It was one of those situations where I knew the answer before I asked the question.
As in, I was fairly certain that my friend Scott, an accomplished and prolific baker, would respond in the affirmative when I made the inevitable inquery: Did he have a favorite non-Toll House chocolate chip cookie recipe?
Please. Of course he did.
“It’s the recipe I’ve used for the last 15 years and have made about 8,000 times,” he said. “I’m always told it’s the best cookie anyone has ever had. And yes, the recipe really is called ‘The Best Chocolate Chip Cookie.’”
We'll see about that. But first, back up for a second. Really, eight thousand? Maybe he was exaggerating, although given the amount of time I imagine Scott's oven to be in preheat mode, maybe not.
“I’m sure I’ve made 300 batches of them,” he said, correcting himself. “But they’re one of my three basic recipes [the other two are chocolate cake and caramel rolls, and they sound like fodder for stories down the road] that people go insane for, and demand the recipe, and refer to as ‘Scott’s’ and then make for themselves.”
So far, so good. What I wasn’t expecting is what came next, and it’s all that I needed to hear. I mean, talk about your ultimate in recipe endorsements.
“I got it from a nun,” he said.
Not 10 minutes later and the recipe landed in my e-mail box (send yours to email@example.com), and it looked promising. It’s a definite detour off the Toll House highway, what with its rolled oat overtones and rich bittersweet/milk chocolate mix.
Then my eyes got to the bottom of the ingredients list, and all of my hopes and dreams came to a crashing halt.
Butterscotch chips.Seriously, butterscotch chips?
No. I just can’t even. And I’ve tried. If Scott is the defacto president of the I-Hate-Semisweet-Chocolate Club, then I’m a card-carrying member of the Butterscotch-Chips-Are-Banned-For-Life Association.
“You’re such a snob,” he said with a laugh. “Why do you judge all of my choices?”
Maybe because butterscotch chips are the work of the devil?
“You can make them without,” he said. “You could also use a cup of toasted pecans. I forgot to add that. One out of 10 times, I do that.”
I’ll remember that. Wanting to stay true to his recipe -- but also knowing my extreme distaste for those fake-tasting Nestle's butterscotch chips (seriously, have you ever run across a palatable version, anywhere? They all have the scent and flavor of a chemistry lab, not a kitchen) -- I decided to bake half a batch with them, and half a batch without them.
The result? Loved. Well, the non-butterscotch ones, anyway. It's a real lunch box cookie, and I offer that as the highest of compliments. The oats are a big part of the appeal; one bite, and I was immediately reminded of a favorite commercially prepared chocolate chip cookie with oat-ey undertones, baked by Tank Goodness, the local we-delivery-warm-cookies operation.
But Scott’s “Best” cookies are a completely different animal: Thin-ish, crisp and delightfully chewy, and jammed with a powerful but not overpowering chocolate bite. The bittersweet/milk chocolate split works wonders with the oats (which explains my ridiculous affection for the Fabulous Fudge bars at Bread & Chocolate in St. Paul). The oats contribute more of a texture thing than a flavor thing, lending a pleasant kind of heft, yet allowing some traditional chocolate chip cookie essence to shine through.
“Most people don’t realize that there are oats in there,” said Scott.
The two-bite size is another asset. I think I’m officially over enormous cookies, in part because they foster too much dietary guilt. But these? “You can eat a hundred of them,” said Scott with a laugh. “And I use excellent ingredients: Hope Butter, etc. So they’re quality little morsels.”
No wonder he’s baked hundreds of batches.
“I don’t want to oversell them,” he said. “But I think they’re pretty terrific.”
THE BEST CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES
Makes about 6 dozen cookies.
Note: Rolled oats are also known as old fashioned oats. In place of butterscotch chips, consider adding 1 cup of toasted, chopped pecans. From Scott Rohr of St. Paul. Rohr is the winner of the 2010 Taste Holiday Cookie Contest. Find his winning recipe, Pistachio-Orange Cookies, here.
