Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Chocolate Chip Cookie Conundrum.

I have been baking chocolate chip cookies since I was old enough to read the back of the Nestlé Chocolate Chip package, or at least old enough to don a pair of oven mitts and gingerly pull a hot tray of cookies out of the oven. As time passed I got better at measuring ingredients, beating butter with sugar until light and fluffy, forming neat balls of dough (ok, they were irregular blobs) with two spoons. Much later I switched to dark chocolate chips; later still, I started using bars of bittersweet chocolate, hacked into little chunks by hand. I learned that this was most easily accomplished with a serrated bread knife; I learned that you wanted the butter to be warmer than fridge-cold but not room-temperature-soft, that I liked a higher proportion of brown sugar to white.

My favorite chocolate chip cookie is the one I make all the time, now, from Jeffrey Steingarten's recipe. I make it with bittersweet chocolate chunks and measure the dough with an ice-cream scoop, and they come out (if I've scooped correctly and left enough space between the mounds of dough) nearly perfectly round. They are thin and chewy, caramelized around the edges, still soft in the very center. I bake them often, or sometimes just make a batch of dough to divide up and freeze, so I can have a few warm, freshly baked cookies whenever I want. They don't often last long. I am always seeing new recipes to try, recipes that call for browned butter or disks of chocolate or chilling the dough for 24 hours in the fridge, recipes that promise the perfect ratio of crisp-chewy-soft. Somehow I always come back to the same one, though, my thin, chewy golden cookie.

Then I have friends who spend days, weeks, perfecting their own recipes. They play with the balance of sugars, of leavenings, of flours. Baking times and mixing methods. They take time to note every subtle change, every difference, marked in terms of two tablespoons more or less of one thing or another. L. brings us two examples, one that resembles the kind I make myself, all crisp-chewiness and caramelized sugar, and one that is more perfect-looking, thicker and more evenly baked, round and smooth, the magazine-cover cookie. I prefer the other one. "But it's ugly!" my friend wails. "I don't care!" I yelp back. Ah, this is the crux of the matter. Ugly is good. Ugly says handmade, with love. It is childhood, small hands scooping dough with a pair of teaspoons, dropping bits on the floor and on the counter.

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