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Your Friday Moment of Zen

Your Friday Moment of Zen

[Illustrations: Biodiversity Heritage Library (Shells, Squid and Octopods] You did it! You made it to the end of another week! “Very little of our handiwork will survive the obliteration of the ages.” (!!!) To recap from last week: We’re putting up a post very much […]

Beyond Vanilla: Extracts, Oils, and Waters That Can Improve Your Baking

Beyond Vanilla: Extracts, Oils, and Waters That Can Improve Your Baking

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik] Vanilla extract is probably the most common aromatic intensifier in American dessert, whether it plays a starring or a supportive role—consider its presence in a batch of vanilla ice cream versus chocolate chip cookies. In the former, vanilla takes center stage as […]

A Simple Summer Picnic Menu

A Simple Summer Picnic Menu

Four collaged photos of picnic dishes.

[Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt, Vicky Wasik, Autumn Giles.]

A respectable picnic is something I’ve only recently started dabbling with. I’m not talking about the picnics all your favorite Instagram influencers seem to have mastered, the ones with three kinds of berry pies, a cheese plate—how did they transport that perfect cheese plate?!—and a whole host of pre-made cocktails. I’ve come to terms with the fact that those aspirational picnics are just not my style. I don’t want my day at the park or on the beach to become a stressful affair, so I keep things simple.

That means everything on this menu can be—at least to some degree—made in advance, and instead of aiming for a huge variety of dishes, I nail down just a few that I know all my friends will love equally. I ask someone to bring plenty of wine and someone else to come with an assortment of chips, in-season fresh fruit, and whatever else might catch their eye. With a little bit of assistance from the folks I’ll be feeding, a very summery, relaxing picnic is within reach.

Watermelon, Feta, and Mint Salad

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

This salad is a summer staple in restaurants and home kitchens alike, and for good reason. Because the dish is so simple, you want to get the best possible watermelon and feta. The saltiness of the cheese will cut through the crisp, sweet melon, and mint adds the freshness needed to remind you that summer is in full swing. To transport this salad, slice your watermelon and measure out your mint and feta, but wait to combine everything until you’ve arrived at your destination.

Watermelon, Feta, and Mint Salad Recipe »

Classic Potato Salad

Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

This may not be polite, but I measure any party or cookout I’m invited to by the quality of the host’s potato salad. No pressure, but a great potato salad is one of the most crucial elements of any good picnic spread. While some people prefer a drier, vinegar-based one, I’m a believer in the richer, mayonnaise-heavy salad. This potato salad is cut with a little rice wine vinegar and chopped cornichons for added saltiness and acidity. Part of what makes potato salad such perfect picnic food is that it requires a long rest after it’s been mixed, so the dressing can soak into and flavor the potatoes. So make yours in advance, and let the magic happen while you transport it.

Classic Potato Salad Recipe »

Insanely Awesome Shooter’s-Style Sandwiches

Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

These shooter’s-style sandwiches were designed with picnics in mind. The bread is hollowed out to leave maximum space for fillings, and the built sandwiches are then pressed between two cutting boards until they are compact and evenly pressed. You can leave them to compress overnight, making these ideal make-in-advance picnic main dishes. We designed four picnic-ready sandwiches, including one layered with Italian sausage and fontina cheese, along with a roasted vegetable and goat cheese one for the people who don’t eat meat.

Insanely Awesome Shooter’s-Style Sandwiches »

Jammy Fruit Bars

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

These sweet and jammy fruit bars are hearty and rich, thanks to plenty of rolled oats and butter worked into the crust and crumb topping. The jammy layer in between is easily adaptable, and we give instructions that allow you to adjust the recipe for whatever in-season fruit you’re hoping to use up. You can eat these cookie bars as soon as they come to room temperature, but in the interest of picnic planning, they’ll hold up well for three or four days at room temperature.

