The chocolate chip cookie is America’s sweet treat of choice. Never mind the saying, “American as Apple Pie”. Those pies are hard to make and almost always store-bought. It’s the chocolate chip cookie that is the favorite homemade goodie now. Young or old, city or country, north or south, east, west or in between, put down a plate of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies and watch them disappear.
The chocolate chip cookie was created by Ruth Wakefield at the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Mass (no relation) around 1930. There are a couple of creation stories and at least one other claimant to making the first one, but it’s clear that they were first served at Wakefield’s busy inn. The cookies were enormously popular. The high volume of cookies drew the attention of the Nestlé Company, makers of the semi-sweet chocolate morsels. Wakefield traded the recipe and name for a lifetime supply of Nestlé morsels (or so the story goes). Her recipe was included in the Toll House Inn cookbook published in 1936.
The cookie was easy and inexpensive to make, just the ticket for a country in economic distress. Helped by the marketing might of Nestlé, the cookie’s fame and recipe spread across the country. Troops returning from World War II had a taste for the cookies they had gotten in care packages and helped to spread the word.
Alas, only cookies made with Nestlé’s chips can be called Toll House. All others are just chocolate chip cookies. The chocolate chip cookie is the official cookie of Massachusetts. Don’t you wish we had an official cookie in Connecticut? The Toll House Inn burned down in 1984, so we can no longer go to the source for a cookie, but since they’re easy to make, a pilgrimage is unnecessary.
There are many variations, but the process starts with the recipe on the back of the bag. Once the basic recipe has been mastered then try some experimentation. In our house we like an extra pinch of salt. I’ve also been known to throw in a handful of dried cranberries. Some like walnuts or macadamias, but not me. There are partisans for chewy, crisp, underbaked, or just the raw dough. I’ve met dunkers, those who like them warm, and people who eat them right out of the freezer. Take two and make an ice cream sandwich. I don’t know anybody who can eat just one.
On the website HandleTheHeat.com, author and cook Tessa Arias experimented with the basic Toll House recipe changing one ingredient at a time to produce cookies across the spectrum, thick, thin, chewy, crisp, cakey or crumbly. In eight different variations she changed the leavening, altered the sugar, added flour, melted the butter and chilled the dough. In a second wave of experiments she altered the pan, tinkered with different types of flour, added extra egg, included cornstarch and swapped shortening for butter.
Each change made a noticeable difference in the texture and flavor of the cookies–some more appealing than others, but all variations on a theme. Baking, much more than cooking, is a function of chemistry and careful process. Making a single change dramatically changes the end result. Precise measurement is also important, since even small changes in quantity can affect the outcome. On HandleTheHeat.com, Tessa includes pictures of each variation and side by side comparisons of all the cookies. Take a look! It’s instructive to see how different the cookies are. You may find a new favorite.
There are several well known commercial brands of chocolate chip cookies, including Famous Amos and Mrs. Fields and supermarket brands by Keebler and Nabisco and Pepperidge Farm, but for my money, you can’t beat homemade, particularly when my wife makes them. Hers are the best! I’m happy to clean up and eat up. And for no extra charge, the house is perfumed with the aroma of warm chocolate, butter and caramelized sugar. In fact I’ve always thought that a chocolate chip cookie perfume would be more effective in attracting a man than a floral scent.
If you want to know more, take a look at The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book: Scrumptious Recipes & Fabled History From Toll House to Cookie Cake Pie by Carolyn Wyman. There are over 200 pages of recipes and Chocolate Chip Cookie lore.
Let me know when you’re baking, I want to drive by and take a deep breath.