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The Chocolate Chip Cookie: An American Icon

by Stephanie Zonis

Can you imagine an era before chocolate chip cookies existed? Do you really want to? Yet this all-American goodie was a relatively late arrival on this country’s food scene.

As usual, I’ll start with a little history, in this case, a little untruthful history. You may know that chocolate chip cookies were originally called “Toll House Cookies”. Years ago now, I was standing in the checkout line of a grocery store. I don’t even recall what I was buying, but three teenage girls were in line behind me. They were obviously going to make chocolate chip cookies in the near future, as they were buying all the necessary ingredients. One started reading the back of the package of chocolate chips, then suddenly looked up at her two companions and asked if either knew why they were called “Toll House Cookies”. One friend looked blank, but the second said that of course she knew; the cookie name stemmed from the fact that these cookies were used in the 1700’s and 1800’s as payment at tollbooths (then called “toll houses”) in place of money! I wish this story were true; it presents a wonderful mental image of early American commerce. But sadly, the accuracy just isn’t there.

Ruth Graves Wakefield was a dietician and food lecturer until she and her husband bought a guest lodge, called the Toll House Inn, in Massachusetts. Mrs. Wakefield prepared meals for the guests at her inn, and she became famous locally for her desserts. One fine day in 1937, she was making a favorite recipe for Butter Drop cookies (the name is usually listed as Butter Drop Do, the last word pronounced as “dough”. However “do” also meant “ditto” in those days; if the recipe had come from a list of recipe titles for cookies, the “do” might simply have meant it was another recipe for butter drop cookies, without having to write out the word “cookies” every time). The recipe called for the use of baker’s chocolate and there was none in the house, so she cut up a bar of semisweet chocolate that had been a gift from Andrew Nestle and mixed it into the dough, expecting that the chocolate would melt and run throughout the dough during baking. The chocolate bits softened, but didn’t melt. Mrs. Wakefield served the cookies anyway, and they were a big hit. She called them “Toll House Crunch Cookies”.

After the recipe for the cookies was published in a Boston newspaper, they became popular on a wider scale. Their fame spread even further in 1939, after they were discussed on a radio show. Mrs. Wakefield struck an agreement with Nestle, in which the company could print what became known simply as “Toll House Cookies” on the wrapper of their semisweet chocolate bar. Americans were so crazy for these cookies that Nestle even came out with a semisweet bar scored into small sections and sold with a special cutting implement---the precursor to their famous chocolate morsels. Supposedly, the agreement included a provision that Nestle would supply Mrs. Wakefield with as much of this chocolate as she wished for the remainder of her life!

The fan base for chocolate chip cookies has only increased over time. If you spent any time as a kid baking or eating them, as I did, you’ll have no trouble crediting the fact that they are now the single most popular type of cookie for home baking in the US. Among purchased cookies, they are one of the top-selling two or three varieties (depending upon your source), though
Oreos ™ consistently outsell any single brand of chocolate chip cookies.

There are some people who will consume anything even approaching a chocolate chip cookie, but I hope you are not one of them. In the interest of limited caloric intake, a fact of life for most of us, it pays to have a little discrimination. So what makes a chocolate chip cookie worth eating? We’ll start at the beginning, with good ingredients. This is where so many store-bought cookies fall flat. You must use good, fresh ingredients. In my book, that means unsalted (you add salt to the dough anyway) butter. Vegetable shortening and margarine may have their uses, but neither can match butter’s great flavor. I love the hint of molasses in brown sugar, so I’ll generally make my chocolate chip cookies entirely with light brown sugar, or with a half-and-half mix of granulated sugar and dark brown sugar, which amounts to the same thing. I use only real vanilla in my baked goods, period; vanillin has a funny, “off” taste. Because chocolate chip cookies baked according to Nestle’s back-of-the-package recipe are rather thin, I’ll sometimes use a little more flour than is called for. As a salt minimalist, I find the quantity of salt called for in the Nestle recipe preposterously large. I believe that a little salt is needed for flavor, but only a little, so I’ll use 1/8 teaspoon or so, rather than the 1 teaspoon called for. And then there’s the chocolate. You need lots of it (I use up to double the amount in the recipe), and it, too, must be of good quality. I have used a good brand of chocolate chips if that’s all I have available, but I prefer the chocolate chunks I cut from a bar of fine-quality chocolate. One great aspect of these cookies is that they lend themselves so nicely to customization. Whether you prefer nuts or dried apricots, oats or peanut butter, whole wheat flour or crystallized ginger, you can be sure that someone, somewhere is adding it to a chocolate chip cookie.

The baking part of the process is just as crucial. When you set your oven temperature to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, how close does your oven come to that? Does it run hot or cold? A good portable oven thermometer is a great kitchen companion. I make sure my cookies have room to spread as they bake. Overcrowd them on a baking sheet, and you’ll end up with cookies that spread into one another and fuse together as they bake. I bake one sheet of cookies at a time, in the center of the oven, and I watch them carefully; even the best ingredients cannot rescue cookies that have been burned.

If this seems like a lot of fuss for a chocolate chip cookie, maybe it is. But I believe that the extra care I put into making cookies (or anything else) will be reflected in the end product. I’m going to be eating these cookies and sharing them with family and friends. While I hate to admit it, chocolate chip cookies aren’t a necessary part of the human diet. Given that we can’t eat them endlessly, doesn’t it make sense to eat only the best?

