The best chocolate chips cookies ever?
Thursday, April 2, 2009
Once in a while, along comes a recipe that changes the name of the game. Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread recipe published by Mark Bittman in the NY Times two years ago was one. It got so many cooks – who hitherto dared not touch yeast bread – to fashion themselves a veritable French boulanger, baking loafs after loafs of crackly, crusty bread, and even turning more than a few of them into petty thieves. Then, a few months ago, the Times struck again, this time with a chocolate chips cookies recipe that purported to be no less than perfection itself.
The key to that recipe? A little patience, said the indomitable David Leite who penned the piece. Let me just tell you that it was quite an understatement. Unlike the good Mr.Leite, I don’t live in a world where restraining oneself from devouring, entirely raw, the whole batch of chocolate chips cookie dough during the 36 hours called for in the recipe constitutes a little patience. And not just any chocolate chips cookie dough, mind you, but one so rich, so deliciously salty-sweet, and so -ever, ever so- tempting. In my world, chocolate chips cookie dough can speak. And it’s calling my name – the whole, half a box of scrabble’s worth of alphabets in my name.
So, did I give in, you asked? Of course I did. Although not entirely, I should give myself credit. I waited 24 hours before I baked my first small batch, and the rest managed to last the 36 hours required. And, no, no, that little elf that kept sneaking into the fridge to steal mini bites of the cookie dough was not me. Not me at all. It must have been my cat Ella, in her human/elven suit. True story.
Besides requiring the patience of a zen master, or an Iyengar Yogi, the recipe itself is really quite simple, calling for not much more than flour, butter, sugar, egg, chocolate, and, most importantly, salt. As with the usual greatness, the key is the quality of what goes in, and precisely in what manners they do. In this case, it’s in the quality of the chocolate. Leite consulted Willy Wonka himself Jacques Torres, who warned against the cheapo chocolate chips, and suggested good, dark couverture chocolate instead. Well, that much is obvious, most cheap chocolate chips in the market taste like wax, and it’s to real chocolate what margarine is to real butter. Although the article didn’t mention the use of good butter, I highly suggest that you find the most flavorful butter you could get your hands on for this. If the butter isn’t any good to eat, it won’t be very good in this simple recipe either. The chocolate I use here is 72% Valrhona Araguani in the fèves or disk form. They are extra dark but not overly bitter single-source Valrhona from Venezuela. It’s my current favorite for baking – the convenient disks stop me ever having to chop up chocolates ever again. I buy them in the giant 5kg bag, but you are not insane (like me) so I suggest you buy in smaller quantities.
Instead of copying the recipe here, I suggest you go tothe NY Times page and get it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. I’ll talk here about how I adapted the recipe to my taste.
The first batch I baked was pretty darn good already, although it had only rested 24 hours. It was super flavorful, if only a little flat. I could hardly imagined a better tasting result if I waited the full amount of time Leite suggested. The final result, however, was, amazingly enough, even better yet. The 36hr batch baked up more golden, as though it was made with just yolks and not whole eggs. It wasn’t particularly thicker than the 24hr batch though. These are not thin cookies by any means, but I wouldn’t call them fat either.
I began to look a bit deeper into my process. The problem was likely my own fault, as my lazy-self refused to make a trip to the store to buy cake flour. The recipe called for a combination of cake and all purpose flour, you see. I twittered -twitted, twat, whatever- with David Leite himself, asking him to explain the choice of flours used, and he said it’s to create a combination with a slightly higher protein content than regular all purpose flour. Ah ha, I thought, I could get away with using my favorite King Arthur AP flour, which already has a higher percentage of protein than your average supermarket AP flour. What I forgot about was the starch content of cake flour, which – as Harold McGee pointed out in his imminently useful tome On Food and Cooking – makes it more absorbent than AP flour, which would change the hydration of the dough, and in turn lead to the slight spreading problem I had. All of this makes a whole lot of sense, well, until I saw the result of Deb’s experiment with the same recipe on her blog Smitten Kitchen. She used the proper flours the recipe specified, being a much more dedicated baker than I could ever be (have you *seen* her blog?) I’m sure Deb’s kitchen was well equipped with what she needed. Yet, somehow, her cookies look even flatter than mine! (Nyah nyah nyah I say.) So perhaps all of this research on the properties of flour were just pointless – sorry Harold, it wasn’t about you.
Another slight mess with the first batch was the chocolate. As I was scooping out the cookie dough and forming into the big golf balls, some of the chocolate fèves ended up on the outside edge, which means they were exposed directly to heat. Those got a bit too hot and some melted too much, making a bit of a mess on the cookie sheet and on my hands as I devoured them. Not that it was a big deal, but I made a mental note to push in the chocolate bits to the inside of the dough more. The original article only mentioned pushing the chocolate disks down flat if they’re poking up, but didn’t say anything about the leak from the outer edge of the cookies.
Then something dawned on me. All this working the dough, roughing it up into proper-size balls – weighing each one to be 75g precisely because, yes, I am that insane – and pushing in the poking chocolate bits deeper into the dough balls, I must have warmed up everything quite a bit. Ah ha. There you have it, warm dough spreads out too much as it bakes too quickly before it has time to set. I got it. Next time I do this, I’ll make the balls and then refrigerate them for a bit before baking. I’m sure my cookies will turn out just fine. Who knows, they might even turn out perfectly.