2 c. flour
2 1/2 c. rolled oats
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 c. granulated sugar
1 c. golden brown sugar, firmly packed
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 10-oz. bag bittersweet chocolate chips
1 11.5.-oz. bag milk chocolate chips
1 11.-oz. bag butterscotch chops, optional
Preheat oven to 375 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper.
In large bowl, stir flour, oats, salt, baking powder and baking soda, and reserve.
In the bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat butter until creamy, about 1 minute. Add granulated sugar and brown sugar and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla extract and mix until thoroughly combined. Reduce speed to low, add flour mixture and mix until just combined. Stir in bittersweet chocolate, milk chocolate and butterscotch chips (optional). Form dough into 3/4 tbsp. balls and place 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets. Bake until lightly brown, about 8 to 9 minutes; do not overbake. Remove from oven and cool 2 minutes before transferring cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.
There are people who encounter recipes – in cookbooks, newspapers, magazines, websites – and prepare them with such frequency that there comes a point when the recipe isn’t associated with that cookbook, newspaper, magazine or website, but with the person doing the cooking.
Or, in this case, the baking.
Several years ago, the New York Times published a much-talked-about chocolate chip cookie recipe, and a colleague of mine embraced it with the kind of gusto ordinarily reserved for binge-worthy television series.
I mean, girl went on and on about it, how she has never encountered a better recipe, and how she bakes it for everyone (except me, and don't think I didn't notice) and then sits back and lets the raves wash over her, blah, blah, blah.
Such uncharacteristic enthusiasm from a seen-it-all journalist made me wary, and I was beginning to interpret her enthusiasm for the recipe in a backlash kind of way. You know, can it really be that [expletive deleted] good? (Her words, not mine).
In a word, yes. Lord, yes.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever encountered a chocolate chip cookie – well, one that came out of my oven, anyway -- that simultaneously hits all the right chewy-crispy-cakey parameters, or so readily satisfies my insatiable chocolate-butter-brown sugar hunger.
This is one glorious nod to the Toll House tradition, but cleverly updated to appeal to more contemporary tastes. For starters, there’s a palate-teasing sea salt tickle, and what feels like a metric ton of wickedly dark bittersweet chocolate. And it's dang good-looking, too.
There’s just one caveat: This is a recipe that requires some serious planning. And patience.
For starters, instead of the standard all-purpose flour, you’ll need cake flour and bread flour.
“Doesn’t one cancel out the other?” quipped another colleague, one who knows a thing or two about King Arthur's output.
She was referring to gluten levels. Look at it this way: The gluten levels in all-purpose flour hovers around 12 percent. By comparison, coarse, sturdy, high-protein bread flour has a gluten level anywhere in the 13 to 14 percent range, while soft, finely ground cake flour usually chimes in, gluten level-wise, anywhere from 7 to 9 percent. Crunch the numbers, and the recipe’s near-50/50 bread flour/cake flour blend would seemingly add up -- or, in this case, even out -- to an all-purpose replica, right?
Wrong. This cookie has a texture unlike any other chocolate chip specimen I’ve ever prepared using all-purpose flour. It reminded me of the thick, chewy and deeply golden brown chocolate chip cookies I used to encounter at a favorite coffeehouse and had tried to replicate at home, to no avail. Now I know their secret.
By some fluke, I happened to have both flours in my pantry. That’s not usually the case, and if I had run across the recipe, minus my colleague’s endorsement, I probably would have cast it aside as a shopping hassle. Don’t make the same mistake.
Here’s what really stopped me: After preparing the dough, it needs to be refrigerated for at least 24 if not 36 hours. To relax the aforementioned glutens, I suppose, and it works; did I mention how incredibly tender these cookies are? (Although for that length of time, I fully imagined those dang glutens to be resting in a full-on Savasana, or corpse pose in yoga parlance).
Although here's the thing: Turns out, it's not really about glutens. The password of the day is hydration. Specifically, those long hours in the refrigerator allow the eggs' moisture to fully insinuate itself into the dough's dry ingredients. Oddly, the initial result is a drier dough than the Toll House standard -- and yes, it's a bit crumbly, but it still manages to hold together when formed into a ball -- but one that transforms itself in the oven's heat into a caramel-hued beauty.
