Friends, I think I finally got it – I finally feel totally and wholly American, and it’s taken me twenty-one years (minus two weeks) of living in the U.S. to achieve that. The moment arrived over the Super Bowl. On this most American of weekends, I did the single most American culinary thing–I made these chocolate chip cookies. You would think that I’d have felt this way after getting naturalized at eighteen, but I didn’t. You see, a piece of paper is different than a rite of passage. And making these cookies has been a rite of passage spanning many many years.
To me, as I was trying to assimilate into all things American, the chocolate chip cookie was the Holy Grail of American baking. No, not just baking – America itself. It was the secret passage to everything I was trying to learn; encapsulating that elusive cool I was after. Baking them made me feel entirely and completely native, like I finally belonged, like I was born here; as if part of my natural childhood included bake-sales, Sesame Street and “Hop on Pop”.
I also had an inkling that these cookies, filled with a thin layer of chocolate, slightly crispy on the edges and chewy in the middle, and delicately dusted with a hint of salt, were a way to people’s hearts. To charm my high school boyfriend’s mother, I baked her chocolate chip cookies the first time I came by the house. I felt that cookies can warm anyone’s heart, can build many bridges, bring smiles and good memories to come. I can’t say if it was the plate of cookies that charmed her, or just me, but I’d like to believe that the cookies had a lot to do with it – we were an instant hit and grew very close through the years. In fact, I confess the relationship lasted a few years too many on the count me being unwilling to lose this woman from my life – she was and is that amazing. But all that aside, baking those cookies on that fateful day, was the first serious cooking step I took. It was the first time I was keenly and consciously aware of connecting with people through food.
A chocolate chip cookie is as ubiquitous in most American baking repertoire as it gets. Try and say you have a unique chocolate chip cookie recipe and you might see a few raised eyebrows. It’s a little like saying you’ve a radically different recipe for an apple pie. Everyone’s got a recipe and when all is said and done, let’s be honest here, there’s not that much variation from one recipe to another in most cases. But to find a chocolate chip cookie that is truly remarkable, the kind that makes you, upon taking a bite, do a double-take, the cookie that offers not just sweetness, butter, and chocolate, but some complexity as well–now those cookies are rare and we remember the moments. In my experience, truly exceptional chocolate chip cookies offered the salty and the sweet, the butter and the malt, hints of toffee and caramel. One note morphed into the other, constantly evolving and changing on your tongue.
For twenty years, I was after making such a cookie. I baked numerous different recipes. I added nuts, I played with sugars, I made them chewy, or crunchy, or in-between. There were large cookies and small ones. There were mounds and there were flat ones. There were cookies with chocolate chips, chocolate chunks, chocolate disks, chocolate hand cut pieces. Some results were notable, and some were forgettable. But nothing, until now, has been transcendent. This cookie is different. And the proof was in the pudding, or the dough, to be more precise. The batch I brought to the Super Bowl party, vanished in minutes; ditto for the batch I brought in to work. My friends raved, my coworkers raved and even I raved, someone at work admitted that it might have been the best cookie they’ve ever had. I believed them – they were, pretty much, the best ones I’ve had too. Perfectly crispy on the outside, chewy as you got toward the center, no piece without chocolate, and a hint of salt to accent the chocolate – they were, in one word, sublime. Worth the wait, the extra effort and the purchase of a kitchen scale solely for the exercise. Assimilation has been accomplished, even if, from time to time, I do prefer stuffed cabbage to chili, borscht to tomato soup, and Russian gingerbread honey cakes (coming shortly!) to these cookies. What I learned through the twenty one years, is that I prefer to straddle both cultures with one foot firmly set in each, drawing from the best of both worlds, old and new to form my own voice and my own story.
Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from Jacques Torres via David Leite for the New York Times
To find the perfect chocolate chip cookie, David Leite set on a quest eating cookies far and wide, experimenting with doughs, flours, interviewing such cookie experts as Jacques Torres (who knows a thing or two about chocolate). And in the end, he arrived at this recipe with Mr. Chocolate’s help. I will, forever, be indebted to him, as I am sure many bakers are across the country and even the world.
2 cups minus 2 tablespoons (8 1/2 ounces) cake flour
1 2/3 cups (8 1/2 ounces) bread flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
2 1/2 sticks (1 1/4 cups) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups (10 ounces) light brown sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (8 ounces) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract
1 1/4 pounds bittersweet chocolate disks or fèves, at least 60 percent cacao content [Valrhona fèves, oval-shaped chocolate pieces, are at Whole Foods; I prefer the E. Guittard chocolate couverture wafers as they are thin, perfectly circular and melt in a lovely thin layer, thus giving you a layer of chocolate with every bite]
1. In a bowl, sift the flours, baking soda, baking powder and salt. [If using kosher salt, note that it'll get stuck in the sifter during the sifting process. In this case, add it post sift and whisk lightly to combine.]
2. In a mixer, fitted with a paddle attachment, cream your butter and both of the sugars until very light – this can take about 5 minutes or so. You want to make sure the mixture lightens substantially. Add eggs, one by one, making sure to incorporate each egg after each addition. Add the vanilla extract.
3. Reduce mixer speed to low, and add the dry ingredients in several parts until just combined. This will take between 5 and 10 seconds. The reason you want to not overmix is you don’t want to overwork the glutens as this will result in a tougher cookie. At the same time, you don’t want to just dump all the dry ingredients in as this will result in an unholy mess of white powder covering the entirety of your kitchen. Translation: Be ye not as stupid as me.
4. Anyhow, once your flour mixture is incorporated, drop in the chocolate bits and incorporate them in. Be careful not to break the pieces – this might be a wee bit tricky as the cookie dough is a bit thick and thus elbow grease, or mixer might will need to be applied.
5. Once the chocolate bits are incorporated, get out your plastic wrap and press against the dough to seal it off from the elements. Refrigerate for 24-36 hours, the longer the better. You can use the dough in batches and keep refrigerated for up to 72 hours (if it lasts that long!).
6. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line your baking sheet with parchment paper and set it aside.
7. Using a large cookie scoop, spoon 6 3 1/2 oz mound s of dough (they should look like large’ish golf balls) onto your baking sheet, taking care to have all chocolate pieces horizontally positioned (this will yield a prettier cookie). Sprinkle with fleur de sel (lightly!) and bake until golden grown, but still soft, 18-20 minutes.
8. Transfer to a cooling rack for 10 minutes and then slip cookies onto another rack to cool further.
9. Repeat with remaining dough.
10. Eat cookies warm, with cold glass of milk and a big napkin.
Makes 1 1/2 dozen 5-inch cookies.
Notes: please don’t use salted butter, and if you can, get cultured butter for the process, as it will make all the difference. The higher the fat content in your butter, the better your cookies will be. Fat = good cookie. Salted butter contains more water and thus a bit less fat (hence my urging for unsalted).