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Monday, June 25, 2007

In Pursuit of The Perfect Cookie

Let me preface: I am not a baker.

Not in the way some of my friends are. You know who you are, people…Darcy, you and your English Trifles and Pumpkin Loaves…and Michaela, She-Who-Makes-Her-Own-Stollen-From-Scratch at Christmastime…and, The Treumann Siblings…Julie and John David…keepers of a super-secret, to-die-for brownie recipe I can’t seem to pry from either one, drunk or sober.
And then, there’s my husband. In our house, when it’s time to figure out dessert, he’s your man. The guy has a way with pastry dough, and don’t even get me started on his highly refined, esthetic sense regarding decorations and garnishes. All you need to see is one of his Thanksgiving pies, topped with small cutouts of oak leaves. (Martha Stewart would be lucky to be this good.) Stephen’s foray into the baking world was one of those things that evolved from several rather unfortunate baking disasters I perpetrated early in the marriage. He decided to step in, and ever since, to my growing frustration, guests automatically turn towards him to lavish praise after tasting an ethereal, mind-blowing dessert at our table.

Fine. It’s all good. I’m Savory. He’s Sweet. I’m Yin. He’s Yang. Swell. But, still…it kind of irked me. I couldn’t take being bad at something. And, I most certainly could not continue making cake-mix cupcakes. People would tell me bakers are meticulous people…measuring is SO important, blah blah blah…I can measure! I DO measure things…err, sometimes. So, a couple years ago, I figured I’d try to stake out a tiny, insignificant corner of his baking empire. Maybe, like, cookies. I’d start there, and then kind of work my way up to the occasional, humble pound cake, or even a modest sheet cake.

The first step was building confidence…and well, yeah, being more vigilant with that measuring thing. This is where Cook’s Illustrated, or what I called The Cooking Nerd magazine, came in.. I owe them a huge debt of gratitude. The “master” recipes they publish are always preceded by a roundup of the background development they do first, including a pretty specific description of the taste they are after. Some say perfect reading for an insomniac, but I love it! They also outline all the things that can go wrong and somehow all of this emboldened me to give baking a shot. I discovered so many other wonderful recipes through them, that in a way, they were a type of ‘cooking school’ for me.

This brings me to what had become the Holy Grail of baking for me. The Perfect Chocolate Chip cookie. It’s my personal favorite of the good old American cookies and one that has a million variations. For a time, I used Stephen’s Nana’s recipe – shortening was a main ingredient and the resulting cookies were delicious! At holiday time she used to replace the chocolate chips with m&m’s for a festive touch. But I was restless, and Crisco was starting to freak me out. Someone told me the best recipe was printed on the back of the package of Nestle’s Toll House Morsels – the semi-sweet chips. Used that for a time. Others followed…The Silver Palate Cookbook. Cook’s Illustrated. Gourmet Magazine. I never really ‘clicked’ with any particular cookie.
Until this past weekend…

Yes, everyone…I have found The Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie.

It’s from Dorie Greenspan’s wonderful book: Baking
(Big surprise. I own a bunch of baking cookbooks – you remember…I have excess cookbook issues. Can’t help myself.)

The cookies are of the thin/crispy variety. I am not a fan of the too-doughy cookie, or the overly large, giant-style that comes into vogue every so often. My theory is that the hand-chopped chocolate (Valrhona Semi-Sweet) is the winning component. (But, really…what is there that fancy French chocolate can’t improve?!) In the book, Dorie recommends that you hand-chop the chocolate for cookies, as opposed to using pre-packaged morsels, and I have to say that despite the fact that it adds another, slightly messy, step, I heartily agree. When chopped, the chocolate is in uneven chunks – the smaller slivers melt into the cookie, creating picturesque swirls throughout, while the bigger nuggets stay melty soft. Sigh. A chocolate-lovers dream! The recipe also adds 1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans, but I don’t believe in nuts in chocolate chip cookies. ‘Nuf said.

You should hawk the oven a bit with these…they browned a little more quickly than she says…but it made for a lovely, peaceful afternoon, puttering in the kitchen. The only other thing – and I’ve learned this through my adventures in baking – is to use silicone mats, like SILPAT, to line the baking sheets. Makes for really even browning on any cookie, and clean-up a cinch.

Thorough testing was done by some of my favorite cookie monsters, Clemence, Charlotte and Phillipe, who pronounced them “wrrlee ghkoogdgg” – that’s “really good” spoken through a mouthful of cookie. The adults sitting nearby all nodded silently in agreement, mouths full. My search for the The Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie is done….for now.

Dorie Greenspan’s Best Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from BAKING From My Home to Yours

(makes about 45 cookies)

2 c. all-purpose flour
1 t. salt
¾ teaspoon
2 sticks (8 oz.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 c. sugar
2/3 c. (packed) light brown sugar
2 t. pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs
10 oz. Valrhona semi-sweet chocolate, chopped into uneven chips (I used 10 oz. as opposed to Dorie’s recommended 12 oz. – so if you’re a chocolate lover…by all means use more!)

