cookies for kids cancer

I was listening to my favorite podcast Radio Cherry Bombe last week and heard an incredible woman's truly heartbreaking story about losing her 4 year old son to pediatric cancer. 

Somehow, through it all, her and her husband remained functioning human beings who have done incredible things in this world. I can't even imagine what kind of strength and character it takes to pick yourself back up after such a tragic loss.

Together they started a non-profit organization in their son's memory called Cookies For Kids Cancer. How they did all this ON TOP OF THEIR DAY JOBS is mind blowing to me. When I heard about this organization that is fighting pediatric cancer AND raises money through food, I couldn't not get involved. 

They're trying to raise 250,000 by December 30th because every dollar donated from now until then is being matched. I set an aggressive goal of trying to raise $2,500 by then and I'm hoping you can help me get there. $1, $5, $20... anything helps. Please consider donating to this amazing cause.

In honor of Gretchen's son Liam's favorite cookie flavor, lemon, I created this shortbread cookie recipe. It's crunchy, slightly sweet and subtly nods to the festivity of the season with a vibrant red raspberry dusting over white chocolate and green pistachio flecks. The best part, this recipe is incredibly easy to improvise AND can be made with ingredients you likely already have at home. 

In the spirit of the holidays, I hope you join me in trying to raise as much awareness and money as we possibly can for children fighting this terrible disease. Besides, who doesn't love a good cookie?!

lemon pistachio shortbread cookies with white chocolate and raspberry dust
adapted from vanilla and bean blog
yields 30 cookies

1 c. butter (2 sticks)
¾ c. granulated sugar
¼ tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 TBSP lemon juice
2 tsp. lemon zest
1 c. pistachios, chopped
2 c. flour

to garnish:
12 oz white chocolate chips
1 TBSP coconut oil
5 - 8 drops lemon essential oil (optional)
¼ c. freeze dried raspberries ground into a powder

In a medium mixing bowl (or your stand mixer bowl) add butter, sugar, salt, vanilla, lemon juice and zest and mix on low until just incorporated. You want to make sure you don't whip your butter until it's light and fluffy as this will cause your cookies to spread too much when you bake them. 

Scrape down the sides and add your chopped pistachios to the mix, stir to combine. Add all the flour at once and mix on low until all of the batter is incorporated and it pulls away from the sides of the bowl.

On a floured surface, dump out your dough and divide into two even balls. Roll both of the dough chuncks into a circular log about 3" thick. Wrap in plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, up to 3 days. This is another important step as you need the butter to completely solidify in order for the cookies not to spread too much when baking.

Preheat oven to 325º F.

Line your baking sheet with parchment paper and take your dough out of the refrigerator. With a knife, slice the cookies into round coins between ¼ - ½" in thickness. I like a slightly thicker shortbread but this is up to you. Place your rounds on the baking sheet with at least 1" between the cookies. Place your cookies back in the refrigerator for 20 minutes to re-firm the butter up.

Bake at 325º F for about 20 minutes until slightly golden but not too dark around the edges. I would start checking them around 16 minutes. Depending on your oven they might take a little more or little less time but I found 20 minutes on the dot was perfect.

Transfer to a cooling rack. Once cookies are completely cool, in a small saucepan combine the coconut oil, white chocolate and lemon essential oil over medium heat. Stir frequently until thoroughly melted.

Dip half of your cookies in the white chocolate mixture and place on parchment paper or a cooling rack to dry. After you've done a few rows, sprinkle with raspberry dust and let cool completely (about 2 hours). I like to firm them up extra by putting them in the refrigerator for about an hour too. In my hot kitchen (from the oven) the white chocolate never seems to fully set until I do this.

improv style:
shortbread cookies are the perfect thing to improvise!

the type of nut you use (or no nuts), citrus or no citrus, dipping in dark chocolate or milk instead of white. the options are endless. here's a few thought starters that got me excited:
orange zest + lavender vanilla bean 
pink peppercorn and rose dipped in white chocolate
lemon zest + thyme
basil + lime
cocoa nib + sea salt (sub the lemon juice for bourbon or coffee/espresso)

just make sure you keep the quantities the same (1 c. nuts and liquid levels the same). 

