Food & Drink

The Sainted Cookie?

Too bad sainthood is not generally conferred on bakers. There is one who is a candidate for canonization.

She fulfills most of the requirements: (1) She's dead. (2) She demonstrated heroic virtue. (3) Cults have been formed around her work. (4) Her invention is considered by many to be a miracle.

The woman: Ruth Graves Wakefield. Her contribution: the chocolate chip cookie.

One day in the 1930s, Wakefield, an owner of the Toll House Inn, in Whitman, Mass., just south of Boston, was baking. Depending on which legend you subscribe to, the fateful moment may have happened when a bar of Nestle semisweet chocolate jittered off a shelf, fell into an industrial mixer below, and shattered, or when Wakefield, in a move to make her Butter Drop Do cookies a bit sexier, chopped up a bar of chocolate and tossed in the pieces.

By accident or design, her Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookies delighted her customers and became the culinary mother to an august lineage.

Which begs the question: Has anyone trumped Ruth Wakefield? To find out, a journey began that included some of New York City's best bakeries as well as conversations with doyens of baking. The result was a recipe that would have Wakefield worshipping at its altar.

Rest works wonders

The first visit was to the City Bakery, on West 18th Street in Manhattan, owned by Maury Rubin. Rubin revealed two crucial elements home cooks can immediately add to their arsenal. First, he said, he lets the dough rest for 36 hours.

“Oh, that Maury's a sly one,” said Shirley Corriher, author of “CookWise” (William Morrow, 1997), a book about science in the kitchen. “What he's doing is brilliant. He's allowing the dough and other ingredients to fully soak up the liquid – in this case, the eggs – in order to get a drier and firmer dough, which bakes to a better consistency.”

Eggs are gelatinous and slow-moving, she said. Making matters worse, the butter coats the flour, preventing the liquid from getting through to the dry ingredients. Extra time in the fridge fixes that. It was a tactic shared by nearly every baker interviewed.

And by Ruth Wakefield. “At Toll House, we chill this dough overnight,” she wrote. This crucial bit is left out of the version of her recipe Nestle printed on its baking bars and, since in 1939, on bags of its morsels.

To test it, one batch of our cookie dough was allowed to rest in the refrigerator. After 12, 24, and 36 hours, a portion was baked.

At 12 hours, the dough had become drier and the baked cookies had a pleasant, slightly pale, complexion. At the 24-hour mark, the cookies browned more evenly and looked handsomer. The biggest difference, though, was flavor. The second batch was richer, with more bass notes of caramel and hints of toffee.

At 36 hours, the dough was much drier; it crumbled a bit when poked but held together when shaped. These cookies baked up the most evenly and were a deeper shade of brown. They had an even richer, more sophisticated taste. These won, hands down.

Size does matter

The second insight Rubin offered was size. His cookies are 6-inch affairs because he believes the larger size allows for three distinct textures. “First there's the crunchy outside inch or so,” he said. A nibble revealed a crackle to the bite and a distinct flavor of butter and caramel. “Then there's the center, which is soft.” A bull's-eye the size of a half dollar yielded easily.

“But the real magic,” he added, “is the one-and-a-half-inch ring between them where the two textures and all the flavors mix.”

At least 60 percent cacao

What would a chocolate chip cookie be without the chocolate? According to most of the bakers, only chocolate with at least 60 percent cacao content has the brio to cut it.

Break apart a cookie made at Jacques Torres Chocolate in Manhattan and a curious thing happens. Inside aren't chunks of chocolate, but thin, dark strata. “I use a couverture chocolate, because it melts beautifully,” Torres said. Couverture is a coating chocolate used, for instance, for covering truffles. Torres has his chocolate made into quarter-size disks. Because the disks are flat and melt superbly, the result, he said, is layers of chocolate.

Don't forget the salt

Dorie Greenspan, author of several baking books including “Baking: From My Home to Yours” (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), hit upon something everyone else had missed: salt.

“You can't underestimate the importance of salt in sweet baked goods,” she said. Salt, in the dough and sprinkled on top, adds dimension that can lift even a plebian cookie.

After weeks of research, the time had come to assemble a new archetypal cookie recipe, one to suit today's tastes and to integrate what bakers have learned since that fateful day in Whitman, Mass.

This creation, this love child of some of baking's top talent, truly bests Ruth Wakefield's. Doubt it?

There's only one way to find out.