Sunday, May 8, 2011

Chocolate Chip Cookies? Perfect.

Chocolate. Chip. Cookies. Is there really any better dessert than a well-made chocolate chip cookie? Eating a warm, chewy cookie is the perfect way to end a meal. Chocolate chip cookies were the highlight of meals at my college dining hall. I used to work in the dining hall as a kosher supervisor (called a mashgiach) and my seat was right next to the kitchen. When they wheeled the tray of cookies past my chair, I would always snag a couple. On days I wasn't working, I knew how to wield the tongs to ensure I got a nice chewy cookie instead of the hard, crunchy ones. I didn't think I would ever find a cookie to measure up to those I got in college.

Until now.

Recently, Cook's Illustrated, the magazine brought to us from the geniuses at America's Test Kitchen, advertised on their Tumblr page that they were holding a blogging contest for people making their "Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie" recipe. No need to ask me twice. I had never made the full version of the chocolate chip cookie recipe. I once made the version of it found in their "Light and Healthy" cookbook, and those cookies were very well received. So I thought to myself: "If cookies made with less chocolate and butter tasted good, shouldn't cookies made with a lot more butter and chocolate taste even better?" Because if Paula Deen has taught us anything about baking and cooking, it's that everything tastes better with butter.

The only problem was when to make the cookies. I had originally planned for May 1, but other plans got in the way. I resolved to make them on Sunday, May 8. Then I found out that I only had one week left to complete all my academic work, including a major paper that was due by May 13. This meant I had to spend most of my Sunday writing this paper. How would I have time to make cookies? Well, it didn't matter. One way or another, I was going to make these cookies. Not just because of this contest, but because I wanted something to reward myself with after writing straight for 6 hours. And let me tell you, getting me to write for 6 hours is a miracle deserving of a reward. And so it was at 4:00 in the afternoon, after a lot of writing, I set out to make my cookies.

One thing I've started to do lately is set everything up before I start baking. This is to avoid the mad rush around my kitchen as I try to get everything into the mixing bowl at the right time while simultaneously avoiding burning whatever is on my stovetop. So this time, I started by pulling out all the bowls I knew I would need and putting them on the counter and set the oven to 375 degrees. I measured out my flour (by weight) and baking soda and whisked them together. Remembering the lessons of my carrot cake, I paid very close attention to how much baking soda I put in. I set that bowl aside, and pulled out two plastic containers. Into one, I put the white sugar. Into the other, the brown sugar. The recipe calls for dark brown sugar, but I only had light brown sugar available. I contemplated using my molasses to make dark brown sugar from scratch (so to speak) but I didn't want to run the risk of upsetting the delicate balance of ingredients. I thought about portioning out the vanilla, salt, and egg ahead of time as well, but decided those could wait.

My mise-en-place. Flour, sugar, brown sugar.

From there, I moved on to what is probably the most difficult part of this whole recipe: browning the butter. According to Cook's Illustrated, browning the butter is what gives the cookie its distinctive flavor, so messing up here would really make things go bad. Before I started, I made sure I had a lot of extra butter around in case I needed to start over.

The recipe's instructions suggest using a skillet to brown the butter, but I don't have a skillet that can be used for dairy products. Knowing this, I asked a question on America's Test Kitchen's Vyou channel whether I should use my non-stick pan (which is dark) or a 2-quart pot (which isn't dark, but is rather deep) to brown butter. Their response, which I anticipated, was to use the pot since the most important thing is to keep an eye on the color, something that can't be done easily with a dark pan.

I threw the butter into the pot and set the burner on medium. It's a little tricky to take pictures of butter melting and browning while making sure the butter doesn't burn, but I think I managed. After the foaming and the bubbling started to subside a bit, I kept a very wary eye on my butter. In the past, I've burnt the butter rather than brown it, so I chose to err on the side of caution. Once I started seeing flecks of brown appear in the pot, I yanked it off the heat and poured the butter into the bowl. I immediately dropped in the remaining butter and stirred until it had all melted. I took a quick look into the pot I had used and saw that some of the butter had indeed burnt on the bottom of the pot. I crossed my fingers and hoped that I wasn't about to make burnt-butter cookies.

My butter progression from stick to browned and melted

With the daunting task of the butter out of the way, it was time to turn my attention to the mixing of the butter, sugar, salt, and vanilla. I poured in my sugars from the plastic containers, then threw in the vanilla and salt and gave it a good whisk. Once everything was incorporated, I added the egg and the extra yolk and began the four-part mixing process: 30 seconds of stirring followed by three minutes of sitting, repeated for a total of four times. I'm still not sure if I was supposed to wait three minutes after the fourth whisking, but there's really no harm in doing it, right? I mean, aside from whatever wrist strain I may incur by using a pathetically small whisk to combine everything, but that's par for the course these days.