Jammy Fruit Bars Recipe »

Charred-Lemon Gin Sparkler

[Photograph: Autumn Giles]

This fancy-ish batch cocktail can be made almost entirely in advance, rendering it perfect for picnic imbibing. Charring lemons before you squeeze them mellows their acidity, and gives their juice a sweeter flavor. The juice is combined with sugar, rosemary, and gin, then refrigerated while the flavors meld and develop. Bring this cocktail on your picnic in several large glass jars, along with a separate, small cooler of ice. To finish each drink, pour the mixture into glasses, and top off with sparkling wine.

Charred-Lemon Gin Sparkler Recipe »

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Special Sauce: Matt Rodbard and Max Falkowitz on What’s Next in Food Media

Special Sauce: Matt Rodbard and Max Falkowitz on What’s Next in Food Media

[Ribs and ice cream photographs: Vicky Wasik] In part two of Ed Levine’s conversation with Max Falkowitz and Matt Rodbard, the three discuss how Falkowitz and Rodbard got started in food media and how their careers evolved. Falkowitz begins by underlining how intimidating it was […]

The Best Way to Chill Wine Fast

The Best Way to Chill Wine Fast

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik] If you think time moves slowly when you’re waiting for water to boil, try counting the minutes until that bottle of crushable summer wine you picked off the wine shop shelf chills down to the proper serving temperature in your refrigerator, or […]

Keep Brown Sugar Soft in One Easy Step

Keep Brown Sugar Soft in One Easy Step

Pouring brown sugar from its bag into an airtight glass container with a rubber gasket lid.

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

If you bake as often as I do, which is almost never, then you, too, know what it’s like to reach into the cupboard and pull out a block of brown sugar as hard as a brick.

As Stella has explained before, softening brown sugar to restore its original texture is as easy as reintroducing the moisture it’s lost in storage. Still, that requires the extra step of weighing your dehydrated rock of brown sugar and adding just the right amount of water, so it softens up without turning into a syrupy puddle. It’s useful to know how to fix the problem once you have it, but it also helps to know how to avoid it in the first place.

I’ve come across various tricks over the years to help preserve brown sugar’s texture, including adding a slice of bread or marshmallows to the container. I’ve also spied moisture-retaining terra-cotta doohickeys and special brown sugar storage jars online, but I’m lazy, and those things cost money and forethought. (I do not keep marshmallows in stock at home, and I’d like to think that has been at least part of my secret to a cavity-free life, which is, pathetically, one of my proudest accomplishments.)

Somehow, though, the most obvious solution eluded me until a few weeks ago, when I was eating a bowl of oatmeal at my in-laws’ summer home in Michigan. They set down on the table a glass swing-top jar with a rubber gasket, casually mentioning that it contained the last of the prior year’s brown sugar.

I scooped up a spoonful, and it was still as good as new. I’m almost embarrassed to admit how amazed I was by this.

So that’s it. That’s all you need: a really solid airtight jar or container. I like the kind above, which is designed for canning, since its rubber gasket will provide the most airtight and long-lasting seal. But other well-sealed containers (such as OXO Pop containers) can work, too, as can a zipper-lock bag with the air pressed out.

The more airtight your vessel is, the longer your brown sugar will retain its original texture—no extra ingredients, specialized gizmos, or anything else required.

Brown sugar stays soft for months on end when stored in an airtight container.

This post may contain links to Amazon or other partners; your purchases via these links can benefit Serious Eats. Read more about our affiliate linking policy.

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Daeji Bulgogi (Korean-Style Spicy Grilled Pork) Recipe

Daeji Bulgogi (Korean-Style Spicy Grilled Pork) Recipe

1. For the Daeji Bulgogi: Combine onion, Asian pear, scallion whites, garlic, and ginger in the bowl of a food processor and process to a coarse purée, scraping down sides of food processor bowl as needed, about 30 seconds. Transfer mixture to a medium bowl […]

How to Make Daeji Bulgogi

How to Make Daeji Bulgogi

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik] Perhaps the best part of working the “roast” (or “meat”) station in a restaurant kitchen is that you often end up with a steady supply of delicious meat scraps on your cutting board to snack on over the course of night’s service. […]

For This Mocha Icebox Cake, You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Cookie

For This Mocha Icebox Cake, You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Cookie

overhead shot of icebox cake topped with whipped cream and shaved chocolate

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

When we first published our recipe for ultra-thin and crispy chocolate chip cookies, a number of folks wrote to ask whether these would hold up in place of the Tate’s chocolate chip cookies that Ina Garten calls for in her Mocha Chocolate Icebox Cake.