This philosophy should apply if you’re going to buy commercially-prepared chocolate chip cookies, or prepared cookie dough, as well. A little more thought about what goes into our food would do all of us some good, so please, buy nothing with preservatives, trans fats, unnecessary synthesized ingredients, or chocolate-flavored chips.

Whether you buy them or bake them from scratch, chocolate chip cookies are favorites of just about everyone. If it’s been a while since you baked a batch, maybe now would be a good time. And if you have little ones about, make sure they get to help in the making as well as the eating!



Recipe of the Month:
Orange Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

     These are an adaptation of an amalgamation, as it were. My Mother combined two recipes to get a cookie she liked, and I grew up baking those cookies. I’ve changed them somewhat from my Mom’s original formula. These can easily be personalized by adding cinnamon, chopped nuts, raisins, etc. These cookies puff up during baking but flatten as they cool.

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 egg, graded “large”
Grated zest of 1/2 large, deep-colored orange
1-1/4 cups quick-cooking OR old-fashioned oats (not instant oatmeal)
6 to 12 ounces (about 1 to 2 cups) semisweet chocolate chunks OR chips (if you cut chunks from a bar, they should be less than 1/2 inch on a side)

Adjust rack to center of oven. Line baking sheets with aluminum foil or parchment paper (if using foil, do not grease it). Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Into small bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

In large bowl, using a large spoon, cream together butter, both sugars, and vanilla for a minute or two, until fluffy. Add egg and orange zest; beat in. Stir in flour mixture just until combined. Stir in oats, then chocolate chunks.

Drop dough by rounded teaspoonfuls (not measuring teaspoons) about 2 inches apart on lined baking sheets (I bake twelve cookies on a 15-1/2 by 10-1/2 inch sheet). Bake in preheated oven about 8 to 10 minutes, switching baking sheet back-to-front about halfway during baking period. Cookies are done when edges are a light golden brown and centers lose their “raw” look. Do not overbake. Remove to cooling rack.

Allow baked cookies to stand on baking sheet for three minutes before removing to cooling rack with broad-bladed metal spatula. If you eat them warm, be careful not to burn your mouth on the melted chocolate! Cool completely, then store airtight for up to two days or freeze.

40 to 42 cookies


Chocolate Find of the Month:

The first time I ordered cookies from TheBestCookie.com, I was disappointed in my purchase. The cookies arrived in fine shape and were fresh, but they were too salty and didn’t have anywhere near enough chocolate chips. I had not mentioned to the person who took my order that I write about food (I seldom do, as I don’t want special treatment that others might not get), and I chalked up the incident as, sigh, yet another example of how tough it is to find a good commercially-prepared chocolate chip cookie. But a surprise was in store. A day after the cookies arrived, I got a phone call from the proprietor, Marcia Flanigan. Had I enjoyed the cookies? I did have a couple of positive things to say about them, so I said those first. Trying to soften the blow as much as I could, I was in the process of telling Ms. Flanigan that, for my tastes, the cookies contained too much salt and too few chips, but she finished the sentence for me. That was odd; how could she have known what I was going to say? It turns out that she had an assistant. After months of training, Marcia figured the assistant could handle one day’s production of cookies while she (Marcia) tended to something else in her life that really needed to get done. When she returned the next day and tasted a cookie made by her assistant, she was dismayed to find that her prized recipe had not been followed. The cookies had too much salt and too few chips. Could she please send me another tin (at no charge) of her cookies, this time prepared according to her recipe? Remember, Marcia didn’t know I was a food writer at that point, but I was very impressed by anyone who cared enough about their product to do something like this to all her customers who had received cookies not made according to her instructions. The replacement cookies arrived promptly and were a huge improvement. No salty taste, and I estimated that they contained as many as three times the number of chocolate chips as had the first batch I received. I’ve been recommending TheBestCookie.com to people ever since.  

It’s been fun to watch the product roster here expand over time. Initially, Marcia offered a modest selection of cookies, but her imagination keeps kicking in. If you’re in the market for something new, how about her Chocolate Chocolate Cherry Chip Cookie (yes, you read the name correctly), with a chocolate dough featuring imported dark cocoa, imported chocolate chips, and dried cherries? Or maybe you’d prefer a Chocolate Dipped Cashew Butter Cookie, complete with lightly salted cashews and half-dipped in Callebaut chocolate. Of course, there’s always the Classic Chocolate Chip for you purists, and you’ll find assortments if the number of choices overwhelms. There are even cookies that don’t contain any chocolate, like the Ginger Snap or Key Lime Coconut Macadamia Ball. Cookie doughs here are made with both organic flour and organic eggs. Some cookies have size options (one ounce or two ounces), and most come with packaging choices, so you can present your cookies to someone in a gift tin or buy them in a more economical bag. Marcia has even added scones, biscuits, and Pecan Raisin Tarts. If you aren’t going to bake chocolate chip cookies yourself, you want a business with good ingredients, a good philosophy, and good customer service. Give TheBestCookie.com a try; I believe they merit it. You can find more information at: www.TheBestCookie.com.



Stephanie (HandOverTheChocolate@comcast.net) has had a strong affinity for chocolate from a very early age. Family members claim that, as a child, she was able to hear chocolate being opened in the kitchen no matter where she was in the house. Stephanie was baking by the time she was 6 and ran a short-lived baking business out of her parents’ kitchen when she was in high school. She has a Master’s Degree in Foods from Virginia Tech but no formal training in cooking or baking. Consequently, she is a home cook, not a chef. Prior to beginning this column, she had written about chocolate for some 8 years.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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