing.

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We had a Valentine’s day-themed photo shoot, and our Art Director stopped on her way into the office for some quince branches. Then our chef in residence, Sara Jenkins, made some beautiful bright fuchsia ravioli, beet casunsei.

I was walking past the stove top in the test kitchen one afternoon of an editorial shoot, and looked into a pot which previously held duck for a warm duck and apple salad, and I thought it looked cool…

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The sunlight comes through the office a little differently every day. I caught a moment that the light was coming through the pot of water steaming on the stove in a super cool way. You can see where the window frame got in the way and made stripes in the steam.

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Looking forward to what the next weeks bring!

Mast Brothers: Genius or Nah?

Once upon a time, I had a week off from work, so I went adventuring in Brooklyn. The destination of one particular afternoon was the Mast Brothers factory of chocolate in Williamsburg. Maybe you’ve seen their chocolate bars around? Or maybe you’ve heard accusations and admittance of chocolate fraud. No matter their previous or current strategies, the Mast Brothers have crazy, inventive chocolate flavors like goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, olive oil, and vanilla & smoke. And their packaging could easily be turned into wall decoration. But I was not in town for this chocolate, no. I was in town for their chocolate chip cookies (go figure). In my quest for the perfect chocolate chip cookie, substantial research of existing artworks is imperative. I walked into the storefront, took a brief gander around the bags of cocoa beans and podiums of chocolate bars.

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After taking a peek through the window showing the factory, convincing you to pay for the $10 tour, I circled back to the front and asked for one of the chocolate chip cookies sitting on the counter. I decided to pay for this over the tour, this time, because guess how much it was….a round $4. It was worth it though, this cookie was about the size of my face, or three normal cookies.

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There were no seats or tables inside, so I had to leave the premises and find a bench on the side of the street instead. To my surprise, this took about 90 seconds. The chocolate pros figured out that crispy-on-the-outside, soft-and-chewy-on-the-inside refinement, and the sea salt flakes on the top served as both decoration and general flavor enhancement. The top was the perfectly beautiful cracked texture that you see in the cookbooks. It was so delicious, and I managed to save some for later. I decided that I needed to track down the recipe for these cookies to see if any processes, techniques, or secret ingredients were applicable to my own recipe.

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Turns out, the Mast Brothers chocolate chip cookie recipe was no great shakes. There were no alternative mixing approaches or corn starch additions. In fact, their recipe didn’t even call for vanilla.

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Even so, I was confident that my cookies would turn out great, and excited to compare previous recipes. What resulted was a batch of perfectly smooth, large cookies that were less exciting than my current chocolate chip recipe.

 

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Pro tip from me: add the chocolate chips before all the flour is incorporated

 

 

Perhaps it was the fact that I did not use Mast Brothers chocolate, but probably not. There are always some variables that are unaccounted for, like evenness in your oven’s heat, oven heat in general, type of butter, and mixiness.

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Moral of the story: You should always feel free to tweak the recipe to your own taste. Things won’t necessarily come out how you think they will/like in the restaurant.

 

Mast Brothers Chocolate Chip Cookies
From Mast Brothers Chocolate: A Family Cookbook

Ingredients
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
¾ cup brown sugar
⅔ cup white sugar
2 eggs
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sea salt
15 ounces dark chocolate, chopped
fleur de sel, for topping

Directions
In a large mixing bowl, cream softened butter with both sugars until fluffy. Blend in eggs one at a time. Add flour, baking soda, salt and chocolate and combine.
Spoon out cookie dough on baking sheets using tablespoons. Sprinkle sea salt to your preference. Bake at 350° for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on wire rack.

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Not fleur de sel. And I learned that adding the salt before baking will help it stick.

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Good with milk, of course.

 Have any perfected chocolate chip cookie techniques? Spill!

Rolled Ice Cream at Juicy Spot

Last week (yes, last week!) after work, my home-friends-in-the-city and I braved the 50 mph wind gusts and ventured into the Lower East Side for some rolled ice cream. Some time ago, you may have come across the latest fad in frozen desserts on Facebook or Instagram. Last summer, a new spot opened up in Chinatown where New Yorkers could try the traditional Thai street food and eat the heat away. It’s been on my list ever since, and I somehow convinced my friends to go on a mid-January night. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Saturday night: that famous rolled ice cream joint

Xiao: I know a better place, this place has a 2 hour line

Danni: Take us

Me: Where when

Xiao: Let’s do Sunday, it’s called Juicy Spot in the LES

Needless to say, we did not go that weekend but synched up later in the week to explore the hype in a lesser-known rolled ice cream spot.

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Xiao got raspberry!

There are four steps to having your rolled ice cream.

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First, choose a base. This is the flavor of cream that they’ll place on their cold plate for rolling, along with step two: additional fixings that will be mixed in with your base, like fruit and red bean. Step three is picking your topping, so in addition to all the ice cream itself and the innards, you get more fruit, nuts, Pocky, and more on top of your swirls. If all that weren’t enough, you get a top off with your choice of “drizzle”.