First whisking

Second whisking

Third whisking

Final whisking

I was encouraged to see that the mixture was becoming shinier and thicker as I whisked, just as the recipe said it would. That meant I was doing something right (for once)! I stirred the flour/baking soda mixture in with a wooden spoon until it was incorporated. Then came the most important part: the chocolate chips. My go-to chocolate chip is Trader Joe's semi-sweet chocolate chips. I don't just use them in baked goods, I eat them as a snack. If I want a quick fix of chocolate, I just pull out one of the many bags of chocolate chips I keep in my kitchen. I know that the chocolate chip of choice is Tollhouse (for traditionalists) or Ghirardelli (for "high class" cookies), but I figure, if I like these chips as they are, why not put them into a cookie too? I poured the chips into the mixture and stirred until they were evenly distributed.

Finally, it was time to portion out the cookies. The recipe says each cookie should be three tablespoons in size, but I didn't have a tablespoon measure on hand. I think it goes without saying that I didn't have a disher, either. Instead, I tried to eyeball the volume of each dough ball, using a spoon from the silverware drawer as a guide. As I finished placing the fifth dough ball onto the parchment paper, I realized that I was going to quickly use more than half the dough on what was supposed to be the first eight cookies (out of 16 total). I reduced the amount of dough in the remaining three cookies, then pulled out small pieces from the first five balls and threw them back into the bowl. I didn't think it would really work, but I had no real choice. Well, I could have started over, but I rarely think things through that much.

The first eight dough balls

I put the baking sheet into the oven and set the timer for six minutes. While the cookies baked, I prepared the second batch of cookies. The recipe says to use two cookie sheets, with eight cookies per sheet, and to only bake one sheet at a time. This was not a problem for me, as I only had one sheet available to begin with. I ripped off a piece of parchment paper and began to portion out the last eight cookies. The plan was as follows: Once the first batch came out the oven, I'd take the parchment paper off the baking sheet, put it (and the cookies) onto the cooling rack, then slide the paper with the last eight cookies onto the sheet. Not a bad plan, right?

The timer went off and I rotated the baking sheet in the oven. Glancing at the sheet, I saw my cookies were huge. Not just big cookies, but mega cookies bordering on the mutant. I nervously closed the oven door and set the timer for an additional five minutes, checking on the cookies after four. Once I saw the cookies were brown at the edges but still soft in the middle, I yanked the sheet from the oven and placed it on the stovetop, ready to perform the parchment paper sheet switcheroo.

Unfortunately, things did not go quite so smoothly. First, I had some trouble getting the parchment paper from the baking sheet to the cooling rack. The cookies were sliding everywhere, and I was trying to make sure they didn't break before they set up. Once I got them onto the rack, I had to figure out how to get the remaining cookies onto the baking sheet. Picking up the paper caused the balls to roll all over the place. I know now that the best thing to do would have been to take the dough balls off the second parchment paper, put the paper on the sheet, then put the balls of dough onto the paper. Instead, I tried pulling the paper over the lip of the sheet with the balls of dough on top. The cookie dough balls rolled off the paper and onto the counter, lined up in silent judgment of my stupidity. Oh, and let's not forget that the sheet is still hot from the oven, and I'm holding it with one mitt-ed hand.

Frustrated, I quickly put the sheet back on top of the stove, put down the paper while carefully avoiding burning my fingers, and hastily transfered the balls of dough from the counter to the baking sheet. As I adjusted the position of the cookies, I saw streaks of chocolate caused by the heat of the sheet melting the chips in the dough. Without a moment's thought, I frantically put the sheet in the oven and set the timer for six minutes again.

With that crisis averted, I turned my attention to the first eight cookies which had been sitting on the cooling rack for a couple of minutes. My initial prediction was correct. These cookies were massive. Like, super-mega-ultra-mutant massive. In the picture below, they're taking up more than half the cooling rack. But they certainly looked good, which was the important part.

The timer went off and I rotated the cookies in the oven, then set the timer for five minutes. I checked on them after four minutes and saw that the edges were much browner than the first batch had been at the same time. I poked a couple of cookies and decided to err on the side of caution and pulled out the baking sheet from the oven. Now, just like the first batch, I tried to move the parchment paper sheet onto the cooling rack, but I didn't have enough space on the rack. The first set of cookies weren't firm enough to be moved too much, so I tried to position the parchment paper in such a way that all the cookies would stay on the rack. No luck. No matter how I oriented the sheet, the cookies hung over the edge of the rack and threatened to break. Eventually, I put the sheet on the countertop, and once the cookies were cooler, I transferred them to the cooling rack with a spatula.