Waiting an entire day to pull together a batch of cookies seemed preposterous, until another colleague reminded me of a previously unconsidered yet wildly appealing side benefit.
“It’s more time for you to go into the refrigerator and sneak some cookie dough,” she said. Good thinking.
Another potential dealbreaker? Chocolate. As in, you can’t believe how much you have to buy. We’re talking investment-grade shopping here: 20 ounces of bittersweet chocolate. Specifically, chocolate that clocks in or above the 60 percent cacoa range.
The recipe specifies whole Valrhona fèves, which are spectacular-tasting, oval-shaped works of baking art that are as expensive as they are elegant (and, unlike the familiar but waxy Nestle's chip, their melting qualities are second-to-none). Amazon sells 2 pounds of 66 percent cacao for $32.95, and you’ll have enough leftovers to contribute to future batches.
The thoughtful buyers at Kitchen Window in Calhoun Square maintain an impressive range of Valrhona fèves (from percentages in the mid 50s up to the low 70s), bless them, with prices in the $15-$16 per pound range.
However, I didn’t have the time or the inclination to deal with Amazon or get myself to Uptown; I could barely muster the gumption to drive to one of the two supermarkets -- Lunds or Whole Foods Market -- in my St. Paul neighborhood.
Through trial and error, I found myself partial to the Divine brand bar, which chimes in at an intense 70 percent cacao. It makes a favorable impression not just for its forthright flavor, but also for its thick-ish heft – ideal for creating impressive-looking chocolate chunk cookies – as well as the way each bar is conveniently scored for breaking easily into cookie-size pieces. There’s one caveat, however: price. A 5.3-ounce bar is $4.99 at Whole Foods Market (find it in the candy aisle, not the baking goods aisle), and to pull together a batch of these cookies you’re going to drop $20 just on chocolate.
Yikes. After a bit of research, I discovered that that’s actually not that bad, believe it or not. The more mainstream option is Ghirardelli (a 60 percent cacoa product); five 4-oz. bars set my debit card back $18.45 at both Whole Foods Market and Lunds/Byerly’s. It’s considerably cheaper at Target: $2.49 per bar, or $12.45 for a batch. (I'm definitely venturing into Mr. Tidbit territory here with all this price comparison chatter, but I consider any proximity to Al Sicherman to be a great thing).
When I later kvetched about this Gold Card-esque expense to my colleague, she shot me one of her trademark oh, please looks.
“I buy Ghirardelli chips at Target,” she said (the requisite 20-oz. bag, all that the recipe requires, is currently a very reasonable $5.99 at the Bulls-eye). Sure, there's a flavor trade-off; the Ghirardelli doesn't match the luster of the Divine (or the Valrhona), but it's not bad. Perfectly fine, actually. Why didn’t she clue me in on that factoid right off the bat? Probably to teach me a lesson.
“Do me a favor,” she said. For sharing this amazing recipe? Anything.
“Tell people they require love, time and money to put together," she said. "I make them for so many people and they think they’re created by magic.”
Done. After baking them myself, I’ll not make that assumption, ever again. Now that I had her attention, what else has she learned about the recipe after baking dozens of iterations over the past few years?
“One thing I do is take them from the oven while the center appears raw, then finish cooking on the pan,” she said. “I guess it depends whether you like gooey – I do – or crunchy, which some people do.” (Or follow the sage wisdom of blogger David Leite, who suggests baking until "the tops have the caramel folds of a Shar Pei." Heh. Leite also wrote the original story in the Times.)
She also suggests using dark brown sugar instead of light brown sugar. “I just like it better,” she added. That said, "You have to follow the recipe," she warned. "You can't not use cake flour and expect them to work. I can't tell you how many people think they can get the same cookies when they try to short-cut the recipe."
Still, I had a question. The recipe yields enormous cookies, too large for even my pig-at-heart tastes. Could I make them smaller? “I do,” she said. Good to know.