if you don't have essential oil for your white chocolate, that's ok. you can skip it or add lemon zest over the top of the cookies while the chocolate dries. i like that the essential oil breaks up the extreme sweetness of the white chocolate - it all balances it out!


strength, comfort and a little bit of wisdom

Before I get into my own deep stuff (this post gets a little personal). I want to take a minute to say thank you. Today is Veteran's Day. A day I feel so proud of my family and friends and complete strangers who have fought for our freedoms. Who have given up so much for all of us. Thank you for your service. Thank you for being braver than I ever could.

Let’s talk about comfort foods. Because Winter. And Elections. And sometimes that little voice in your head that tells you mean things.

I haven’t been posting as much the past 2 years for a few reasons. 1. was just my crazy work schedule which in the last 4 months I’ve found more balance. but reason 2. goes a lot deeper and is an even bigger reason why. 

I’ve been struggling. With my place in this food blogging world, with my high standards for great photography and interesting recipes, with not liking the design of my site, my storytelling/writing abilities and with so many other things. The little voice inside my head tells me that my photos aren’t good enough, that I’m not being healthy enough, that there are so many amazingly talented food bloggers out there and that I don’t even compare. Basically why are you wasting your time?

But here’s something I’ve realized the past few months… While my photos might not be as perfect as I’d like, and I’m by no means a professional recipe developer, I still have this crazy passion for eating and cooking and bringing people together through food. I might not post as frequently as I like. And my content might not be as beautiful as I’d like it to be. But every recipe I share is from my heart and that’s something - I think it is at least. 

So I promise that I’m going to try and keep that little voice inside my head at bay. To share more of my heart with you, even if it’s not perfect. And I’m going to keep striving for better. Better photos, better recipes and bettering myself.

Because I believe in good food. That there’s a time and a place for every kind of food. That means shitty fast food all the way to fancy pre-fix meals. Greasy burgers, a great bowl of pasta AND green smoothies. I love all of it, especially comfort food. It just has this way of making everything feel like it’s going to be all right in the moment. It’s like a hug on a plate or a bowl or straight outta the pan.

And a post like this. A post where I bare my soul and and admit my vulnerability calls for some serious comfort food. I’m talking ooey gooey, deeply chocolatey brownies. 

For me, the perfect brownie isn’t cakey and it isn’t fudgy. If I wanted cake I’d eat cake and same thing with fudge. For me, the perfect brownie is dense, rich, moist, chewy and most importantly, over the top chocolatey. This recipe is exactly that. They're the best brownies you'll ever eat which is a bold, but true statement.

I’m shaking a little bit as I sit here writing this but I believe that vulnerability makes us stronger if we don’t let it consume us. So if you’re ever feeling not _____ enough, know that you’re not alone. And that a batch of these brownies might just make it better. It did for me.

comfort brownies aka a hug on a platter
yields 24 brownies

20 oz dark chocolate chips - 12 oz melted, 8 oz regular
½ c. butter, cubed
6 large eggs
2 ½ c. sugar
½ tsp salt
1 TBSP vanilla extract
1 tsp espresso powder
4 TBSP dark cocoa powder
2 c. + 4 TBSP flour
1 TBSP flaky sea salt (I like Maldon)

Preheat oven to 350º F. 

In a double boiler, melt 12 oz dark chocolate chips with ½ c. cubed butter until smooth and combined, being careful not to scorch the chocolate. If you don't have a double boiler, you can put a glass bowl on top of a sauce pan (just make sure the water doesn't touch the bottom of the bowl) OR you can just put it in the microwave and do it in 20 - 30 second increments. Just be careful if you do that!!! Nothing worse than burnt chocolate. Once chocolate and butter are melted, set aside and let cool to room temperature.

