Do you remember your first chocolate chip cookie? I don’t mean the one from the grocery store or the one from the bake sale or even the one your granny had waiting for you when you came over. I mean your first chocolate chip cookie. I definitely don’t remember mine, but I’m pretty sure it came from the back of the Toll House chocolate chip bag. I loved baking cookies when I was little, but they were always way worse than the ones I could buy at the store or, even better, the ones that came from a mix so people still gave tiny me the baking credit. This battle over how to really make a good chocolate chip cookie continued into adolescence. My mom tried to teach me, my grandmother tried to teach me. I bet even my sixth grade home economics teacher tried to teach me. I probably made hundreds (thousands?) of cookies, but they all had this weird taste that sang amateur as you bit into their crumbly bodies. I say crumbly because they weren’t crispy like Tate’s and they weren’t thick and chewy like Levain, and they definitely weren’t anything like the massive cookies you get at Bouchon or Jacques Torres that are basically 33% butter, 33% sugar, and 33% chocolate (1% love?).
I found a recipe a few years ago, which I will post below, that I’ve been able to adapt into a reliably good cookie. But that’s not enough. Everyone should have a best cookie. How can I call myself an amateur home baking hobbyist if I don’t even understand the science behind the cookie? I gave up on trying new chocolate chip cookie recipes, convinced there was just something inside me, some terrible, ugly thing, that precluded my cookie fame.
Until Joanne Chang and her cookbook, Flour (mentioned here before and based on her Boston bakeries), came to the rescue. I made her chocolate hazelnut cookies. They were thin, buttery, and crisp; better than nutella. Everybody loved them. My faith was modestly restored. They were not chocolate chip cookies. They were a whole other breed, heavily dependent on their nut content (both ground and chopped). I had to know – now that I am older and wiser and endlessly more careful in the kitchen, would I be able to go back to the basics and bake a truly wonderful batch of chocolate chip cookies? Or would I have to forever rely on Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s to fill that gaping buttery gap in my arteries?
Ms. Chang’s cookbook has a recipe for chocolate chunk cookies and it appealed to me most of all because it included a resting step. Cookie pre-bake nap time is such a hot topic that it actually made the NY Times. There are two things to consider when you’re deciding how long to let your cookies dream of milk before torching them. First – I’ve always been taught that cold batter will keep a better shape when baked because it doesn’t melt as much before baking. Second – allowing the ingredients to mingle will encourage them to take the next step and, basically, absorb each other. In more scientific terms, that means the dry ingredients have a chance to absorb the wet ingredients when left in the fridge overnight before baking (or at least a few hours, or even just ten minutes on the countertop according to some). Since I was doing weeknight baking for my students (last day of class! Woo!) it was easy for me to make the cookies Wednesday night and bake them Thursday morning, therefore really letting everyone get to know each other in the dark, chilly depths of the fridge.
Resting time isn’t the only factor for a good cookie, though. Using the best chocolate you can afford is very important. However, when I’m baking for my students, I tend to forgo the fancy stuff and use the ever reliable Trader Joe’s branded chocolate. Something else to consider is the consistency of the butter (leave time to get to room temperature) and the type of flour. I never would have imagined using bread flour in a cookie was an actual thing that actual cooks did (it’s called bread flour, people). According to a whole bunch of folks, including Mr. Chocolate himself, bread flour can increase chewiness because of the higher gluten content. I still wish someone would enlighten me as to how to get my cookies to stop deflating after emerging from the oven. Is this due to my expired baking soda? The temperature of my kitchen? The fact that I am and will always be just a relatively shitty home baker? I don’t really know. I was once told to bang my cookie sheet down onto the counter, as if to shock the cookies into standing upright. I’m not sure that actually works, and it’s out of the question early on a Thursday morning in a crowded NYC apartment building, with at least 2 loud dogs and 3 cranky children lurking somewhere beyond these walls. Based on my most recent (i.e. within the past ten minutes) experiment, it seems that perhaps less baking time would allow a slightly thicker cookie, but that is purely anecdotal and I possibly just haven’t given the most recent batch enough time to flatten out.
So how do you make the perfect cookie? Well…perhaps you don’t. Perhaps you leave that to the pros and to the people who are willing to use two and a half sticks of butter for every six cookies, and buy pricey chocolate wafers for each batch, and throw out the baking soda when it just isn’t cutting it. Are the cookies I just made from Ms. Chang’s recipe the best cookies I’ve ever had? No. But they may be the best chocolate chip cookies I’ve ever made, thanks to all those little extra steps.
My previous go-to cookie recipe, adapted from allrecipes.com
1 c. (2 sticks) butter
3/4 c. granulated sugar
1 c. packed brown sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 c. bread flour
2 c. all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp hot water
1/2 tsp salt
2 c. chocolate chips or chopped semi-sweet chocolate
1 c. chopped walnuts, optional
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
2. Cream together the butter, white sugar, and brown sugar until smooth. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then stir in the vanilla. Dissolve baking soda in hot water. Add to batter along with salt. Stir in flour, chocolate chips, and nuts. Drop by large spoonfuls onto ungreased pans.
3. Bake for about 10 minutes in the preheated oven, or until edges are nicely browned but center is still a bit gooey.