I turned 31 last week. Years beginning in three have been good to me so far. I was born old--being young never felt quite right, as I imagine it doesn't for many of us who are introverted, unathletic, and fond of quiet pleasures--and finally being a grown-up (of sorts) suits me down to the ground. I love the feeling that my mental and actual age match up. I love being in charge of my own life. I love having traded acne for dry skin. I even love my greying temples. But even though I have a house and a pet and a partner and all those trappings of adulthood, I've never grown out of my deep and abiding love for the foods of my childhood, and I never will. Cream of wheat. Soft boiled eggs with toast soldiers. Smoked oysters on saltines lightly spread with mayonnaise. My Dad's chicken Marsala (or seitan Marsala, nowadays). Tetley tea. Waffle and ice cream sandwiches. Frozen yogurt swirled with Smarties and strawberries. Chocolate chip cookies. When it came time for my birthday, I didn't want cake. I wanted chocolate chip cookies. (Alexis, whose birthday is tomorrow, wants croissants--his childhood food).
I've eaten a lot of chocolate chip cookies in my day. If we're really being honest, I've also eaten a lot of raw cookie dough. Je ne regrette rien. My memories of high school are indelibly stained, if you'll permit a little metaphorical synaesthesia, with the scent of really terrible chocolate chip cookies baking in the cafeteria. The dough came in huge plastic buckets, and the cookies it baked into were pale and mushy-soft and greasy and addictive. We would eat them by the stack from oil-stained white paper bakery bags, still hot from the oven, and chased with a carton of chocolate milk. Usually said cookie feast would happen at 8:30 in the morning, while sitting on the floor in the hallway or the chaplain's office that we used as a hangout, dressed in kilts, tights (knee socks on warmer days), and crested sweaters over white button-downs, with pajama bottoms over our tights. I miss those days--and the ability to eat cookies for breakfast and french fries for lunch without guilt--but definitely not the cookies.
The recipe that dominated my childhood was the one on the back of the Chipits bag. It's basically identical to Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies, for my American friends. They're good cookies--faintly crisp on the bottom, soft and gooey in the centre, and easy as pie--a little creaming, a little stirring, little baking. (Aside: pie is not all that easy. Easy as what, then? Easy as a summer morning.) They were one of the first things I learned how to bake on my own. We'd eat them at sleepovers--the bodies of small girls flung willy-nilly down on sleeping bags laid on the brown shag carpet of the basement floor, the struggle to stay awake for fear of missing a piece of vital gossip or a whispered confidence, the contented smile upon waking and seeing your friends vulnerable and sweetly sleeping. And Dad's pancakes, stacks of them. Or we'd munch while watching movies as a family--curled on a cushion at Mom or Dad's feet while they sat on the sofa, shunted there by lack of room or sitting there by choice on days when familial contact felt just too deeply uncool. Or we'd bring them to school for bake sales and class celebrations--were they there on the last day of class when I slow-danced to Aerosmith with Noel in our portable? I hope they were.
But as good as they were--and are--good cookies are not great. All that white flour and inexpensive chocolate makes for fairly bland baking, and texturally, they're hard to time in the oven so that there's the right balance between crisp edges and squidgy centre. I'm not a teenager any more, game to down sugar in whatever form it takes. I want my cookie calories to count. So, with my own kitchen and horizons that expanded beyond the back of the chocolate chip package--when I took control in the kitchen, one of my favourite things about being a grown-up--I went searching for a replacement. Chocolate chip cookies, just a little more grown up. Really great chocolate chip cookies. And I found them, like so many great things (this bread, my favourite way to make polenta, which is in the microwave) in the New York Times.