In a large bowl or your stand mixer, mix eggs, sugar, salt, vanilla, espresso powder and cocoa powder together until incorporated. Slowly add in the cooled chocolate mixture. If it's not cooled, you'll make scrambled eggs and no one wants that. Once mixture is combined, add in your flour, mixing on the lowest speed to avoid a cloud of flour. Don't over mix, you just want everything to come together. Mix in ½ of the remaining chocolate chips (4 oz) by hand.

Butter a large, 13x9" rectangular pan and line with parchment paper. Pour batter into pan and top with remaining 4 oz chocolate chips. Sprinkle the top with sea salt and bake in the oven for 50 - 60 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean. You don't want to over bake them because it will dry out your brownies. Check them around 40 minutes. They will be set, your toothpick will have moisture but not wet batter stuck to it.

Let cool to room temperature before you cut and devour the brownies. 

improv style:
these brownies are a perfect base for whatever your comfort foods may be. need a little peanut butter with your chocolate? add in some chocolate pb cups or peanut butter chips and top it with roasted peanuts -whoa.

not a fan of dark chocolate? use milk! or white chocolate chips. or butterscotch chips. or caramel chunks. or candy pieces.

add nuts - almonds, pistachios, walnuts, pecans… 

get fancy and add cacao nibs or candied ginger or orange peel.

add mint extract, almond extract or your favorite chocolate fruit combo extract would be great. 

i truly believe you can make any recipe brownie better by adding 1 bag of chocolate chips to the mix (yes, even boxed brownies) and some flakey sea salt on top. if you're in a pinch, just do that and you're golden.

use #improvkitchen and tag @improvkitchen so i can see how you make this dish your own. i hope these brownies give you all the comfort and happiness.



Hide your bourbon, hide yo basil… because once you taste a sip of this cocktail you won’t be able to stop.

I’ve been keeping this recipe from you for far too long. It’s been my summer go-to and with the long weekend coming up, there’s no better way to keep the summer vibes going than by sippin’ on this SMASH.

It’s super easy to make and you can do it two ways – one’s lazier than the other and makes it a little more boozy/bourbony, the other is more of a fancy cocktail so it’s kind of like a choose your own adventure cocktail. Plus, you only need 4 ingredients + ice. Does ice count as an ingredient?! EASY PEASY!

This recipe is easily doubled, tripled, quadrupled (you get where I’m going). I recommend throwing on this song and get to shakin’.

whiskey basil smash
yields 1 drink

quick and easy way (more pronounced bourbon flavor)
2 oz bourbon
handful of fresh basil leaves (about 6 – 8 depending on how big)
splash of pure maple syrup (about 1 tsp), to taste
1 TBSP fresh lemon juice

ice, both crushed and a large rock
1 gorgeous basil leaf for garnish

In a cocktail strainer (or mason jar) add basil, whiskey and maple syrup and muddle for a good 30 seconds to bruise that basil and infuse as much flavor as you possibly can. Fill the shaker up with crushed or cubed ice and top with the lemon juice. Shake that sucker for a good minute. You want a little bit of the ice to naturally dilute the drink which balances out the cocktail.

Strain over 1 large ice cube or regular cubes, or "neat" if you don’t have a big “rock”. Place the basil leaf in the palm of your hand and give it a good smack. This releases more basil essence and it’s just fun. Place slapped basil on top, sip, enjoy, repeat… ahhhh!

fancy way (more like a true crafted cocktail and the bourbon is less pronounced)
2 oz bourbon
1 oz basil syrup
1 TBSP lemon juice

ice, both crushed and a large rock
1 gorgeous basil leaf for garnish

for the basil syrup:
1 c. filtered water
2 c. moderately packed basil leaves (thin stems are ok)
1/3 c. pure maple syrup
ice bath

To make the syrup:
Set up your ice bath. In a small sauce pan, blanch the basil in 1 c. boiling water for 15 seconds. Remove basil with tongs and immediately place in an ice bath. Turn the boiling water off. After 1 minute, transfer the basil to a blender. Place your sauce pan in the ice water to cool it down for about 5 minutes. 

Once the basil infused water is cool to the touch, pour it in the blender with the basil leaves, add the maple syrup and blend on high for 30 seconds. Strain with a fine mesh sieve and pour into a jar and store in the refrigerator until ready to use. It’s most vibrant green right away but can be made up to 2 days in advance. 