And I love what she revealed about the sea salt finishing flourish.
“Anyone who notices the salt immediately gets on my list of favorite people,” she said. “People ask me about the recipe like it’s some sort of secret. I send them the link and yet no one seems to make them.”
CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES
Makes about 1 1/2 dozen 5-inch cookies.
Note: This recipe must be prepared in advance. From the New York Times. Adapted from pastry chef Jacques Torres and others.
1 3/4 c. plus 2 tbsp. (8 1/2 oz.) cake flour
1 2/3 c. (8 1/2 oz.) bread flour
1 1/4 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp. coarse salt
1 1/4 c. (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups (10 oz.) light brown sugar
1 c. plus 2 tbsp. (8 oz.) granulated sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/4 lb. bittersweet chocolate disks or fèves (or chips, or chopped bars), at least 60 percent cacao content
Sea salt, for garnish
In a large bowl, whisk together cake flour, bread flour, baking soda, baking powder and coarse salt, and reserve.
In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed, cream butter until creamy, about 1 minute. Add brown sugar and granulated sugar and beat until light and creamy, about 3 to 4 minutes. Using a spatula, scrape down sides of bowl and add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add vanilla extract and mix until fully incorporated. Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture, mixing until just incorporated. Drop chocolate pieces in and, using a spatula, incorporate them without breaking them. Press plastic wrap against dough and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours. (Dough may be used in batches, and can be refrigerated for up to 72 hours).
When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper. Scoop 3 1/2-ounce mounds of dough (the size of generous golf balls) onto prepared baking sheets, placing dough at least 2 inches apart (about 6 cookies per baking sheet), making sure to turn horizontally any chocolate pieces that are poking up; it will make for a more attractive cookie. Sprinkle cookies lightly with sea salt and bake until golden brown but still soft, 18 to 20 minutes, rotating pans halfway through baking. Remove from oven and cool 10 minutes, then transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool a bit more. Eat warm, with a big napkin.
Winter in Minnesota, that time of year when the populace obsessively focuses on the creation and consumption of carbs.
For me, that means sweets. The easier-to-make, the better, since sub-zero temperatures tends to blanket me in a kind of hankered-down inertia. And in the world of baking, little is less complicated (and more satisfying) than pulling together a batch of chocolate chip cookies.
This wasn’t exactly a New Year’s resolution, but I’ve decided to designate 2015 as the year when I adopt a new chocolate chip cookie recipe ideal. Specifically, one that surpasses the classic Toll House formula. You know, the one printed on the back of Nestle's semisweet chocolate chips package; I think I've had it committed to memory for more than 30 years, that's how long -- and how often -- I've been baking it.
(So far, I have four recipes that I want to test-drive. If you’ve got one that you'd like to share, please send it my way, to firstname.lastname@example.org).
The first comes from an unlikely source: Thomas Keller. The nation’s highest-profile practitioner of haute cuisine might not be the top-of-mind source for a plebian chocolate-chip cookie fanatic, but then a friend reminded me of “Ad Hoc at Home,” Keller's coffee table cookbook from 2009.
Naturally, this invaluable hands-on guide to Keller's brand of cleaned-up comfort-food fare contains a chocolate chip cookie recipe, and it's a doozy.
What I appreciate about this recipe is that Keller subverts the familiar Toll House process in several intriguing and ultimately winning ways.
First, butter. Instead of the whole room-temperature thing, he prefers the butter cold. It's cut into small pieces, as if you’re preparing a scone or a pie crust rather than a cookie (not to worry; the diminutive shape makes even the coldest butter fairly malleable under the force of the mixer's paddle). That half-hour you needed to devote to drawing the butter to room temperature? It's gone. Hello, impromptu chocolate chip cookies.
Here's another departure from tried-and-true chocolate chip cookie practices: No vanilla extract. I’ve forever associated that flavor with chocolate chip cookies, so it felt odd to leave such a key element on the sidelines. But since Keller calls upon dark brown sugar (rather than the far more standard golden brown sugar) the cookies take on a slight (and utterly delicious) molasses cast. You know what? I ddn't miss the vanilla, at all.