Like Jim Lahey's bread, the New York Times chocolate chip cookie recipe achieved cult status seemingly overnight. Billed as the very best in chocolate chip cookies, the recipe came accompanied by a breakdown of the baking chemistry that makes them extraordinary--the flat oval feves, the very specific size, the cold dough that goes straight into the oven. Like Lahey's bread, the major secret to their sublimity is time. What works for bread--a long overnight rise--works for cookies: a long rest in the fridge to age the dough and let all of the ingredients mingle happily. It's no surprise that I, a huge fan of long-rise refrigerator bread baking a la Lahey and Peter Reinhart, would be attracted to these cookies. But being the persnicketly grown up that I am, and able to do whatever I want with a recipe, perfection be damned, I couldn't leave the recipe alone. They might have been Jacques Torres' perfect chocolate chip cookies, but they weren't mine. So here's what I did:
Firstly, I swapped out half of the white flour for whole wheat. Kim Boyce's 100% whole wheat chocolate chip cookies from Good to the Grain are another cult favourite, and I love the nutty bite whole wheat flour gives to my old standby. It also makes me feel better about baking ginormous cookies, and never being able to stop at just one. Being a PhD student and not exactly rolling in dough (unless we're talking actual bread), I wasn't prepared to buy 1 1/4 pounds of pricey Valrohna feves, the flat oval chocolate disks the original recipe calls for. Besides, using that much chocolate made for a cookie that was more chocolate than dough, and I like a bit more balance. I cut the chocolate down to a pound, and for a nice bit of textural variety used half best-quality chocolate chips, and half slivered 70% chocolate from a thin bar. You get thin strata of gooey chocolate layered throughout the dough, but the nice resistant bite of whole chips too. And finally, I changed the shaping method a bit. I don't know if the New York Times bakers have super heavy-duty cookie scoops that us mere mortals don't, and superhuman biceps to go along with them, but there was no way I was going to be able to scoop dough cold from the fridge. It was solid. So I did the smart thing, and shaped the cookies--smaller than the full-sized ice cream scoops the original insists you use, because I like more cookies, because that means more to share--before aging the dough. The nice thing about doing it this way is that you can refrigerate the dough you want to bake straight away (i.e. in 24-36 hours, oh the torture), and freeze the rest. The frozen dough can go straight onto a cookie sheet and into the freezer; straight out of the freezer, they take 20 minutes on the dot to bake, which is a very reasonable amount of time to wait for what I consider my perfect chocolate chip cookie.
Oh, and what perfection they are: crisp, nutty, caramelized edges (the result of that brilliant aging); a squidgy, buttery centre; rich, melty chocolate; and the perfect hint of salty to balance the sweet, especially when you get crazy and dust the tops with a bit of smoked salt before they go in the oven. With cookies like these, who needs cake?
Here's to 31--I'm liking you already.
MY ULTIMATE CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES
Makes about 32 palm-sized cookies
10 ounces (2 1/2 sticks) salted butter, at cool room temperature
10 ounces light brown sugar
8 ounces granulated sugar
3 large eggs, at cool room temperature
2 teaspoons best-quality vanilla extract
8 1/2 ounces all purpose or 00 flour (I keep it around for pasta making, but it works wonderfully in baked goods too)
8 1/2 ounces whole wheat pastry flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons flaky sea salt
250 grams best-quality bitter-sweet chocolate chips (I use Callebaut)
250 grams best-quality dark chocolate (at least 70%) from a thin bar, slivered
Extra flaky sea salt (or fleur de sel, or smoked salt) for sprinkling
In a mixer (using the paddle attachment) or by hand, cream together the butter and sugars until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.
Add the eggs one at a time, making sure each is fully incorporated before adding the next. Mix in the vanilla.
If using the mixer, switch to the dough hook. Add the dry ingredients, except for the chocolate and extra salt, and mix just until combined. You'll probably have to scrape down the sides of the bowl a few times--make sure that you also get the dry spot that tends to linger at the very bottom of the bowl. The dough will be fairly stiff. Add the chocolate, and mix on low power just until it is evenly incorporated.
Using a medium cookie scoop, scoop large balls of dough, so that the scoop is somewhat overflowing--they should be about the size of an oversized ping-pong ball. Use your hands to shape them into neat spheres, then place them on a parchment or silicone lined sheet pan, leaving a generous space around each cookie so that they have room to spread. Six cookies per sheet is about right.
Refrigerate the dough you want to use soon; freeze the rest for later directly on the baking sheet (you can transfer the frozen dough to a freezer bag once it`s hard). Let the dough age in the fridge for at lest 24 hours; 36 is better, and it can hang out in there for up to 72, which is especially handy if you want to bake batches over several days.
When you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Sprinkle the tops with a bit of flaky sea salt or smoked salt; press it in so it doesn't fall off. Bake the refrigerated cookies for 16-18 minutes, the frozen ones for 20--until the edges just begin to turn golden, but the cookies are still soft.
Cool on the pan for 10 minutes, then transfer to a rack and cool for a few more. They're best when they're still warm, but they're good even the next day. And really good dipped in milk.