I tried the cookies three different times: once while still warm, once after they had cooled, and once the next day (remember, another important lesson from the carrot cake). The warm cookie disintegrated in my hands, but tasted amazing. The other two held their shape much better (not surprising) and tasted just as good as the first cookie, albeit less gooey. Unfortunately, I didn't taste the "butterscotch and toffee" flavors advertised in the recipe, probably because I didn't brown the butter as much as I should have. But the cookie was among the best I've ever had, with just the right amount of chewiness and avoiding the constant problem of being too sweet.

Cook's Illustrated calls these cookies the "perfect" chocolate chip cookie. I'm not sure if I would call my cookies "perfect." Very good, yes, but not perfect. There's areas of improvement, like figuring out how to brown butter without panicking that it's burning. Therefore, I readily admit that the lack of perfection lies squarely with me and not with Cook's Illustrated. Then again, maybe I'm too hard on myself. A friend of mine, to whom I regularly give samples of my baked goods, recently said that I hold myself to a much higher standard than necessary. He told me he's never been disappointed with the things I've made. And he's probably right. I don't think I will ever make anything that I can deem "perfect." There's just too many places in a recipe where I'll do something not quite right. I always feel that there's always room for improvement with things I make. It's this self-doubt that keeps me from declaring something to be "perfect."

That being said, when I ate that warm, delicious cookie, it was the most perfect moment of my day. Maybe that's the definition of perfect I should be using: not whether I did everything perfectly, but whether eating it gave me the perfect amount of satisfaction. And in this case, it did.
"Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies" from Cook's Illustrated. The recipe is below, but please follow the link to the recipe for excellent advice, pictures, and videos on how to do everything described in the recipe.

  • 1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (8 3/4 ounces)
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 14 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 3/4 sticks)
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar (3 1/2 ounces)
  • 3/4 cups packed dark brown sugar (5 1/4 ounces)
  • 1 teaspoon table salt
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 1/4 cups semisweet chocolate chips or chunks
  • 3/4 cup chopped pecans or walnuts, toasted (optional)

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 large (18- by 12-inch) baking sheets with parchment paper. Whisk flour and baking soda together in medium bowl; set aside.

2. Heat 10 tablespoons butter in 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat until melted, about 2 minutes. Continue cooking, swirling pan constantly until butter is dark golden brown and has nutty aroma, 1 to 3 minutes. Remove skillet from heat and, using heatproof spatula, transfer browned butter to large heatproof bowl. Stir remaining 4 tablespoons butter into hot butter until completely melted.

3. Add both sugars, salt, and vanilla to bowl with butter and whisk until fully incorporated. Add egg and yolk and whisk until mixture is smooth with no sugar lumps remaining, about 30 seconds. Let mixture stand 3 minutes, then whisk for 30 seconds. Repeat process of resting and whisking 2 more times until mixture is thick, smooth, and shiny. Using rubber spatula or wooden spoon, stir in flour mixture until just combined, about 1 minute. Stir in chocolate chips and nuts (if using), giving dough final stir to ensure no flour pockets remain.

4. Divide dough into 16 portions, each about 3 tablespoons (or use #24 cookie scoop). Arrange 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets, 8 dough balls per sheet. (Smaller baking sheets can be used, but will require 3 batches.)

5. Bake cookies 1 tray at a time until cookies are golden brown and still puffy, and edges have begun to set but centers are still soft, 10 to 14 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through baking. Transfer baking sheet to wire rack; cool cookies completely before serving.


  1. They didn't advise you to rest the dough? Weird. Because that's how I get toffee notes in my cookies without browning anything (mostly because all of the chocolate chip cookies I bake are pareve and you can't actually brown vegetable oil or margarine). NYTimes did a piece on chocolate chip cookies a couple of years ago and that was one of their biggest pieces of advice - let the dough sit in the fridge for at least a couple of hours, if not overnight.

  2. Yeah, your butter definitely wasn't brown enough. Using dark brown sugar would have increased the toffee flavor too. I tried this recipe and it was amazing.

    I don't think you can get toffee notes from resting the dough in the fridge. Joanne Chang's chocolate chunk cookie recipe doesn't have the flavor even though it rests overnight.

    It's definitely the browned butter and the dark brown sugar.

  3. I suspected the butter wasn't brown enough. I'll know for next time.

    And I should make clear: I still thought the cookie was amazing. I just didn't get all the complexity ATK said I should.

  4. I thought it was hard to detect the browned butter in the warm cookies but the next day the flavor was more pronounced.

    Enjoyed reading your thought process while you made these!

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