When it comes to chocolate, Ad Hoc's version bolsters the familiar semisweet taste with bittersweet, a 50/50 mix. Instead of using chips, the recipe calls for chopped chocolate bars, and includes a brilliantly Thomas Keller-ey tip: he shakes the chopped chocolate in a fine-mesh strainer to remove any “dust,” a step that ultimately keeps the cookies’ appearance clean and tidy.
On the rate-a-taste scale, the results are nothing short of terrific, a deeply golden, not-too-sweet treat that caters to adult cookie tastes. They might start out as a ball of dough, but these are cookies that spread out as they bake, their centers collapsing into wrinkled semi-flatness under the stress of all that butter, sugar and chocolate.
Texture-wise, they're nicely crispy, especially on the bottom; all that dark brown sugar richness yields a heck of a lot of caramelized goodness. Yet the thin-ish insides (this is not a thick cookie) remain gently chewy, and not the least bit doughy.
Ease of preparation? A total snap.
Is this a recipe worthy of a repeat performance? Absolutely.
CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES
Makes about 2 1/2 dozen cookies.
Note: From “Ad Hoc at Home” (Artisan, 2009) by Thomas Keller.
2 1/3 c. plus 1 tbsp. flour
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. kosher salt
5 oz. 55 percent chocolate, cut into chip-size pieces (about 1 1/4 c.)
5 oz. 70 to 72 percent chocolate, cut into chip-size pieces (about 1 1/4 c.)
1/2 lb. (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, divided
1 c. packed dark brown sugar
3/4 c. granulated sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda and salt.
Working in several batches, place chopped chocolate in a fine-mesh basket strainer and shake to remove any chocolate “dust,” discarding small fragments.
In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed, beat half the butter until fairly smooth, about 1 minute. Add brown sugar, granulated sugar and remaining butter and beat until mixture is light and creamy, about 3 to 4 minutes. Using a spatula, scrape down sides of the bowl. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down sides of bowl as necessary. Reduce speed to low, add flour mixture and mix until just incorporated. Stir in chocolate.
(Dough can be refrigerated, shaped or unshaped, for up to 2 days, and frozen for up to 2 weeks; shape cookies on a baking sheet and freeze until firm, then transfer unbaked cookies to a freezer container. Defrost cookies overnight in the refrigerator before baking).
Shape 2 tablespoons dough into balls. Arrange 8 cookies on prepared baking sheets, leaving 2 or more inches between them (cookies will spread). Bake until tops are no longer shiny, about 12 minutes, rotating baking sheets halfway through baking.
Remove from oven and cool for 2 minute before transferring cookies to a wire rack to cool completely. Cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to 2 days.
Try finding almond flour right now in the Twin Cities. It isn’t easy. And it's our fault.
Almond flour's instantaneous popularity is linked to the key role (2 1/4 cups, to be exact) it plays in the winning recipe in our 2014 Taste Holiday Cookie Contest.
We're not surprised that Italian Almond Cookies have captured the attention of Twin Cities bakers. We love them, and it's not as if we haven't observed this phenomenon before; in past years, we've witnessed a skyrocketing demand for such items as pistachios, sliced almonds and chile-spiced chocolate bars.
Back to almond flour. Two days after we published our winning recipe, I conducted an informal in-store survey, dropping in at four randomly selected supermarkets and scoping out the almond flour situation. At all four, I encountered empty shelves. Turns out, my experience was not outside the norm.
“I stopped by my neighborhood grocery store, and they didn’t have any,” said Jennie Baltutis of Minneapolis. “And I thought, ‘Wow, how many people are making that recipe?”
"We've definitely seen a pretty big increase in sales of almond flour," said Luke Friedrich of Supervalu, the region's largest supermarket wholesaler, which fills the shelves at Cub Foods, Lunds and Byerly's, Jerry's Foods and other stores. "Our supply is very low right now. But we've ordered a significant increase -- ten-fold over the normal amount -- and we'll have shipments in by Friday, and more the following week."
