Cracking the Code on Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies - No. 31
I baked dozens to arrive at a cookie of my dreams
Carolyn walked into the family reunion with a tin of homemade cookies, and cousins followed her through the house like she was the Pied Piper.
I think some had spent the year ruminating over just what cookie Carolyn would bake for the get-together. As I took a bite of those moist, chewy, dark-chocolate-filled cookies, it was bliss. And because I had spent all of June baking nothing but chocolate chip cookies for this newsletter, I was pretty sure I could decipher her recipe.
I’ve baked CCC all my life. But honestly, I’ve never been able to consistently bake a great one. They’re either too flat or too dry or just not what I remember from my youth.
When I asked in a recent issue for you to share your CCC wisdom, you delivered. And now, since you were so generous, I have loads of tips and a favorite recipe to share with you.
But first, here’s a short story...
Constance (Connie) Carter, one of our subscribers here at Between the Layers, is a career Library of Congress librarian. In short, she knows everything. And while she says she has retired, do researchers ever really retire?
Connie has worked with White House curators, First Ladies, and she even researched the state flowers that would go on Lady Bird Johnson’s Tiffany dessert plates. She has helped authors dive into the history of suffrage, Eleanor Roosevelt, Julia Child, and many more subjects, and she helped me with my research into American cookies.
It seems Connie’s family is mad about cookies, and Connie’s mother was a college classmate of Ruth Wakefield, the creator of the Toll House chocolate chip cookie at the Toll House Inn in Massachusetts. Connie stands by the story that in the late 1930s, Ruth Wakefield improvised when she ran out of cocoa for her chocolate cookies and with only bar chocolate on hand, she cut it into chunks and folded them into the batter.
Connie’s mother told her that the guests at the inn liked the new Chocolate Crunch Cookies better with the new chocolate “chips.” Ruth Wakefield should have hired an agent. She gave the recipe to Nestle in exchange for a lifetime supply of chocolate.
Decoding CCC Part 1: The fat, sugar & flour
All these years, I’ve been baking chocolate chip cookies and, depending on what’s in the pantry, improvising along the way. It makes for interesting conversation, no last-minute runs to the supermarket, but I’ve never really baked the chocolate chip cookie of my dreams. And what might that be? A cookie with chewy nostalgia but enough heft and chocolate to satisfy me today.
So I baked the recipes you sent me and plenty more. And I’ve figured out the secrets. It begins with the fat, sugar, and flour.
Butter or shortening? Those CCC of my youth were baked with all vegetable shortening, and as we got older and wiser, with half shortening and half butter. Vegetable shortening gives the cookie no flavor but offers a fluffy, chewy texture, and the dough doesn’t spread out on the pan. (Definitely think Carolyn’s cookies contained some vegetable shortening and possibly all.)
Butter, on the other hand, provides flavor and makes cookies crispy. (You do run the risk in a hot kitchen using a low-protein flour, that the cookies will spread on the pan as they bake. That’s why summer baking with butter calls for chilling the dough!)
My dream cookie has all unsalted butter. And, it doesn’t really matter what brand of butter you use. Save the expensive European butters for fancier projects. To cream the butter or melt it and fold into the batter? I tried both and could tell no difference. Suit yourself.
Sugar. Brown sugar makes cookies chewy, and white sugar makes them crispy. My dream cookie has a mix of the two, leaning a bit more to brown sugar for a bigger, more rustic flavor and color. I go so far as to choose dark brown sugar for its intensity but will use light when that’s all I’ve got.
Flour. I’ve tried them all. High-protein flours for shape, lower protein for tenderness. I’ve baked CCC with rye flour for spiciness, and I highly recommend it! If you are like me and keep a variety of flours in your cupboard for baking, use half of a King Arthur type unbleached flour and half of a lower protein bleached pastry flour like White Lily for what I think is the perfect consistency. The KA gives your cookies shape, and the White Lily tenderizes them. And if you want to substitute a gluten-free cup-for-cup type of flour, this is a great time to use it.
Part 2: Eggs, salt, leavening & chocolate
Now for the other important things to consider before baking:
Eggs. My favorite recipe contains just one egg. I like a chewy, crispy, gooey-in-the-center cookie. More than one egg, I think, makes cookies cake-like. I will bet when the original CCC was created 80-something years ago - calling for two eggs - eggs were smaller.
Salt. It cuts the sweetness and partners well with dark chocolate. For fun, use a better salt, like a fine sea salt in the cookie itself and garnish the baked cookies with a little French flaked sea salt. (If you garnish with salt, reduce the amount you use in the recipe.)
Leavening. While the original CCC called just for soda, which reacts with the brown sugar in the recipe and helps the cookies rise, I use both soda and baking powder. This creates a bigger, bakery style of CCC.
Chocolate. My husband and son used to beg me to make CCC without chocolate. They adored the butter/brown sugar flavor combo, especially with pecans or walnuts. So I’ve learned that the amount of chocolate you add, and the type of chocolate you add is really a personal taste. You need at least 1 cup. I like 1 1/2 cups chocolate, but go all the way to 2 cups if you wish! For traditionalists, stick with semisweet chips. But if you want a more intense chocolate flavor, opt for the Ghirardelli 60 percent cacao chips. Or, go with chocolate chunks, which give you a pool of melted chocolate in each bite.
Other things. I fold in coarsely chopped pecans and walnuts, big enough so you can see them. They benefit from the heat of the oven and toast as the cookie bakes. I also like some oats and will add 1/4 cup old-fashioned oats but cut back on some of the flour to make up for it. The same goes with adding a nut flour, like pecan or almond flour for flavor and texture.
Don’t forget temperature and hydration, too
Your mother was right, temperature is hugely important. The traditional bake temp for CCC is 350 degrees, but I like a hotter oven - 375 - which translates to flavor. I baked at 400, too, and those cookies were delicious and super crispy around the edges. But it really depends on your oven and how it bakes.
And it depends on your baking (cookie) sheets. The darker the pan, the darker the cookie. You just need to bake a test pan first and adjust the temperature and time accordingly. Also, for a uniform cookie shape, make sure your dough is cold when it goes into the oven.