Can America's favorite treat really get better? Yes. Yes, it can.
Does this ever happen to you? A food-porn image leaps off the pages of a magazine and imbeds itself into your cortex. Before you know it, you're scrupulously following the recipe's every word. Yet despite your best efforts, the finished product isn't a twin of the one that appeared in the magazine. It's more like a second cousin, from the ugly side of the family.
My latest tragic disconnect between newsstand fantasy and kitchen reality originated with the most recent issue of Saveur. To celebrate the magazine's 150th issue, Team Saveur gathered 150 classic recipes, squeezing 101 into print, and diverting the balance to the magazine's website and digital edition. It's a keeper, and even a cursory spin through its pages reveals an eclectic, never-ending parade of I-wanna-make-that dishes.
Leave it to my sweet tooth, which never met a chocolate chip cookie that it didn't totally crush on, to stop dead in its tracks on page 76. Richard Avedon himself couldn't have shot a more compelling photograph, and the more I read, the more I liked.
An inspired idea sets this cookie apart. Rather than utilizing the scoop-and-drop method that makes the Toll House cookie such a beloved paragon of simplicity, this recipe, borrowing puff pastry principles, rolls out the dough and layers it, alternating with several handfuls of chopped bittersweet chocolate.
What really grabbed me is how the cookies appear to have a puffy outer layer that collapsed, post-oven, a look that mimics another favorite cookie of mine, the meringue. A meringued-up Toll House? Where do I sign up?
Try, try again
Imagine my acute disappointment when my first batch looked nothing like the magazine's version. A second go-round was a slight improvement, but still several leagues below the beauties that emerged from Saveur's mighty midtown Manhattan test kitchen (which, by the way, is the real-life rendition of the handsome, lavishly equipped facility that exists in the fantasies of most home cooks).
My own baking cluelessness aside, a possible explanation for the disparity is a finishing step that author Sarah Copeland included in a previously published blog post. It doesn't appear in the magazine, but it's simple: Just before baking, the cookies are brushed with a beaten egg, then sprinkled with a few grains of fleur de sel.
That discovery sent me back to the kitchen. Unfortunately, my eureka moment never arrived. While the egg wash gave the cookies a pleasant sheen, the final results still didn't add up to the Saveur's rendition. No wonder the magazine left that particular finishing touch out of its version.
Not that it matters, because while my attempts weren't exactly magazine-worthy, in the end, who cares what they look like? These things are amazing. The crackled tops -- a golden, chocolate-pocked sibling to the molasses crinkle -- create a thin and enticingly crisp outer shell that gives way to a thick-ish, chewy and exceedingly rich center. A teasingly salty kick plays nicely against all that bittersweet chocolate.
Even for a novice
By the way, for those with rolling pin anxiety, fear not; the preparation is easy. No exacting technical prowess is required, and a 2-inch biscuit cutter does the rest of the work. It's a soft dough, so it's best to work quickly -- with a well-floured rolling pin -- while the dough remains chilled and relatively firm. I can't imagine why I'd ever go back to the old scoop-and-drop method.
Yeah, they're that good.
I've also decided that the magazine version's pale beige cookies aren't nearly as good as the ones I (admittedly, accidentally) coaxed into a deep caramel brown.
My opinion was reinforced by Michelle Gayer, the baker/owner/quote machine behind the Salty Tart in Minneapolis. During a recent demonstration at the Mill City Farmers Market, Gayer was knocking out the baking tips faster than a politician on a stump speech, and one in particular resonated with me.
"Do you guys know that color means flavor?" she said. "Don't be afraid of the brown. Put it back in the oven."
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