If you're planning on baking our winning cookie - and you should, it's fantastic, and so easy to prepare -- here’s our tip: Shop at your local natural foods co-op.
Many stock almond flour in their chilled bulk section. We called around, and here’s what we found:
All three Lakewinds Food Co-op locations are fully stocked (“Plenty of almond flour here,” said the helpful person at the co-op’s Minnetonka location, and “We just got more in this morning” said the friendly staffer at Lakewinds' Chanhassen location, although, let's face it, pretty much everyone in co-opland is friendly). Ditto Valley Natural Foods in Burnsville.
It’s the same story at the Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis, which reports a sizeable inventory on hand (pictured, above) and more on order.
At Seward Co-op in Minneapolis, “We did have a run on almond flour when the recipe first came out, a pretty significant spike,” said marketing manager Tom Vogel. “But we definitely have it, and we’re bracing for the next run on demand.”
A few co-ops — Eastside Food Co-op in Minneapolis, and both locations of Mississippi Market in St. Paul — skip the bulk-section thing and go the packaged route (find it in the baking supplies aisle). Still, all three stores say they’ve got almond flour on hand.
The best news? Buying in bulk at local natural foods co-ops is a fairly reliable best-value situation, with prices usually hovering in the $8.50/pound range. By comparison, some supermarkets charge as much as $14 for a l-lb. bag. Oh, and if you've never shopped at a co-op before, don't worry about membership issues; you don't need to become a member/owner to shop.
Two other options: We’ve heard from readers that they’ve seen plenty of almond flour on the shelves at SuperTarget stores. Almond meal — a coarser and less-expensive version of almond flour, and perfectly acceptable for this recipe — appears to be in stock at most Trader Joe’s stores (TJ's private label almond meal is the ingredient of choice for winning baker William Teresa).
Or make your own. It's easy: Buy blanched, shelled almonds and grind them in a food processor until they take on the texture of wet sand. Watch carefully; grind too much, and you'll end up with almond butter.
When it comes to our holiday cookie contest, the Star Tribune isn't alone (that's an image -- by Star Tribune photographer Tom Wallace -- of Chocolate Peppermint Cookies, a finalist in this year's 12th-annual survey, which drew nearly 300 entries). December is the month when newspapers across the country are publishing the results of their annual bake-a-thons. Here's a quick rundown:
The Chicago Tribune's 28th-annual competition attracted 100 bakers, and shines the spotlight on Erna's Crescents from Erna Steinbrenner of Downer's Grove, Ill. It's a rolled cookie (with a sour cream dough), filled with ground walnuts.
The seventh-annual cookie showdown at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel drew 106 entries and singled out Three Wiseman Treasures from Jane Mathews of Franksville, Wis., a drop cookie with pecans, dates, crystallized ginger and a dash of cardamom and curry powder.
The Tampa Bay Times' 13th-annual holiday bakefest drew nearly 500 participants, and food editor Janet Keeler doesn't select a winner, preferring to highlight favorites, which include Noelettes from Lisa Smith of St. Petersburg, Fla. (a chocolate cookie topped with chopped pistachios and candied orange peel); Cran-Pistachio Cookies from Josette Konczeski of Tampa, Fla. (a sugar cookie embellished with nuts and dried fruit); and Amaretto Chunk Cookies from Florence Tirabassi of Kenneth City, Fla. (a liqueur-flavored drop cookie with coconut, chocolate and sliced almond grace notes).
At the Los Angeles Times, Vesta Bars took to the top spot among 100-plus entries; the recipe is being published on Dec. 20.
Other newspapers are definitely in a holiday baking mood, even if they steer clear of contest mode. I know I'm going to tackle the Cranberry Ecstacy Bars from the Portland Oregonian (a test-kitchen remake of a popular Starbucks holiday treat), the Linzer Trees (a cutout with roasted almonds and raspberry jam) from the New York Times, Fudgy Walnut Cookies (exactly what their name implies) from the Washington Post and Oatmeal Lace Cookies (thin and crispy and dipped in chocolate) from the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
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