May 25, 2011

In search of a great chocolate chip cookie

I have yet to find the ultimate chocolate chip cookie recipe.  But admittedly, I haven't spent much time pursuing it since we have the double chocolate cookies that we love to make and I'm distracted by so many other goodies.  I have a few oatmeal chocolate chip cookie recipes that I rely on but I think a great oatmeal cookie is an easier goal to attain because the oats take center stage and its inherent chewiness almost guarantees satisfaction if you're looking for a soft chewy cookie.  And my family and I definitely fall into the "soft" chocolate chip cookie camp. 

Being such a classic, I think any home-baker would want to have an excellent chocolate chip cookie recipe in his or her repertoire.  So in my search here for a great chocolate chip cookie, I am starting with a recipe featured in the book, Ready for Dessert.  After making and tasting the cookies, I've tweaked the measurements a bit but here is my conclusion:  It makes a delicious chocolate chip cookie where the chunks of chocolate steal the show.  Making sure to remove them out of the oven before they crisp up too much (if you are looking for a soft cookie like we are), it is best slightly warm out of the oven.  The cookie dough is not too sweet and a nice canvas for the chunks of semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate.  My only personal wish would be for a bit more robust flavor in the dough itself.  But overall, I was very happy with the result.
These are the plain chocolate chip cookies a few minutes out of the oven.

These chocolate chip cookies have the addition of toasted walnuts.

I thought this chocolate chip recipe was a bit unusual in that you roll the dough out into logs and slice before baking rather than using the more typical scoop and drop method.  You'll want to plan a bit in advance before making this recipe because it requires (or highly recommends) refrigerating the dough for 24 hours or so before baking.  This practice of refrigerating chocolate chip cookie dough is more and more common these days.  There are supposed to be several benefits of doing this.  First and probably most importantly, it should result in a more flavorful cookie since it allows the dough to absorb the liquid ingredients (this makes me think of marinating meat overnight).  Secondly, it allows the glutens in the flour to relax so your cookies are not rubbery and tough.  And lastly, refrigeration prevents the cookies from spreading too much in the hot oven and that's important to me since I want a nice thick, chewy cookie rather than a thin crisp.  I wish I could tell you I tried these cookies several ways, refrigerating them for different amounts of time, and could compare the difference for you but I didn't do that.  I'm going to be pretty trusting on this and go with what the masses say about the benefits of refrigerating cookie dough.  I ended up keeping mine in the fridge for about a day and a half before baking.

This recipe makes 4 cookie dough logs, which bakes into about 48 cookies.  I made the full recipe since I thought it would be very convenient to keep extra logs in the freezer, where it will keep for about a month.  I made 2 logs of plain chocolate chip cookies for "Mr. I Don't Like Nuts Anymore" (i.e., my son), and 2 logs with toasted walnuts.

The chocolate chunks take center stage in this recipe so it's important to use good quality chocolate.  You want to buy chocolate "chunks" specifically or chop up some chocolate from a block or bar instead of using chocolate chips, which generally hold their shape and won't melt the way we want it to.  I'm using 14 oz. of semisweet chocolate that has 55% cacao.  That's what I happened to have at home and I often use semisweet if I'm making something my 5-year old will be eating but bittersweet chocolate that has a slightly higher percentage of cacao (about 60% or so) would be great.
If you're working with a big block of chocolate like I am, you want to make big cuts down the corners of the chocolate block.  Then, chop it into large, 1/2 to 1" thick, chunks.  I've also toasted 1 cup of walnuts over medium heat on the stove, moving them around until they're lightly browned and the nuts become very fragrant.  You could certainly dry roast them in the oven for about ten minutes as well.
For the dry ingredients, all we need to do is whisk the flour, baking soda, and salt together.
Now we're ready to start making the cookie dough, which comes together very quickly.  Start by beating the butter, brown sugar, granulated sugar, and vanilla on medium speed in a stand mixer.  I really like this book, Ready for Dessert, not only for the recipes like this one but because I've picked up a few tips and learned something I never knew before.  David Lebovitz, the author, says that while you want to beat butter and sugar together to incorporate air into it for cakes, you don't want to over beat it when you're making cookies or your cookies will spread too much when baking.  Who knew!  I always thought the longer you beat the butter, the better, because you'd get a creamier, fluffier product.
Once the butter mixture has been creamed together for about a minute, add the eggs one at a time, combining well after each addition.
Slowly add the flour mixture at this point on low speed until it's just combined.
And for my favorite part, add the chocolate chunks and toasted nuts.  Since I'm only using the walnuts in half the recipe, I add the chocolate first and stir it in for just a few seconds.  Then I removed half the chocolate chip cookie dough from the bowl.
Now, I throw in my cup of toasted walnuts into the remaining half of the dough and stir it in for about 3 quick seconds.  The toasted walnuts smell so good and nutty.
The recipe calls for rolling the cookie dough out into four 9-inch long logs. 
I eye-balled the logs into about equal size/shapes as best as I could but the plain chocolate chip ones came out a bit rounder and I think nicer than the ones with walnuts (those are the darker logs up front), which were a tad too long.  Try to roll these around and make the logs round and thick since you'll just be slicing and baking later and you want a nice round shape.  I think I could've done a better job with that.
Now pop these in the refrigerator for about 24 hours or up to several days.  If you don't have time for that, you can pop them in the fridge for about 30 minutes or so until they firm up and just bake it then.  I'm not going to tell on you.

