In the 1930s, a sweet miracle took place in Whitman, Mass.

Published: July 21, 2008 | 7222nd good news item since 2003

Too bad sainthood is not generally conferred on bakers, for there is one who is a possible 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 to the world: the chocolate chip cookie.

One day in the 1930s, Wakefield, an owner of the Toll House Inn, in Whitman, Mass., was busy baking in her kitchen. There are many legends of the fateful moment, some crediting accident and some crediting design, but the result – Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookies – became the culinary mother to an august lineage that is still multiplying and, in some cases, mutating.

The humble chocolate chip cookie is the baker’s crucible. So few ingredients, so many possibilities for disaster. What other explanation can there be for the unfortunate misinterpretations that have popped up everywhere – eggless and sugarless renditions; cookies studded with carob, tofu and marijuana; whole-wheat alternatives; and the terribly misguided bacon-topped variety.

Eighty years later, has anyone trumped Ruth Wakefield? To find out, a journey began that included stops at many bakeries as well as conversations with some doyens of baking. The result was a recipe for a consummate cookie, if you will: one built upon decades of acquired knowledge, experience and secrets.

The first visit was to the City Bakery, on West 18th Street in Manhattan, owned by Maury Rubin. When asked about the secret to his cookies, he said, “We bake them in small batches every hour so they’re always fresh.”

Why, in his view, does almost everybody say they prefer homemade to bakery bought?

“It’s the Warm Rule,” he said. “Even a bad cookie straight from the oven has its appeal.”

It’s an opinion expressed by every baker visited. Jacques Torres, who has three branches of his Jacques Torres Chocolate in Manhattan and Brooklyn, has a small warming tray set up near the register so customers can get their cookies soft and gooey.

Given the opportunity to riff on his cookie-making strategies, Rubin revealed two crucial elements home cooks can immediately add to their arsenal of baking tricks. First, he said, he lets the dough rest for 36 hours before baking.

Asked why, he shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “They just taste better.”

Why dough resting is key

“Oh, that Maury’s a sly one,” said Shirley O. 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.”

A long hydration time is important because eggs, unlike, say, water, are gelatinous and slow-moving, she said. Making matters worse, the butter coats the flour, acting, she said, “like border patrol guards,” preventing the liquid from getting through to the dry ingredients. The extra time in the fridge dispatches that problem. Like the Warm Rule, hydration – from overnight to a few days – was a tactic shared by nearly every baker interviewed.

To put the technique to the test, one batch of the cookie dough recipe given here was allowed to rest in the refrigerator. After 12, 24 and 36 hours, a portion was baked, each time on the same sheet pan, lined with the same non-stick sheet in the same oven at the same temperature.

Going the full distance seemed to make the biggest difference. At 36 hours, the dough was significantly drier than the 12-hour batch; it crumbled a bit when poked but held together well when shaped. These cookies baked up the most evenly and were a deeper shade of brown than their predecessors. Surprisingly, they had an even richer, more sophisticated taste, with stronger toffee hints and a definite brown sugar presence.

The second insight Rubin offered had to do with size. His cookies are six-inch affairs because he believes that their 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.”

“But the real magic,” he added, “is the 1 1/2-inch ring between them where the two textures and all the flavors mix.”

Testing once again bore out Rubin’s thesis, which might be called the Rule of Thirds. The 24-hour and, especially, the 36-hour cookies developed the ring Rubin enthusiastically described. The crisp edge gave way to a chewy circle, with a flavor similar to penuche fudge, surrounding a center as soft as that of the first batch.

His theory on the impact of size on texture so delighted Corriher that she wanted to include it in her new book, “BakeWise” (Scribner, $40), due out in October.

And what would a chocolate chip cookie be without the wallop of good chocolate? According to most of the bakers, only chocolate with at least 60 percent cacao content has the brio to transform the dough into the Hulk Hogan of cookies.

Many, like Rubin and Torres, have their chocolate made exclusively for them. Others use high-quality imported brands, like Callebaut or Valrhona, and shoot a ratio of chocolate to dough of no less than 40 to 60.

Break apart a Torres cookie and a curious thing happens. Inside aren’t chunks of chocolate, but rather thin, dark strata.

“I use a couverture chocolate, because it melts beautifully,” he explained, something traditional chips don’t do. Couverture is a coating chocolate used, for instance, for covering truffles.

To get his trademark layers, Torres has his chocolate, which is manufactured by the Belgium company Belcolade, made into quarter-size disks – easily five times the volume of a typical commercial chip. Because the disks are flat and melt superbly, the result, he said, is layers of chocolate and cookie in every bite.

Dorie Greenspan, author of several baking books including “Baking: From My Home to Yours” (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), was asked to fill in any blanks left by the master bakers during the quest for the ultimate cookie.

Improving upon a winner

Although unsure she could bring anything new to the party, she went through the usual checklist: read through the recipe first, make sure all the ingredients are at room temperature, use the best-quality ingredients you can find, don’t overmix.

Then she hit upon something everyone else had missed, and some home bakers are nervous about: 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. To make the point, she referred to her recipe for Sables Korova, a chocolate chocolate-chip cookie with a hefty pinch of fleur de sel, from her book “Paris Sweets” (Broadway Books, 2002).

After weeks of investigating, testing and retesting, 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.

The recipe included here is adapted from Torres’ classic cookie, but relies on the discoveries and insights of the other bakers and authors. So, in effect, it’s all their cookie – the consummate chocolate chip cookie.

Published in Life
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