Unlike most foods whose origin stories are forever shrouded in mystery, the chocolate chip cookie and its inventor are known to us. However, that has not eliminated a certain amount of conjecture on how the cookie was first realized.
Alongside her husband, Mrs. Ruth Wakefield a dietitian, food lecturer, and noted doyen in the kitchen, owned and operated the Toll House Inn located in Whitman, Massachusetts, from 1930-1967. Ruth single-handedly prepared all the meals for the Inn’s guests and her culinary prowess quickly spread through the surrounding area, especially for her exceptional desserts.
There are many stories as to how the cookie was actually created. The most popular being that while whipping up a batch of her Butter Drop Do cookies, (meant to accompany ice cream) Ruth, the professional chef and owner of a flourishing business, somehow forgot, or perhaps overlooked the fact that she was perilously low on baker’s chocolate, and was forced to substitute a chopped bar of Nestlé chocolate instead, given to her personally by Andrew Nestlé, the swiss chocolate mogul. Others claim that instead of baker’s chocolate she had instead run out of nuts and thus the substitution was made. Either way, to her surprise the Nestlé chocolate did not behave the way her baker’s chocolate would have and instead of melting in the oven maintained its chunky integrity.
An even more unlikely account completely removes Ruth from the narrative asserting that the vibrations of the kitchen’s industrial mixer knocked some chocolate down from a shelf into the cookie dough being mixed below. Effectively pronouncing the iconic chocolate chip cookie to be nothing more than the unwitting work of a standing mixer’s extreme oscillations. Giving the credit to something like serendipity or fate instead of Mrs. Wakefield.
What I believe to be the most accurate and generous rendition of the story was that, Ruth, a seasoned veteran in the kitchen, who due to her occupation, was cooking and thinking about food the majority of her day, and that by dint of her training and talent came up with a brilliant idea, formulating a recipe that would go on to spawn countless imitations and variations.
No matter the true process of her creation, after perfecting the recipe, she published it in several of Boston’s papers under the name of the “Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookie” also featuring it in her recipe book Toll House Tried and True Recipes. The cookie soon achieved nationwide recognition after it was featured in an episode of the Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air, a popular radio program at that time.Ruth’s cookie became especially popular in New England, in fact so much so, that it drew attention from executives at the Nestlé company who noticed a 500 percent spike in sales in the area.
A year after the cookies first publication, Nestlé approached Mrs. Wakefield hoping she would endorse their semi-sweet chocolate bars, but they got something considerably better, the rights to her recipe. The price of said rights? Exactly one dollar, which purportedly she never received. However, she did receive free chocolate for life and worked as a consultant for the Nestlé company for years.
As chocolate chips had yet to be invented, a small cutter was sold alongside Nestlé chocolate bars so that home bakers could create the cookie’s signature chocolate chunks. This continued until 1939 when Nestlé introduced their first bags of conveniently pre-chopped chocolate dubbed “Toll House Chocolate Morsels”, or what we commonly refer to today as chocolate chips. The cookies finally getting their “chip” moniker in 1940 and by 1941 Chocolate Chip cookies were considered the cookie’s standard name.
As the US entered the Second World War the chocolate chip cookie’s popularity was further entrenched in the hearts of Americans as mothers and girlfriends back home were encouraged by the Nestlé company to send cookies to “that soldier boy of yours” in an aggressive marketing campaign aimed at women on the home front. By the end of the war, the cookies would rival even apple pie as the most popular dessert recipe in the country.
“A balanced diet is a cookie in each hand.”
-Barbara Johnson (in no way related to Don Johnson)
The Cookie Perfected
“Like the omelet, which many believe to be the true test of a chef, the humble chocolate chip cookie is the baker’s crucible” and there are several recommendations that if remembered and used can transport your cookie to levels of flavor you would not have thought possible.
David Leite, after speaking to some of New York City’s best bakers, compiled their tips for perfecting the cookie. The first and arguably most important of these was allowing the cookie dough time to rest. Anywhere from 12 hours to as many as 72. Every additional hour the cookie is given to mature adds to the layers of flavor achieved. Even Ruth Wakefield’s original recipe said “At the Toll House, we chill this dough overnight,” this may come as a surprise to some as this crucial bit of information was left off the recipe printed on the back of the Nestlé bars and bags of chips.
