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.