My obsession with chocolate chip cookies began with a piece from the New York Times. I’d always been a fan of the classic American treat, but never thought to devote much effort to making them my own. The ritual of baking was reserved for my first love, pies, and even then I wasn’t much for personalizing – the most fun part of baking a pie for me (besides eating it) has always been making the crust with nothing but a fork and my own hands.
The notion that cookie dough could actually improve by being kept in the fridge, combined with my state of unemployment at the time, turned me around on the subject. I decided to test out the article’s method of allowing dough to settle over a few days and quickly became obsessed with working towards a chocolate chip cookie recipe of my own, playing with ingredients and noting changes in taste and texture from batch to batch. Almost ten months later, just as chocolate chip cookie fever is hitting one of my favorite food sites, I feel temptingly close to conclusion.
This isn’t to say I’ve unearthed the secrets to a perfect cookie. The hopeless temperature variance of my apartment’s oven, my lack of desire to use a sifter and a general limit to what I’m willing to go through for cookies are just a few of the factors working against any kind of perfection. Instead, I’ve focused on the process. My goal is to develop a method that will yield cookies that are consistently above the cut, but just as important to me is developing an instinct for how ingredients work. Aside from my first read of that Times article, I’ve consulted no cookbooks or blogs, instead carrying on an extended journey of trial, error and gluttony in the confines of my kitchen counter.
My starting point was the Tollhouse recipe, a baseline that I felt would allow me to flex certain ingredients with clear outcomes. Dig it:
The Original Tollhouse Recipe
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2 cups (12-oz. pkg.) Nestle Toll House
Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels
1 cup chopped nuts
The Eaten Path’s Helpless Home Baker’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe
2 1/8 cups all-purpose flour, packed but not sifted
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) European style butter
3/8 cup granulated sugar
9/8 cup (9 oz.) packed dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons bourbon
2 large eggs
Half a bag of chocolate morsels of your choice
1 cup chopped pecans
Use a fork to combine flour, baking soda and salt in a bowl. Use that fork to beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, vanilla and bourbon in a larger, separate bowl until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating mixture slowly until each egg is completely distributed. Gradually add flour, folding it into the mixture. As soon as all of the flour has been mixed in, stir in the morsels and nuts. Be careful not to over-mix the cookie dough. Put it in the refrigerator and wait for at least three days before baking.
Having played around with the ingredients of the Tollhouse recipe, I’ve decided that only a few things truly matter in the making of a delicious chocolate chip cookie. While my recipe alters the proportions of sugar and vanilla, adds bourbon and substitutes pecans, I consider all of those changes a matter of personal preference, not making a significant enough dent in the basic structure or flavor of the cookie to make their own requirement. Of course, what I’ve come up with is ultimately just a variant of the time-honored Tollhouse recipe, but I feel like this is what we usually want when we think of homemade cookies – for the gourmet and the scientific, you’ll have to talk to a more serious baker.
What Matters Most?
The quality of your butter matters. Simply put: Use European style butter. Plugra was my mainstay until Trader Joe’s stopped carrying it – three batches of cookies made from American and Irish butter convinced me to stick to European and never look back. It gives cookies a fuller texture and a richer, more buttery flavor.
I leave my butter on the counter until it’s softened to room temperature. Disasters in microwaving with consequent bombs in cookie composition convinced me that having the foresight to set the butter out hours before beginning to make the dough is the simplest and most effective way to get the butter soft enough to cream into the sugar.
The amount of flour you use matters. “2 1/4 cups flour” is awfully vague, leaving out details on what type of flour works best and whether or not the flour should be sifted, packed or otherwise handled in regards to volume. On top of this, the difference between 2 cups and 2 1/4 cup can be big, determining whether or not your cookies flatten out when baking or rise up nicely in the center. Lovers of flatter, chewier cookies should use less flour, but for a nice body I use between 2 1/8 and 2 1/4 cups of flour, packed but not sifted. I’m still toying with this level between batches, as I can’t quite decide which kind of cookie I like more – seeing what comes out differently in each batch is part of the fun!
How you mix your ingredients matters. Don’t switch the order of ingredients. When you beat your eggs into the butter-and-sugar mixture, do it slowly and gently, making sure egg is settled into dough as much as you can tell. When adding flour, don’t rush, but don’t mix too slowly – you want to avoid clumps of flour and hardening of the dough. Dark dough is a good thing. You can do all of this with a fork and spoon if you’re diligent about it – no mixer required.
Choice of chocolate is entirely up to you. I tend to favor 60% dark chocolate chunks, but I’ve used chocolate chips of all kinds and achieved wholly tasty results. My personal favorite is Scharffen Berger’s 41% milk chocolate, but the money and effort required to obtain this and get it into chunk form is only worth it when I’m especially depressed.
Preheat oven to 375° F. Spoon mounds of cookie dough onto a baking sheet using a tablespoon. Lightly sprinkle salt onto the cookies and bake for 9 to 11 minutes or until edges are turning golden brown. Cool until you can snatch a cookie off the sheet without mutilating it. Eat for dear life.
How Should It Taste?
I’m not one for cakey, crumbly cookies. This recipe should yield chocolate chip cookies that have a crisp, nicely browned edge and a moist, chewy center. Pecans work especially well at infusing the cookie with a nutty, toasted flavor to balance against the deeper, richer notes of chocolate and butter.
Setting time matters. This is the answer I originally sought to test, and I’m happy to say that it’s true! Allowing your dough to settle in the fridge for at least a few days makes a sharp difference in both texture and taste. I’ve been advised not to leave mine in the fridge too long, but I’ve baked cookie dough that’s over a month old – the results handily defeated cookies made from dough that was just mixed. I usually leave my dough in the fridge for the better part of a week before baking my first batch. Waiting longer than two weeks to put your dough in the oven results in a fading of the lighter flavors, but by no means does it ruin the cookie.
The most noticeable improvement that comes with time is in the cookie’s crust: It crosses the line from crumbly to chewy, attaining firmer edges and a nice, hefty crunch. The inside of the cookie feels more dense, with fewer pockets of air and more of a luscious texture. The brighter flavors back off a bit, allowing the darker notes of butter and toffee to enter the picture, making for a more complex taste.
Baking doesn’t have to be tedious, but it does require an appreciation for subtlety and the patience to explore how one bite can vary in a number of ways. As long as you’re curious about what you’re fooling with, there’s no way you can go wrong – every mistake yields a new insight into the baking process. As for my own process, I have yet to jump off the deep end in fooling around with the egg content of my recipe, but I think what I’ve achieved so far makes a crowd pleaser of a chocolate chip cookie. I have no lack of confidence that if you start from this post, you can do better.