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brownie tarts & vanilla bean ice cream

Yesterday was the last day of school. This morning as I slid quietly from the bed, I pulled the gray linen curtains to the side and peered into the dawning stillness. Summer break, I thought. Two words that offer both relief and anxiety. Relief that my children will get a much-deserved and necessary reprieve from the daily demands of school life. Anxiety that their inevitable, eventual boredom with each other and with me will cause them to bicker and make me irritable.

Summer break is a cycle, like anything else. I will still have my to-do lists and I will begin, once again, to carve out the time needed day-to-day in which to write and clean and run errands in between supervising crafts and play times with friends. We will visit local farmers' markets. We will bake. We will continue to hold our weekly Friday night indoor sleepover in the living room; it is always a cozy tangle of sleeping bags and pillows, homemade pizzas, tortilla chips with homemade salsa, and movies. During the rest of the week, we will make a point of reading more books and using fewer screens. I have to remind myself of this as well. We will sign up for the annual summer reading program through our library. I will lie on an old quilt in the grass and photograph my daughters as they play, as I observe them changing minute to minute, week to week until, at the end of July, we begin the next cycle of the new school semester.

I am excited to begin this current cycle. Life, up until several months ago, had felt like a drudgery for so long, something that I had to fight to get through each day. It is better now. Much better. Maybe I'll touch on the subject of clinical depression in a longer, future post, if it seems there is any interest on the subject; for now, I want to just say that it is a huge relief to be able to breathe again. I was underwater, drowning, for so long, and now I can breathe. I have more energy. I enjoy my time with my husband and children so much more now. I am less judgmental of myself. This morning as I sat down with a cup of fresh coffee and looked out into the woods, with the sunlight streaming through the dark green leaves and the hint of a blue sky peeking through the tops of the trees, I was surprised to find myself smiling. It felt really good.

I often bake cookies or brownies for an afternoon snack for everyone, utilizing no-fail recipes that I've tweaked over the years, usually involving only one or two bowls and fairly minimal cleanup. After making my favorite easy, very fudgy brownie recipe a few days ago, I was inspired by the thought of my seldom used individual tartlet pans, and the idea formed for individual brownie tarts nestled inside a salty graham cracker crust. There would have to be a dollop of vanilla bean ice cream on top, of course. And I knew that my stash of fresh cherries would be involved. The end result was dreamy and summery, and a nice surprise for my family after dinner.

Individual Brownie Tarts
Yields: 6 tarts

You will need:
Graham Cracker Crust (recipe follows)
Brownie Batter (recipe follows)
Cherry Jam (optional)
Cherries (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a large rimmed sheet pan with foil, place 6 little tart pans on top, and spray the inside of each with nonstick cooking spray. Set the sheet pan aside.

Graham Cracker Crust
2 tbsp unsalted, melted butter
7 full graham cracker sheets, finely crushed
2 tbsp granulated white sugar
1/4 tsp coarse kosher salt

Mix all of the ingredients together in a medium bowl. Put a handful of the crust mixture into each prepared tart pan, reserving about 1/4 cup of crumbs for garnish later. Press the mixture down into the bottom of each tart pan. Set aside.

Brownie Batter
4 tbsp coconut oil (I use a mild-tasting, neutral oil that doesn't taste overwhelmingly of coconut)
A generous 1/2 cup chocolate chips (milk or dark - your preference)
2 large cage-free eggs
1/2 cup granulated white sugar
1/2 tbsp pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 cup all-purpose unbleached flour + 1 tbsp
A big pinch of coarse kosher salt (about 1/4 tsp)

In a small, microwave-safe bowl, melt the coconut oil and chocolate chips in the microwave on High for 30 seconds. Remove the bowl and stir until all of the chocolate has melted into the hot oil. Set aside to cool slightly.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs and sugar together until well combined. Add the vanilla and the coconut oil/chocolate mixture and whisk to combine. Add in the cocoa, flour, and salt, and use a spatula to fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients until just combined. Use a spoon or small ice cream scoop to distribute the batter evenly among the prepared tart pans.

Bake the tarts for only 10 to 15 minutes, and then check with a toothpick. You want the tops to be thin and crackly, and for the interiors to still be very gooey. Don't over bake these. (I baked mine for exactly 15 minutes, and the interiors were nice and fudgy. Next time I probably won't go over the 10-minute mark, to ensure that they are even more gooey.)

Let the tarts cool in the pans, and then serve them in the pans because they look really cute that way.

No-Churn Vanilla Bean Sour Cream Cheesecake Ice Cream
Yields: about 2 pints

I've made a lot of ice cream and, while I enjoy using my ice cream maker and starting with a cooked custard base, sometimes I want a quick frozen fix. This no-churn ice cream is one that I've made many times, each in a slightly different way, depending on the ingredients I happen to have on hand. It is extremely rich; a small scoop satisfies even my serious sweet cravings.

1 (8-oz) brick Neuchatel cheese
1 1/2 heaping cups sour cream
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
7 oz sweetened condensed milk (half of a 14-oz can - save the rest for another batch of ice cream)
2 tbsp pure vanilla extract
2 tsp pure vanilla bean paste
3/4 tsp coarse kosher salt
1 tbsp unflavored vodka*

Combine all of the ingredients in a blender and blend until very smooth. The mixture will be very liquidy.

Divide the mixture evenly between two freezer-safe containers. I often use two loaf pans lined with plastic wrap. Cover the mixture with plastic wrap and freeze overnight (preferably), or at least 4 hours, before serving.

To serve, put a spoonful of cherry jam on top of each tart, then top with ice cream and a sprinkle of the reserved graham cracker crumbs, if desired.

*I've found that the splash of vodka added to the mixture, prior to freezing, helps it to stay fairly scoopable right out of the freezer, but I do still allow the loaf pan to sit at room temperature for about 10 minutes before I scoop, for easier serving.