Center oven rack and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.

Whisk together the flour, salt and baking soda.

Using a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed for about 1 minute, until smooth. Add the sugars and beat for another 2 minutes or so, until well blended. Beat in the vanilla. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for 1 minute after each egg goes in. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients in 3 portions, mixing only until each addition is incorporated. On low speed, or by hand with a rubber spatula, mix in the chocolate.

(The dough can be covered and refrigerated for up to 3 days, or frozen. If you’d like, you can freeze rounded tablespoonfuls of dough, ready for baking. Freeze the mounds on a lined baking sheet, then bag them when they’re solid. There’s no need to defrost the dough before baking—just add another minute or two to the baking time.)

Spoon the dough by lightly rounded tablespoonfuls onto the baking sheets, leaving about 2 inches between spoonfuls.

Bake the cookies—one sheet at a time and rotating the sheet at the midway point—for 9 to 10 minutes, or until they are brown at the edges and golden in the center; they may still be a little soft in the middle, and that’s just fine. Pull the sheet from the oven and allow the cookies to rest for 1 minute (this is when I spoon out the next batch) then carefully, using a wide metal spatula, transfer them to racks to cool to room temperature.

Repeat with the remainder of the dough, cooling the baking sheets between batches.

In the book, it says these cookies can keep for 4 days, in a sealed container. Sure...don't be surprised if they disappear not long after coming out of the oven.


Alex said...

That is a challenge -- finding the best chocolate chip cookie. I know there's something entirely different about the business-world cookie and the homemade cookie. However, I have to ask, where would a Mrs. Field's cookie fall in the continuum of favorite cookies? There's something about those cookies, for me at least, that can't be matched.... but it bugs me that they 1) are not homemade, and 2) cost so freakin' much (excuse the Southern dialect). I have a theory, based on not much, that many of our bakery goods have a secret ingredient that makes things so chewy, moist, and delicious... is it corn syrup? I can't figure out how else it could be possible. It's the one thing I've never seen suggested in a homemade recipe, and it would be the major difference in a missing chewiness, and moistness -- whether it's muffins, cupcakes, cookies, scones, etc. etc.
I've not ventured so far as to try it out myself, but I guess I got the notion once from some carmel corn I made. The carmel corn had a truly professional quality to it, and folks from near and wide could not believe how delicious it was -- most of whom were not carmel corn eaters (nor am I, usually).

Anonymous said...

These are excellent articles. I never knew you were such a gifted writer.

We got kohlrabi in this weeks farm share. Maybe some hot italian sausage would make it more interesting.

Juliekins said...

I can shed some light on the Mrs. Fields mystery, having accessed the recipe through ill-gotten means many years ago. But the recipe isn't so mysterious after all. In fact it's the same as that infamous, urban myth $250 Neiman-Marcus cookie recipe and it goes a little something like this:

1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2.5 c flour
2 cups oat bran (ground oat bran, you can find it anywhere; this is part of the secret ingredient, what gives them their heft)
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 tsp salt
shaving of one chocolate bar (part 2 of the secret ingredient)
chocolate chips

Mix all the wet ingredients; then add the dry, then add the chips. Do not overstir. I learned once that overstirring activates all the leavening agents and makes for a drier cookie.

Bake at 350 degrees for the standard 8-10 min.

I have made many adjustments to this over the years. I double the vanilla. I might only use half the oat bran, a little less sugar and I always double the salt. That discovery came by way of a happy accident: once, in the middle of making a batch, I realized there was no salt in the house. Except sea salt. So I used that, and wow, these crunchy crystals of salt mixed in with mouthfuls of chocolate were so delicious. Doubling the salt has a similar but more subtle effect. I also always take cookies out of the over a minute early.

I have pretty strong feelings about chocolate chip cookies actually, and Mrs. Fields' were once upon a time quite a revelation. Perhaps I ascribe her too much, but those cookies came of age at a time when cooking in the US began to shift away from iceberg lettuce to mesclun and so forth...and while today you can walk into any place and buy homemade cookies, Mrs. Fields was the first. Still, the cookies today are different than they once were-- now they're undistinguished, greasy and heavy discs of lard and chocolate. I'm not sure what happened there, but cutting corners and costs might be part of it.

My most recent chocolate chip cookie revelation is at Jacques Torres' store in Brooklyn. I fully acknowledge how obscene it is to eat two of them sandwiched around peanut butter chocolate chunk ice cream, but that's exactly what I did last week-end. The crazy thing about his cookies is that the bottom of the cookie appears to be full-on does he do that??? It's almost as if he's reveresed the classic proportions: more chocolate than dough. Whatever. It's pretty awesome. (Can't say the same for the ice cream, which had almost no taste.)

Alex said...

Julie -- it's so simple it's maddening (about Mrs. Fields).... and I guess that's the truth about just about anything. Once you find out the secret, well, it's just about ordinary.

Still, I'm glad to know, and I look forward to making my own attempt sometime in the near future.