When ready to make the cocktail, add the bourbon, basil syrup and lemon juice in a shaker with ice. Give it a good shake for about a minute, strain and serve over ice. Garnish with fresh basil.

The lemon juice will start to turn the drink from a vibrant green to a slightly murkier green over time so don’t add the lemon until the very end to keep it purdy. It will still taste good once the color starts to change but who doesn’t love drinking a bright green cocktail?!

improv style:
This cocktail is dead simple to make and is easily substituted. I like to use maple syrup to keep it refined sugar free but you can easily use your favorite sweetener. Use regular sugar, honey, agave – whatever you have on hand!

Speaking of sweetener, I’m not the biggest SWEET cocktail fan. I like it balanced. If you’re more on the sweet side, add more. If you’re anti-sweet, try it with less or without. I find just a touch really balances it nicely though.

Not a fan of bourbon? I wasn’t either last summer. Something changed and now I want ALL THE BOURBON. If you’re not a whiskey fan, this cocktail is amazing with gin, vodka and even white tequila. Whatever you fancy, shake it up!

Basil… delicious. But so are lots of herbs. You could try this with your favorite like sage, rosemary or thyme.

How would you tweak the recipe to make it your own?!

I experimented with infusing bourbon with basil. It worked but didn't really add anything. Muddling is quicker and easier in my opinion.

 my sister came to visit last week and you know we were sippin' on the smashes! 


brunchin' all day err day

Hi my name is Morgan and I want to have brunch every day of the week. Sadly there’s this thing called work that gets in my way. Ugh, reality.

The reason I love brunch so much is because I’m not a big morning eater. I love food, don’t get me wrong. But I need to be up a solid 1-2 hours before I can even think about putting something into my body. 

Which is means brunch is my ideal time. Because any meal before 10a on a weekend is called BREAKFAST. I also believe that brunch without booze is just breakfast. Amiright?!

So can I tell you about my latest brunch obsession? Chilaquiles verde. I legit make these at least once a week and have been doing so for 6 months now. I blame my best friend for getting me hooked. I don’t know how I made it 30+ years without these but she changed my life that day. I’ve been making up for lost time ever since.

This dish is such a perfect thing to improvise. At it’s core, you need eggs, salsa and tortilla chips. The best news?! If you have stale chips, you can use those. It's kind of like the bread pudding of brunch (or breakfast for dinner, I'm not judging).

I like to fancy it up because more toppings = more flavah. I also like mine to have a little texture in the chips, not crunchy but not a saucy mess either. Everyone has their own preference and method but I’m sharing my perfect version with you. How would you change the recipe and make it yours?

yields 2 servings

1 TBSP oil (canola or olive oil)
4 c. corn tortilla chips
4 eggs
c. salsa verde
¾ c. shredded sharp white cheddar cheese

to garnish:
cilantro, chopped
green onion, sliced thin
tomatoes, diced 
radish, sliced thin
sour cream
hot sauce #swag (tapatio is my fav for this dish)

Before you start cooking, I like to shred my cheese and crack all of my eggs into a small bowl. This dish comes together really quickly so mise en place is key. Don’t forget to prep your garnishes too!

In a large cast iron skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Once it’s hot, add in the tortilla chips and toss around until they’re golden brown and toasted in some places. Dump in your eggs and gently fold them together until they’ve coated the chips and the eggs are 90% cooked. You want to be careful not to break your chips too much at this part (not the end of the world if you do though so don’t panic). 

Next, add in your salsa and again, fold the chips until it coats your chips. You’ll see them start to soften. This is where you might want to adjust the quantity. If you like a crunchier chip, start with less and if you want them softer, add more salsa - it’s up to you! Once the chips are as soft as you like, add in the shredded cheese and turn off the heat. Let the cheese melt a bit, stir and then serve!

