Oh. My. God. I am so excited for this. When Jennifer at Domestic Goddess announced that cookies would be the theme for IMBB #10—the first one since the birth of Words to Eat By—I did a little happy dance around my office. If someone—some mean, evil, nasty person—were to tell me I could only cook one kind of food for the rest of my life, I’d choose cookies. Heck, if I could only eat one kind of food I’d still pick cookies. The variety is endless, the process is incredibly satisfying, and the cookie itself is perhaps the perfect food: portable, chewy/crispy/crumbly, and packed with sweet flavors. In my personal cookie universe one type rules supreme, and that one is Chocolate Chip, no nuts. And there is no chocolate chip cookie in the entire world better than the one made by New York City’s City Bakery. Substantial but not overwhelming, gorgeously golden brown, crispy around the edges and just barely baked in the center, with large chunks of bittersweet chocolate and an almost toffee-like cookie base…sigh. At certain points in my life, I’ve believed that these cookies are better than sex. Seriously, after one particularly pathetic breakup, there were days when I ate two of these beauties and nothing else. Talk about self-medicating…
So, anyway. For IMBB, I didn’t immediately think “chocolate chip”—it seemed too easy, too basic. I wanted a challenge, a chance to show off a little. But a few days after the theme was announced, I read the Amateur Gourmet’s Cookies for the Wounded Democrat’s Soul. There was an intriguing recipe for choc-chippers—made intriguing by just one factor: the recipe called for cold butter. Normally you have to plan ahead for such things, pull the butter from the fridge, and let it soften on the counter while you daydream about how delicious they’re going to taste once you finally get to bake them. (I’ve never had success softening in the microwave—some of it always melts.) Cold butter meant spontaneity! With this recipe, I could decide to bake some cookies and thirty minutes later actually be eating one. I printed out the recipe for later use, not thinking in terms of IMBB.
A day or two later, I felt the urge to try it. My only tweaks to the recipe were to use dark brown sugar instead of light—I prefer the deeper flavor—add some dried cherries, and change some of the directions. The results were very good indeed—and the dough surprised me with a caramelly, toffee-y flavor reminiscent of my beloved City Bakery’s. They were a little too crisp, though. CB’s are the perfect combination of chewy center and crunchy edge, and these were crispy practically the whole way through. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s just not my idea of perfect. That’s when I decided to tinker with this recipe for IMBB, in a quest for City Bakery quintessence. A few days later I baked Round Two, reducing the white sugar and upping the brown sugar an equivalent amount. Oh, my. These were very, very close. The only thing I didn’t like about them was a certain greasiness. I did a little research, thumbing through my cookie cookbooks until I found the answer in Nick Malgieri’s Cookies Unlimited: If you overbeat the butter initially, it introduces too much air to the dough. The cookies puff up in the oven and deflate, resulting in greasiness. And the very first step in this recipe is to cream that cold butter for two minutes. I had walked away while the Kitchenaid was going, and probably let it go closer to five. Armed with this knowledge, I tried again, making absolutely sure the paddle didn’t turn one time more than was necessary. Since the recipe was already so close to my ultimate, I stopped at CB first and bought a cookie for a side-by-side taste-test.
For the test, I cut up the CB cookie and two of my own—one that had been baked for 12 minutes, and one for 13. It wasn’t a blind taste-test, since we didn’t cover our eyes and you could tell just by looking which one was CB’s… It was a true golden yellowy color, whereas mine were much browner. (The photos were taken with different lighting situations so the variation isn’t quite that drastic, but it is noticeable.) Perhaps they use light brown sugar? An extra egg yolk? You could tell by tasting, too. The CB was thicker, chewier, more tender and yet more substantial all around, with a richness that mine didn’t even come close to matching. The butter and the sugar were distinct flavors, but melded together perfectly. What the hell do they put in those cookies? Mine spread out a lot more than theirs. Do they refrigerate the dough? How do they do that? It’s killing me. Seriously, anyone who has ANY idea how to make cookies come out like City Bakery’s, pleeeeeease tell me. I will send you money. Seriously.
The funny part is, my cookies tasted fabulous—they’re probably the best chocolate chip cookies I’ve ever made. Definitely a success as far as the recipe itself goes. S preferred the 13-minute bake, while I preferred the 12. (And the slight greasiness is still there, but less so.) The biggest difference is that with CB’s, you eat the one giant cookie and think That Was So Perfect I Can Eat No More, whereas with mine you think That Was So Good I’ll Just Have Another. So even though my Cook’s Illustrated-esque quest to replicate cookie nirvana didn’t quite work out, I’m still proud of my sweet little experiment.
Here’s the final recipe, which isn’t terribly different from how it started out:
A Pretty Damn Good Chocolate Chip Cookie, Even if It Isn’t City Bakery-Caliber
[shamelessly ripped off from the Amateur Gourmet and Sherry Yard’s The Secrets of Baking]
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ t. baking soda
½ t. salt
¼ pound (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces
½ cup sugar
¾ cup tightly packed dark brown sugar
1 ½ t. pure vanilla extract
1 large egg, at room temperature
7 oz bittersweet chocolate, cut into 1/2 inch chunks (I chopped up two 3 ½-oz bars of Valhrona Noir 56% for the final round, but ½ a bag of supermarket chocolate chunks tasted great in each of the first two rounds)
Optional addition: ½ cup dried cherries, halved if they’re large
1) Preheat oven to 350. Adjust racks to lower and upper thirds of the oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpats.
2) Sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt into a medium bowl and set aside.
3) Using a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment or a hand mixer, cream the butter on medium speed until pale yellow, about 2 minutes [don’t do what I did and walk away!]. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle. Add the sugar, brown sugar, and vanilla. Cream on medium speed until it is smooth and lump free, about 2 minutes. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle.
4) Add the egg and beat on low speed for 15 seconds, or until fully incorporated. Do not overbeat. Stop the machine and scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle.
5) On low speed, add the flour mixture. Beat until just incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the chocolate chunks (and cherries, if using), and mix until they are just incorporated. If using a hand mixer, use a wooden spoon to stir them in.
6) Spoon the dough using a cookie scooper 2 inches apart onto the prepared baking sheets. (makes about 22 3-inch round cookies)
7) Bake for 11-13 minutes or until golden brown around the edges, swapping placement and turning the sheets front to back halfway through the baking.
8) Remove from the oven and carefully slide the parchment or Silpats directly onto a work surface. Wait at least 5 minutes before serving or 20 minutes before storing in an airtight container for up to 3 days at room temperature.
[Good luck keeping them around that long!]