Think Coldstone Creamery, but rolly.

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My choices: original cream base (like vanilla, minus vanilla), Oreo cookies, mochi topping, and caramel drizzle. Was it a lot? Surprisingly yes. It doesn’t look like it when they start spreading it out on the cold plate.

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Was it overly sweet? Yes. Did I finish it? No. Was it enjoyable? Yes, though I imagine it would be better with the sun and a heat advisory. But it was a fun textural experience, and it sure was pretty to look at.

Do you love or hate rolled ice cream? Divulge in the comments below!

Speculoos Rice Crispy Treats

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You know those “baking” recipes that don’t require baking…skillet cookies, bars of various sorts, icebox cake, rice crispy treats. Rice crispy treats are like a blank canvas from which you can create beautiful art. Add peanut butter, use chocolate rice crispies, add unmelted, mini marshmallows, or add cookie crumbs! One of the final nights of senior year, my friend Desirée and I were trolling the internet for some baking ideas and we somehow came up with rice crispy treats, with speculoos biscuit crumbs for an added toffee-like taste. One late-night Wegmans run later, and we were equipped with rice crispies, speculoos biscuits, marshmallows, and butter. We got some speculoos spread for good measure. The best part about any rice crispies is that you can adjust the texture to your personal taste: ooey gooey? More marshmallows. Crispety-crunchety? More rice crispies. While this recipe is quick, the cleanup can be a little tricky. Make sure to soak your pot as soon as it’s empty!

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Melt butter and marshmallows, + salt

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It should look something like this

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Add the cereal quickly

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Flatten into lined pan

Speculoos Rice Crispy Treats
Makes about 12 bars

Ingredients
1/2 cup unsalted butter
8-12 oz marshmallows
7 speculoos biscuits, crushed
4 1/2 cups rice crispies
1 pinch salt

Instructions
Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Add the marshmallows and mix diligently until it’s all melted. Add a pinch of salt. Add the rice crispies and speculoos crumbs, in half increments, until the cereal and cookies are coated evenly. Quickly transfer to a lined pan to cool and eat.

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Dominique Ansel’s Digs, and the Elusive Cronut

There’s a note in my phone called “NYC Sweets”, where I add all the good/famous bakeries, ice cream shops, and doughnut cafés that I need to check out and experience as a new New Yorker. At the top of that list were the two Manhattan digs of Dominique Ansel, Cronut® extraordinaire. In all seriousness, Ansel actually registered the word and concept of the Cronut; even his hashtags have the ® symbol. It did take a couple of months, but I got myself to Dominique Ansel Kitchen, and Dominique Ansel Bakery. Why would one of the best known French pastry chefs need two establishments within a 15 minute walk of each other (I checked)? See below and you’ll know…or not.

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Taken from the staircase seating

My first stop was DAK: the Kitchen. I flip-flopped on the order of my visits, as DAK opened in the spring, a few years after the Bakery. At DAK, the big draw is not a pastry but a concept: “Time is an ingredient”. For many of the menu items, a key process of the recipe is left until the item is ordered. For example, if you order the made-to-order chocolate mousse, you’ll be waiting on your chef to fold the chocolate ganache with the meringue and whipped cream before it gets to your staircase-seat, soft and creamy. Or if you get the 1:1 lemon yuzu butter tart, the baker will be behind the counter in the kitchen, assembling together the crust, cream and lemon zest into an equally soft beauty. The indoor seating is all along a large set of steps, with cute round cushions designating buttox-placement. If it’s well-populated, DAK may be tricky to stay in, especially if eating with a friend. In the summer, outdoor seating and an ice cream window with flavors like “gianduja with orange blossom spritz, sea salt, and hazelnut brittle” are open and bustling.

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I got the mini matcha beignets. I see these being really great for people who don’t like their desserts being too sweet. I wish I were one of those people. On the other hand, I liked the nice kick of strong green tea flavor over the beignets, and the six that I got were a good serving size. Just don’t breathe too hard when you’re eating, unless you’re wearing an apron.

All in all, a generally cool idea being experimented with at Dominique Ansel Kitchen.

 

Next up: the OG, Dominique Ansel Bakery.

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I remember when I googled “cronut” five years ago, and landed on a New York Times article explaining the phenomenon of waiting in line for hours to purchase a $5 pastry in the dead of winter. I was like “nah”. Minus the pastry, all of those things sounded wrong to me. No way would I spend my day in the city standing in the cold for an overpriced dessert. But things change, people change. When I learned from friends at work that you could preorder Cronuts from the comfort of your home, I knew that having this rare creature could be done, and must be done!