I like to make a little toppings buffet and people can dress theirs how they like. Add your favorite toppings and devour. 

improv style:
i’ve made these a million ways. every tortilla chip is slightly different. some are thicker, some are better tasting. my ideal is whole foods tortilla chips but at $7/bag, they’re quite the treat. i’ve used blue corn chips, yellow and white corn - they all work. if it’s a thicker chip, you’ll need more salsa and thinner, less salsa.

speaking of salsa… use your favorite type. i love salsa verde so i use that but you can do red salsa, chipotle salsa, etc… the options are endless. you can also use enchilada sauce or a combo of things.

cheese is another one that is completely flexible. i usually always have white sharp cheddar on hand but you could use pepper jack, monterey, mozzarella, cheddar, honestly, anything besides the blue or swiss family cheese. you can also leave it out if you’re dairy free or not into cheese. if you’re going to do goat i would recommend sprinkling it on as a garnish instead. same thing with cotija if you’re going for a more authentic approach

ok, on to the fun stuff. garnishes are limitless. just trust your gut and use your favs. last week i had leftover kale and some corn salsa so i threw those into the pan with the salsa and it turned out delish. you can add chipotle in adobo for extra smokey flavor.

if you’re vegan you can leave out the eggs and add more salsa. similarly, you can cook it that way and then top it with fried eggs instead. i like it all mixed. probably because that’s how it was introduced to me and it’s SO GOOD.

now that we've gotten ingredients out of the way, let's talk about improv cooking. i like the chips to still have texture but others like them more saturated or more crunchy. this is where you'll have to experiment and figure out how much liquid to add to your chips to make them perfect for you.

can’t wait to hear how you’d change it up! if you try this recipe, be sure to tag @improvkitchen or #improvkitchen so i can see what you're up to. happy brunching.


burgers all day every day

HALLELUJAH it’s finally grilling season!! 

To me, there’s no better way to kick off Memorial Day Weekend than with a proper grilled burger. I love all types of burgers but there’s something about a classic cheeseburger with special sauce, lettuce, tomato and grilled onions on a brioche bun, mmmmmm. 

Over the years I’ve perfected my secret sauce and well, I’m going to make it not so secret because it’s too good not to be shared! 

I like to make a batch of this and keep it in a mason jar in the fridge so I can have it on hand whenever I get a hankering for a burger. It tends to last about a month but I’m not an expert on these things. I go by the rule of is there mold? No? Does it smell funky? No? Then you’re probably safe. You do what feels right to you but definitely make this sauce for your burgers this weekend.

On an important side note, thank you to everyone who has served or is serving our country. I don't take my freedom lightly and have the most respect to people who have and continue to defend our country. I'm proud to say both of my grandfathers served, one of them even earned a purple heart. This weekend I will be toasting to their memory with a juicy burger in hand. 

secret sauce
yields about 1½ c.

c. mayonaise 
c. ketchup
¼ c. yellow mustard
2 TBSP dill relish
1 TBSP cognac
½ tsp onion powder
½ tsp garlic powder

In a small bowl, mix all the ingredients until fully incorporated. Transfer to a jar and store in the fridge until you’re ready to use. It gets better with time but I let it sit at least 20 minutes before using it. 

improv style:
i’m a fan of creamy things. some people like it less. if you’re one of those people, up your ketchup and minus your mayo game.

i’m also a BIG dill pickle fan, i don’t mess around with the sweet stuff. you can easily swap for sweet relish if that’s more your thing.

no cognac? this my friends is something i highly recommend. it adds such depth of flavor a touch of sweetness. you could leave it out but you could also sub for brandy - just don’t use a flavored one. you could also try a dry sherry. 

onion and garlic powder are often my secret weapon when cooking. they pack a one two flavor punch. you could also try fresh garlic and onion but it will make your sauce chunkier and it won’t last as long in the fridge. if you do the fresh route, i would recommend going easy on the garlic, it can be quite dominant.

i like yellow mustard. there’s something intense about grainy mustard for me. dijon is good but in this it tends to take over a little much. i go more for that creamy background flavor that compliments the beef. you can easily use your favorite mustard here though.

fresh cracked pepper would be a nice addition to the sauce if you’re into it. what do you put in your secret sauce?