When we Americans hear the word “biscuit,” what we usually think of is a bread type thing, served with gravy. Instead, we use the word “cookie” to mean the small, sweet baked treats most often associated with childhood.
It has been noted that the British are more fond of their biscuits than anyone else. One possible reason why Americans aren’t as into cookies is the dearth of good domestic commercial cookies. (Hit Biscuits are wonderful, but one has to go to places like Trader Joe’s to get them. It’s possible that I acquired a more European taste while studying in Rome. Those biscotti with the smilely faces provided hours, ok, minutes, of fun by twisting them so the filling gooped out of the eyes. But I digress.) On the whole, American mass-produced cookies are way too sweet and almost completely lacking in flavor and texture. I am completely at a loss to explain the popularity of the Oreo, the cookie equivalent of a Twinkie. What is that white stuff? Sugared lard? Why would anyone want to eat that?
No, the best American cookies are the homemade varieties, and the quintessential American cookie is the chocolate chip. In the Talking Heads’ song (Nothing But) Flowers , David Byrne sings, “I dream of cherry pies, candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies.” It’s also my favorite.
Chocolate chip cookies were the first food I ever prepared. At age 12, my best friend Sandy showed me how she made them by mixing in some whole wheat flour with the processed white stuff. That simple deviation from the Toll House recipe on the back of the Nestle Semi-Sweet Morsels bag has lead to the creation of, in my opinion, the perfect chocolate chip cookie.
For me, cooking is like a chemistry formula, with the recipe followed exactly. Baking is more of an alchemical experience, with tweaking and experimentation. Lost to my memory is why Sandy and I joined 4H, the organization for farm kids. We lived in a small town and had friends who lived on farms, so it must have been a social thing. The highlight of our one year in 4H was the County Fair. While the other kids were entering their cows and sheep, Sandy and I entered the baking competition. I submitted two entries, one peanut butter cookies, the other chocolate chips. The judges were wowed by my chocolate chip entry, awarding me the blue ribbon. My cookies were made with half whole wheat flour and shortening instead of butter.
Butter makes the chocolate chip cookie flat and crunchy. While some poor misguided souls (such as two of my nephews) may prefer this type, the best form of the chocolate chip cookie requires shortening for a thick, chewy cookie. For years I made my cookies with it.
Then, I discovered a vegetable-based shortening substitute without the nasty trans-fats. It even came butter flavored. The older I get, the more I appreciate dark chocolate, so I use the darkest chocolate I can find to make the cookies. (Dark chocolate promotes healthy arteries and heart. Chunks of chocolate work the best. Mini-chips don’t have enough substance, and milk chocolate chips don’t have enough gravitas. I also use the darkest brown sugar available, for the most intense taste.
I don’t have a recipe, I work off the one on the back of the Toll House bag, but I use only whole wheat flour, with the amount listed as a starting point. Then I keep adding until the dough reaches the right consistency. Like Justice Potter Stewart’s standard for pornography, I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.
Then, when the dough is fully ready, a decision must be made: bake it all, or eat some raw. Yes, the eating of some raw dough has always been part of the ritual of the baking for me, salmonella be damned! I’ve yet to be sickened by it, but, in the interest of being a good and responsible parent, I don’t let my children eat any raw. My husband and I accept the duty to lick clean the beater, and consume the scrapings from the sides of the bowl, ourselves. Sometimes we put some aside to eat raw by the spoonful. (Chocolate chip cookie dough is the only kind worth eating raw. As proof, witness the popularity of Ben & Jerry’s Cookie Dough ice cream, with chocolate chip cookie dough.
The best way to enjoy chocolate chip cookies is still warm from the oven, and dunked in milk, not coffee, not tea. There’s something about the contrast of the warm, salty-sweet melty cookie with the cold creaminess of the milk that makes the whole taste greater than the sum of its parts; a perfect synergy of flavor and textures which can be justified as healthy eating.
These cookies are almost too good to waste on children.