September 17, 2009

Cookie Wars

The chocolate chip cookie holds a very special place in my heart. It was the first thing I ever baked by myself, the first recipe I memorized, and for years my claim to fame in the kitchen.
The summer before my 11th birthday, my siblings and I spent three days a week at home by ourselves while my mother worked. We were old enough that we didn’t need a babysitter, but hadn’t really gotten the hang of entertaining ourselves all day. We often got bored around the house—with no neighborhood pool and no one to drive us around. We rode our bikes and played outside, but even 10-year-olds grow tired of the humidity and soaring temperatures of the Arkansas summer.

So I baked.

Happily, my mother always kept our pantry and fridge well-stocked, so the ingredients were on hand whenever I had a whim. I remember how excited I would be to surprise my mother with a fresh batch of cookies when she walked in the door from a long day at the hospital. (I unfortunately had not yet perfected the art of cleaning up after myself, so it was often a bittersweet homecoming for Mom.)

I would continue to resort to cookie-baking whenever I got bored, even after I was perfectly capable of driving myself anywhere I wanted to go. I loved to bake cookies because I saw how happy they made the people around me. A close friend of the family was never satisfied with a visit to our house without a few homemade chocolate chip cookies. Often my sisters and I would whip up a batch while the adults sat around the table playing cards after dinner. And we were happy to do so. How could we not be, with all the praise we got in return? (And of course, the cookies themselves).

Fifteen years later, my recipe has gone through a few changes. Some of my earliest attempts produced cookies that were too dark. I remember a particular instance in which I brought cookies to share with my sixth grade class, and I came home that afternoon feeling like I had served burnt cookies. My mother suggested that they were not overcooked, but were darker because I had used dark brown sugar. I switched to light brown sugar, and the problem was solved.

As a teenager, I came across a recipe that called for equal amounts brown and white sugar, which was a change from the 2:1 ratio in the recipe I had been using. I adopted this recipe and have used it ever since, with a tweak here and there. I discovered that adding a little extra vanilla and a heaping, rather than level, teaspoon of salt gave the cookies a little extra kick. In college, I picked up from a friend the habit of throwing a cup or two of oatmeal into the batter. No one seemed to mind it, and I thought they were delicious (and maybe even a little healthier).

Before I knew the dangers of trans fat, I achieved a nearly perfect cookie texture by substituting half of the butter in the recipe with butter-flavored Crisco (a trick I learned from my mother). It has been several years now that I have stopped using partially hydrogenated shortening, and I have struggled to turn out a consistent product. Sometimes the texture would come out perfectly and sometimes the cookies would be too cakey or too flat or too crunchy or have any number of textural flaws. (An added bonus of using oatmeal was that it masked these flaws.)

When my father-in-law showed me last summer’s New York Times piece “Perfection? Hint: It’s Warm and Has a Secret” (or “quest for the perfect chocolate chip cookie”), I was fascinated by the article and really excited to try the recipe. Between one thing and another (read: grad school and I couldn’t find cake flour anywhere), I never got around to trying it. I did, however, make my old stand-by recipe, cooking half the batter immediately and allowing the remainder to rest in the fridge over night, as suggested in the article. When I baked off the second round of cookies the next day, I was floored by the difference in texture between the rested cookies and those baked immediately. The second batch was perfectly soft in the center, had just the right amount of “lift,” and boasted that crispy-dense-chewy crumb structure that I thought I could only attain consistently with Crisco.

Shortly thereafter, in the May/June ‘09 issue, the folks at Cook’s Illustrated tried their hand at perfecting the chocolate chip cookie. Timely, I thought. In the print version of the article (the online one is pared down quite a bit), the author references the New York Times article/recipe but soon into his testing abandons the idea of the 24-hour rest, claiming that the benefits don’t outweigh the inconvenience of the wait. Over 40 batches later, he had developed a “perfect” chocolate chip cookie recipe, which involves browned butter, dissolving the sugars in the melted butter, leaving out an egg white, and much to my surprise a 3:2 ratio of dark brown sugar to white.

Of course, I was not content to leave all the experimenting to others, so I did a little test of my own, pitting the Cook’s Illustrated recipe against the New York Times recipe. (Yes, I finally found cake flour.)