Fast forward about 36 hours later...I take 2 logs out of the refrigerator and preheat my oven to 350 degrees.  I think it's good to let the logs sit on the counter for about 5 minutes or so to soften up just slightly.  It feels kind of odd slicing chocolate chip cookies, especially since I rarely make slice cookies.  But I sliced them about 3/4" thick, just pressing the dough back into place if there are some cracks or any piece of chocolate tries to escape.  The sliced cookies bake for about 10 minute, rotating the pans midway through baking. 

Well, hello chocolate chip cookies!
My cookies with walnuts didn't spread as much as the plain ones.  I'm not really sure why but I think the shape of the logs had something to do with it.  The one with walnuts were a bit more narrow.  Next time I make these again, I'll try to make the logs as round as possible so they come out as "natural" looking as possible. 
A warm chocolate chip cookie out of the oven is always welcomed in our home.  When I'm eating these cookies on another day, I like to warm them in the microwave for about 15 seconds.  I'm ready to pack a few of these off for my son's school snack.  And as an added bonus, I've got two more logs wrapped up in the freezer and ready to go in case we have a cookie emergency.
Don't forget to use big chocolate chunks!  The ooze factor is very important.
To be continued...
The search for a great chocolate chip cookie is a leisurely journey...

The recipe:

Chocolate Chip Cookies
From David Lebovitz's book, Ready for Dessert*

- Yields approximately 48 cookies -

*I made some minor changes to the measurements based on own personal preference after tasting the cookies according to the original recipe.  As I mentioned, I loved the big chunks of chocolate and the very nutty walnuts but I wanted a bit more punch in the dough itself.  So I've increased the amount of vanilla and salt up a bit.  Also, I'm going for a bit more brown sugar versus regular granulated sugar.  The recipe uses 1 cup of brown to 3/4 cup of granulated sugar.  I'm upping the ratio even more to 1 1/4 cup of brown and 1/2 cup of granulated sugar.  I'm trying for a darker color/flavor and even more moisture and chewiness from the brown sugar since that's the kind of chocolate chip cookie I favor.  I've tried this formula and I like it a lot.

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup regular/granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature
14 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped into 1/2 to 1 inch chunks
2 cups toasted and coarsely chopped nuts (optional) - you can use walnuts, pecans, almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia, etc.

Step 1: Making the cookie dough

Plan in advance since the cookie dough should be refrigerated for at least 24 hours, if possible, to maximize flavor and texture.

Start by combining the flour, baking soda and salt into a bowl and whisking thoroughly.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the room temperature butter, sugars, and vanilla on medium speed for about a minute.  You don't need to beat too long since incorporating too much air will cause cookies to spread more than you want when baking.  Add eggs, one at a time, incorporating well into the dough after each.  Then slowing add the flour mixture with the mixer on low speed until just combined.  Add the chocolate chunks and nuts (if using) and stir this in for just a few seconds.

Dust your countertop with some flour.  Turn the dough out and separate them into 4.  Roll each into a log, about 9" long.  Make sure to roll the logs back and forth to make a nice round log.  This will help make a more natural round cookie when you slice it later for baking (some of mine were a little too "square").  Wrap each log with plastic wrap tightly and refrigerate for 24 hours, if possible.  If you can't wait, just chill the dough for about 30 minutes until it's firm.  In a real dire emergency, go ahead and scoop them out and drop on a baking sheet to bake right away.  On the flip side, the dough could stay in the refrigerator for 4-5 days without a problem. 

After a day or a few in the refrigerator, you can freeze any dough you don't plan to bake.  I double-wrap the logs in plastic wrap and wrap aluminum foil on top of that.  Label the cookies with the date; it will keep for about 1 month.  When ready to bake, plan ahead again.  Take the logs out of the freezer to defrost in the refrigerator a few hours (probably a good idea to do this overnight) before slicing and baking.

Step 2:  Baking the cookies

Prepare 2 baking sheets by lining them with parchment paper.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 

Slice the logs about 3/4 inch thick and place on the cookie sheets several inches apart.  Use your hands to put back any broken pieces of dough or runaway chocolate chunks/walnuts if necessary.  Place the cookie sheets on the upper and lower third of the oven to bake for about 10 minutes, rotating the sheets (around as well as swapping their position from top to bottom racks) midway through. 

If you like your chococlate chip cookies soft like I do, make sure to take them out earlier rather than later so they don't crisp up too much.  Once out of the oven, let the cookies cool a couple of minutes before transfering them to a cooling rack.  I like to eat these while they're still warm and super soft.  When I'm having them the next day, I heat them for about 15 seconds in the microwave.

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