Never having made it myself, I couldn’t say for sure, but I was game to try—who doesn’t love a good icebox cake? The simple combination of store-bought cookies and whipped cream was a style of dessert that came into fashion during the 1920s, thanks to the widespread availability of both in-home refrigeration and commercial wafers from manufacturers like Sunshine Biscuits and Nabisco. (The history of these companies and their influence on American recipe development are covered extensively in my cookbook, BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts.)

While icebox cakes evolved out of the much older tradition of molded desserts, like charlottes, the use of fancy store-bought cookies, rather than slices of cake or homemade ladyfingers, made them faster and easier to prepare, with layers that were thinner and crispier, too—not to mention chic!

icebox layer cake topped with chocolate chip cookies, whipped cream, and shaved chocolate

Tate’s chocolate chip cookies are nothing if not thin, crisp, and chic (and salty-sweet and delicious to boot), so it’s no wonder that Ina Garten favors them in her icebox cake. And here, I’ll cut to the chase: My copycat version holds up in her recipe just fine. If you love Garten’s recipe already, then you’re all set to make her icebox cake completely from scratch.

On the other hand, if you’re curious to learn how I’d make such a cake for myself, read on. Just know that my intent is not to “improve” on Garten’s recipe but to riff on the concept in my own way—which involves less sugar, more mascarpone, more chocolate, more espresso, more vanilla, and a hearty dose of salt. What can I say? I’m not subtle when it comes to mocha!

Step one for a fully DIY icebox cake is to make the Tate’s-style chocolate chip cookies, following the recipe exactly up to the baking phase. Instead of portioning the dough to bake as individual cookies, I arrange the pieces within the confines of a traced circle, so that they bake into giant, eight-inch disks—five of these cookie disks in total.

seven portions of cookie dough arranged in a daisy pattern on a baking sheet, and the finished shape of a six petal daisy after baking

I bake the cookies until they’re thin and light brown, with an even color from edge to center. Then, while they’re still hot from the oven, I use a knife to gently nudge any overgrown blobs back within the bounds of the circles.

If the spread is too extreme, as it may be here or there, the excess can be trimmed away instead. It will be tempting to snack on this, but hold on to the scraps—they’ll be useful for seasoning the filling later on.

This is the most time-consuming step of the recipe, but it’s also one that can be knocked out up to a week in advance, as the cookie disks will keep quite nicely at room temperature if tightly wrapped in plastic. It’s also a step that generates slightly more dough than needed for the icebox cake, which is the gift that keeps on giving, since the dough freezes very well (see the cookie recipe for more details).

The mocha filling for the icebox cake is comically simple, but this simplicity hinges on the quality of each ingredient. As mocha is a combination of chocolate and coffee, it pays to reach for the good stuff so the flavor can shine through the richness of the cream.

To that end, I recommend any of the brands in our guide to high-fat Dutch cocoa, along with a good-quality instant espresso, like King Arthur. Please note that instant espresso is made from a brewed liquid that’s been freeze-dried to form a fast-dissolving powder; it is not interchangeable with coffee grounds of any type.

bottles of Cardamaro and crème de cacao

My recipe also calls for crème de cacao, which is something I keep on hand for other baking projects (like tiramisu and no-churn chocolate ice cream), but the recipe is quite flexible about the type of liqueur used. You can even try an amaro!

The idea is to layer in some bittersweet flavors to open up the aroma of the coffee and chocolate in the cream. Alternatives such as Baileys and Kahlúa, or even rum, will work nicely. The ratio of alcohol to filling is low enough here that the end product will be suitable for children, but those who don’t consume alcohol at all can simply replace it with an equal amount of cream.