I started last Friday night with the NYT recipe, which went straight into the fridge:

Sunday afternoon, I prepared the CI recipe, and baked a sheet of each batch one after the other, so they could be tasted side by side.

The first thing I noticed about the CI recipe was that the dough tasted like toffee! (I just can’t help myself when it comes to cookie dough. I was even able to convince my husband, who never indulges in raw dough, to give it a try.) This seemed slightly incongruous with the conclusions drawn in the article, which assert that the toffee flavors in the final product are a result of dissolving the sugar in melted butter and the subsequent caramelization of the the sugars in the oven. I found that the uncooked dough had more toffee flavor than the final product. Although the cookie still had a good bit of toffee, it seemed that the baking tempered the toffee flavors, which leads me to think that the flavor was less a result of the caramelization in the oven and more a result of other factors—I think the browned butter had a lot to do with it, but I won’t know that for sure until I do a little more experimenting.
When the cookies came out of the oven, two things were immediately apparent:


1. the NYT cookies had quite a bit more height than the CI cookies

2. the CI cookies were darker than the NYT cookies

The first difference can be attributed to the fact that the NYT cookies call for baking powder and baking soda, whereas the CI cookies had only a relatively small amount of baking soda.


NYT Cookie


NYT Cookie


CI cookie

CI cookie

Additionally, the NYT cookies were baked straight from the fridge, so they had less time to flatten out. (A second round of baking the following day supported my hypotheses: straight from the fridge, the CI cookies had more height than when baked from a warm batter, but they still did not have the appealing height of the NYT batch.)

The CI cookies were darker because of the 3:2 ratio of dark brown to white sugar, as compared to the NYT’s 5:4 ratio (almost equal amounts) of light brown sugar to white.
Visually, I much preferred the NYT cookie to the CI cookie. The NYT cookie was blonder and fluffier, had lots of delicious-looking cracks and crags, and was topped with coarse sea salt. Pretty picture perfect, if you ask me.

NYT was the clear winner when it came to appearance, but when it came to tasting, the front-runner was the CI cookie. As promised, it boasted deep toffee and butterscotch notes and a crisp edge with a soft, chewy center. We initially tasted the NYT cookie too soon out of the oven. Although the texture was perfectly gooey in the center and firm on the edges, the taste was just sweet. My husband tasted the individual ingredients, rather than a cohesive whole, and I encountered some unexpected notes of banana. (It was so strange that I even wondered if the dough had picked up off flavors sitting in the fridge wrapped in plastic overnight, but there was nothing remotely resembling a banana in our fridge). After the cookies cooled completely, the banana was gone, the flavors melded, and the coarse salt added a nice crunch and burst of flavor, but there was still not as much depth as the CI cookies had.
I think both recipes would benefit from less chocolate. I love the stuff, but I don’t like it when there’ so much chocolate that you can’t taste the cookie itself.

Round two, the next day:

(I baked both a minute longer than I did before.)

The CI cookie is almost as tall as the NYT cookie this time.IMG_7768


I love the caramelized “sheen” on the CI cookie.

Using “disks” instead of “chips” makes a big difference. Look at all those wonderful layers of chocolate! (I used Ghirardelli 60% Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate Chips – they have great flavor and are wider and flatter than traditional chocolate chips.)

There’s still not an overall winner. Both are delicious and, in Brian’s opinion, appropriate for different types of cookie-eating: the CI cookie’s complexity makes it a more meditative cookie that’s meant to be savored, while the NYT cookie is more the classic “cookies-and-milk” variety.  In my opinion, neither is the perfect chocolate chip cookie. If I could combine the flavor of the Cook’s Illustrated cookie with the appearance and texture of the New York Times cookie….now that would be perfect.

Tune in next time for the exciting conclusion…In the mean time, give either recipe a try. They’re both fabulous!


Keeping it Real said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jmc said...

Yum!! I'll have to test these recipes myself! I've been meaning to try the NYT recipe for a while, but have just never done it. Now I have two. More cookies for me! and Jay, I guess...if he's lucky.

efm said...

Yay! I hope you do get to try them soon! Let me know what you think. (Careful, though. They're addictive.)

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