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Path to the patio of DAB

Off I went, setting my phone alarm to 10:50 a Monday morning of August to remind me to log onto cronutpreorder.com to claim my prize. After much website traffic difficulty, all the available Cronuts for the first week of September were sold out, and I was without. But of course, I tried again the following week, and to my surprise, had no trouble reserving two Cronuts for a Sunday afternoon. Pro tip alert: this was because the Cronut flavor changes every month, and the first time I tried, the Cronut regulars(?) were ready to pounce to be the first to try the latest flavor. I now know that if you preorder a Cronut, wait to reserve one for the middle of the month, and you won’t run into trouble.

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I could have skipped the line, but I actually waited in it to get a peek of what everyone else was waiting for (not Cronuts, ha ha).

When I finally got to skip the line and turn heads with my box of Cronuts at 2pm on Sunday, it was September, and the flavor was bergamot and Earl Grey.

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This box, home of the cronut. Like a munchkins box but WAY COOLER

After all those years of seeing Cronuts on my Instagram feed and trying copycats (pretty good ones, in France no less), my time had come. I was embarrassingly giddy to open the box.

The bright yellow icing on top tasted strongly of the eponymous tea, and the cream filling had a subtle citrus and slightly bitter taste from the bergamot fruit. The pastry itself was crispy on the edges from the sugar coating (oh yes), and soft and chewy on the inside. So, like a croissant, but better. And this pastry is actually quite large. It barely fit in the palm of my hand.

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Turns out, the Cronut is worth the hype, and probably those $5, too, when you think about how it’s made. First off, the whole process takes three days. Once the laminated dough is made, it has to proof, then it gets fried. Then it gets filled, and then it gets topped with icing/ganache and garnish. Would I ever in a million years stand in a line wrapping around the block for it? No. But why would I, if I can buy one in advance with technology? Here’s how:

  1. On any Monday at 11am EST, go to cronutpreorder.com (note: it’s entirely possible that if you check later in the day, or even the next day, there will be some Cronuts left to order. Just make sure you’re flexible on the pickup day. AND do not order a cronut for the first week of a month, because you will likely fail).
  2. You’ll see dates two weeks from when you’re on the site for reserving up to 6 Cronuts. Select the day you want to pick them up.
  3. Choose a time you’d like to pick up your Cronuts.
  4. Purchase your Cronuts with Paypal, to which the site will redirect you.
  5. Set a reminder for yourself to pick up your Cronuts. You won’t get a reminder from Dom, and then you’ll forget 😦
  6. Swag on up to the bakery counter at your selected time to claim your prize and enjoy.

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Top 5 of 2015

As we ring in another new year, I thought to look back on the passing year with a post of my favorite recipes of 2015, that I know I’ll be coming back to.

Enjoy, and Happy New Year! See you all in 2016 😀

 

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Lemon Zucchini Bread – delicious and easy quick bread with lemony zing

 

 

 

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Pop Quiz – all you need to know about popcorn and making it from scratch

 

 

 

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Flourless Peanut Butter Cookies – a hit with your non-dairy, gluten-free, and omnivore friends alike

 

 

 

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White (Chocolate) Drizzled Lavender Shortbread – attractive and attainable party goals

 

 

 

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Dad’s Mango Bread – a new family recipe that’s always a good idea

 

The Levain Bakery Walnut Chocolate Chip Cookies

If you A. live in New York City or B. do a lot of cookie research, odds are you’ve heard of or been to Levain bakery in the upper west side of Manhattan. They are most famous for their hugeangous (walnut) chocolate chip cookies. There are countless copycat recipes online, of people trying to recreate the masterful baked good of NYC. Hearty banter about corn starch, refrigeration time, chocolate size, and flour type fill the blogosphere, and I don’t know if anyone has arrived to the real deal, $4 cookie-scone wonder.

It’s a cookie I promise

Luckily for me and some colleagues, one of our editors lives a few blocks from the 21-year old, tiny establishment and planned on making a trip for a friend’s mom in San Francisco who requested some from her east coast contacts. I asked if she would get me one too so I could try these allegedly amazing cookies for myself.

 

Large lady-hand for reference

After waiting in a 30 minute line at the time of opening, she gets into the office and hands me the bag of what looks like scones, and feels like rocks.There’s a solid thud when I put the paper bag by my laptop. I was warned that some are intimidated by the nearly half-pound cookie, but I was ready.

 

The Empire State Building of cookies

When I finally took a bite, the edges of the cookie crunched, but I could tell that a soft gooey chocolatey center was waiting. There are a couple key characteristics to these cookies. First off, the mere dimensions of the thing. Not only is it several inches wide, but it stands very tall, showing off the second important factor: its just-barely-done inside texture. Because of the size of the cookie, there’s a window in the baking where the outside gets golden brown before the inside has solidified completely. And hours later that consistency keeps, melted chocolate and all.

 

Texture game: strongest

Even though I haven’t made it very far in my cookie journey of the city, this chocolate chip cookie will easily rank in my top 5. I wouldn’t exactly aim for a Levain interpretation in my own chocolate chip cookie recipe, but I take due note in their techniques and values, and plan on standing in that 30-minute line myself some time warmer.

Take pride in your approach? Tell me what makes your chocolate chip cookies special below!