Allowing your cookie dough to age in the refrigerator gives the dry ingredients time to fully soak up the liquids, resulting in a dough that bakes more evenly. The extra hydration time gives the slow moving gelatinous eggs the opportunity to make their way through the butter, which upon mixing, effectively coats the flour and prevents the liquid from fully combining with the dry ingredients in the dough. Suddenly you’ve got more than a chocolate chip cookie, you will notice if you let your dough rest for at least 24 hours that your cookies will brown beautifully and their flavor will be richer and bolder with notes of toffee and caramel.
The second tip is the size of the cookie. If you make each cookie at least 4oz. You create something dubbed the “Rule of Thirds”. Cookies on this scale can achieve three different textures. Like a bullseye, there’s the buttery, crunchy outer ring. A little further in, between the very soft center and the crisp exterior, there’s a strip of cookie that has the texture of rich fudge and where you really start tasting the caramel. The center, a little larger than a quarter, is so soft and warm it begins to melt as soon as you reach it. Cookies large enough to reach this texture diversity truly have a leg up on their smaller compatriots who can only play one note so to speak.
Lastly, salt. I am a huge salt advocate and have seen how it can transform baked goods from cloying to inspiring. Whether you incorporate it at the begin or sprinkle it at the end, salt can elevate baked goods by allowing you to taste contrast. As you taste salt so you taste sugar that much more. Though it seems backward, salt makes things taste sweeter. It adds complexity and dimension. Never underestimate its power!
Be sure to always read through your entire recipe first, this ensures that you have all the ingredients and tools. And prevents inevitable disappointment when you find out you won’t be eating what you’ve made for another 12 hours or so.
Use room temperature ingredients, they bond together more easily when warm, creating a smooth evenly textured batter that will trap air more easily while being baked, resulting in a fluffy tender end result.
And finally, use good quality ingredients, in fact, the finest you can afford. Because if you’re going through the trouble to make something for yourself especially something as unessential to your health and well-being as say a cookie, do it with some panache. Splurge on good chocolate, or the French salt. Something that’s as synonymous with reward as a cookie, should not be made with plebeian ingredients, or god forbid, come out of a package.
If you would like to try Ruth’s own “Chocolate Crunch Cookie” just the way she made it for her guests at the Toll House, here is a link to her original recipe.
Since its inception, however, the chocolate chip cookie has evolved considerably, if you would like to try a recipe more akin to what you might find at the best bakeries in New York, give the following a try. Adapted from a recipe published in the NYTimes.
The Consummate Chocolate Chip Cookie
3 cups + ⅔ cups (17 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 ¼ teaspoons baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 ½ teaspoons coarse salt
2 ½ sticks butter, unsalted
1 ¼ cups light brown sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 ¼ pounds bittersweet chocolate (at least 60% recommended)
Combine dry ingredients in a bowl, whisking briskly to remove lumps and thoroughly integrate your ingredients.
Using a standing mixer, affix the paddle attachment, and cream together butter and both sugars until fluffy and the color has lightened. Combine eggs and vanilla in a bowl and add one at a time, continuing to mix all the while.
At this point I like to remove the bowl of the mixer and incorporate the dry ingredients by hand. This ensures that I do not overmix the dough, an important thing when attempting to make the perfect cookie. When the dry ingredients have come close but have not completely been incorporated, add your chocolate, stirring until there is no longer any visible signs of dry flour and the chocolate has been dispersed evenly.
This recipe makes over 4 lbs of dough and can be separated and batched out if desired. I parceled mine out into 4 – 1lb disks before wrapping and refrigerating. I refrigerated all of mine so I could experiment with the link between aging the dough and taste. But you can easily portion excess and freeze it for future use.
Refrigerate dough for as little as 12 hours, to as much as 72 before baking.
Preheat oven to 350F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or Silpat.
Portion out 6 – 3.5 to 4oz balls of dough. Sprinkle with sea salt and bake for roughly 18-20 minutes. When the cookies have achieved a golden brown but are still soft, remove them from the oven. Allow them to rest on the hot pan for a few minutes before transferring them to a rack to cool. Then repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, peat, eat, eat, eat, eat….