These ingredients are whipped with equal parts heavy cream and mascarpone, plus brown sugar, salt, and vanilla. (If you’re in the market for the latter, we have a guide to vanilla extract as well.) Having some cookie scraps on hand during this phase is useful for taste-testing, as it will give you a better idea of how the cookies and filling combine, and whether an additional pinch of salt or espresso powder may be in order.

mocha whipped cream ingredients, thick texture of the finished whipped cream, and depiction of the thin but even layer of whipped cream used to line the pan

After whipping the cream, I use it to generously “paint” the sides of an eight- by four-inch loose-bottom pan—I use Lloyd Pans’ 8″x4″ cheesecake pan, whose praises I’ve sung in the past—but it can be assembled in any sort of springform pan as well, although the exact quantities used for each layer will differ.

From there, I layer the cookie sheets and whipped cream together until I run out.

layering whipped cream and cookies into the loose bottom pan

Once it’s assembled, I cover the icebox cake with a sheet of foil and refrigerate it for at least six hours, but no longer than 18. (At that point, the cookies begin to soften too much for my taste, though your mileage may vary.)

When the cake is thoroughly chilled, unmolding it is as easy as letting it stand for five minutes at room temperature, then placing it on something tall and wide, like a can of tomatoes, to release the sides.

unmolding the icebox cake over a can of tomatoes to remove the sides

After that, I can easily slide an offset spatula under the bottom layer, allowing me to pop the icebox cake onto a serving platter or cake stand.

transferring the icebox cake to a plate, using an offset spatula to lift it up

To finish the icebox cake, I top it with a generous mound of unsweetened whipped cream, which provides a nice reprieve from the sweetness of the cookies and the bitterness of the filling.

icebox cake topped with fluffy mounds of whipped cream

I also spoon some milk-chocolate shavings over the top, though a handful of chocolate sprinkles would be lovely, too. For this recipe, I like to use a dark milk chocolate, such as Endangered Species 48%, but I can gladly recommend any of the bars listed in our guide to supermarket milk chocolate. Or, add some bitter notes by shaving one of our favorite dark-chocolate bars over the cake instead.

spooning shaved chocolate over the whipped cream topping of an icebox cake

There are any number of ways to make chocolate shavings or curls, but the easiest is to run a stick peeler down the narrow length of each bar and let the shavings fall onto a sheet of parchment underneath.

This works best with chocolate around 70°F (21°C), as it may be quite brittle when cool, or too soft when warm. You can technically do this with a Y-peeler as well, but its design tends to pull up fine shavings rather than curls.

After it’s assembled, serve the icebox cake right away, while it’s still nice and cold. Use a large chef’s knife to cut each portion, and make some peace with the fact that it’s a somewhat messy endeavor. That’s half the charm!

detailed picture of icebox cake

Remember that the cake will only get softer with time; whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is largely a matter of personal preference. For me, it’s best made and served within an 18-hour window, but my brother loves the way it dissolves into a soft but toothsome mush after a few days (he compares it to cake mashed with ice cream).

a slice of ice box cake with layers revealed

Likewise, when the icebox cake is still quite fresh, it may be too crispy for some (not me!), so bear its evolving texture in mind when considering your timeline of execution. When it’s done right, you’ll have chocolate chip cookies that are exactly as crisp or soft as you prefer, with a creamy filling that’s bold and bittersweet, laced with notes of espresso and vanilla.

This post may contain links to Amazon or other partners; your purchases via these links can benefit Serious Eats. Read more about our affiliate linking policy.

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Mocha Mascarpone Icebox Cake Recipe

Mocha Mascarpone Icebox Cake Recipe

3. For the Filling: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, combine mascarpone, heavy cream, brown sugar, liqueur, Dutch cocoa powder, instant espresso powder, vanilla extract, and salt. Mix on low speed until relatively homogeneous, then increase to medium and […]