- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2003

NEW YORK — There was nothing quite like plunging a warm, gooey chocolate-chip cookie into a big glass of milk after school, or before bedtime, or anytime you could get your hands on one. Now that you’re grown up — well, old enough to bake cookies for your own children — you have been trying to replicate the experience. Why else would there be hundreds of recipes for such a simple sweet?

You can make them with nuts, rolled oats, bran, raisins or peanut butter. If you’re adventurous enough, you even can have them with zucchini.

The cookies can be made crispy or soft and chewy, or a combination of both. Testament to the wide variety of preferences, commercial brands crowd supermarket shelves with a style for everyone.

Eating them is a personal experience, too.

Dunkers dip their cookies into a glass of milk, pushing the limits of the breaking point. They get either the perfectly soggy bite or, after the initial disappointment of losing a chunk, the thrill of scooping out the mush at the bottom of the glass once all the cookies are finished. There’s an art to making the milk last until the cookies are gone.

Others delicately nibble around the chips, saving them for last. Some just cannot wait, raiding the refrigerator to eat the raw dough.

Chocolate-chip cookie devotees even take their rituals to the bakery, asking for glasses of milk or for cookies of a certain temperature.

“It seems like our customers are driven by childhood memories or by what they thought it should have been like,” says Pam Weekes, co-owner of Levain Bakery, whose big, crispy-on-the-outside and doughy-on-the-inside cookies are consistently voted some of the best in New York City.

“[The experience] makes them think of what their mother’s kitchen was like.”

In the 1930s, when Ruth Wakefield, owner of the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Mass., replaced baker’s chocolate with chunks of a Nestle’s chocolate bar in her recipe for Butter Drop Do cookies, she never expected the chocolate to retain its shape as soft morsels. She expected it to melt in. Her accidental invention became popular with the inn’s guests.

Soon after, when Mrs. Wakefield and her husband made a deal with Andrew Nestle to print the recipe for her cookies on the back of his candy bar (the chips didn’t arrive until 1939), Toll House Cookies quickly captured the hearts of dessert lovers.

More Americans probably have attempted to make a batch of chocolate-chip cookies than have attempted any other dessert. It is the all-American treat.

In all-American fashion, too, they are everywhere.

Doubletree Hotels serve them to their guests at check-in (you also can mail-order them, of course); Midwest Express prepares them at high altitude for passengers; specialty stores such as Mrs. Fields and David’s Cookies enchant customers with the smell of fresh-baked cookies; and Ben & Jerry’s second-most-popular ice cream flavor is Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.

During the 1992 presidential campaign, Family Circle magazine sponsored a bake-off between first lady Barbara Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton that made national news. (Mrs. Clinton’s recipe won.)

Sentimentality aside, there is a good reason why so many moms have personalized their chocolate-chip cookie recipes.

The answer lies in the dough, according to Tish Boyle, editor of Chocolatier magazine and author of “The Good Cookie” (John Wiley & Sons).

“It’s basically a relatively bland dough that works so well with so many things. It’s sort of calling out for things to be added to it,” Miss Boyle says. “It’s a very friendly dough.”

All chocolate-chip cookies are derivations of Mrs. Wakefield’s recipe. No matter what is added or adjusted, the basic ingredients always include flour, eggs, sugar, a leavener, fat (usually butter) and, of course, chocolate chips.

The slightest manipulation of these ingredients, without adding extras, is enough to create a different cookie each time.

“It’s not a rigid dough, like a butter cookie. You don’t want to mess with the simplicity of the butter cookie,” Miss Boyle says. She encourages experimentation with the chocolate-chip cookie, of course.

In searching for the cookie of your youth, it’s best to start with the Toll House recipe — even if you don’t use Nestle chips, which is something both Miss Boyle and Miss Weekes suggest as a simple way to improve the cookies.

“Use premium chocolate and cut [it] into chunks,” Miss Boyle says. “That makes them a more indulgent cookie.”

The most frequently debated aspect of the cookie is crispy vs. soft and chewy, and you can make minor adjustments to achieve the desired result.

Using melted butter will help give the cookies a soft texture.

Longer cooking times at a slightly lower temperature will make crispier cookies.

Don’t like your cookies to spread out on the sheet and become thin and crisp? Replace some butter with shortening, and the cookie will retain its shape more.

Simply leaving the cookies on the baking sheet after they come out of the oven will keep them from becoming crisp, too. Moving them to a rack allows air to circulate around the cookies.

If you are enamored of both types and desire a crisp outside with a soft inside, try adding some corn syrup.

Miss Weekes will not share her bakery’s recipe. “That’s our secret,” she says. She does, however, recommend using the best ingredients and always butter over margarine. “Butter is delicious.”

Miss Boyle’s recipe for sour-cream chocolate-chip cookie shows how you can give the cookie an exciting new flavor with only minimal additions.

“The sour cream imparts a moist texture and subtle tang,” she writes in her book, “and its flavor is nicely complemented by all the raisins, nuts and chocolate.” Her cookie is crispy on the outside and moist on the inside.

Sour-cream chocolate-chip cookies

This recipe is from “The Good Cookie.”

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup (11/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2 large eggs

1/2 cup sour cream

1 cup raisins

1 cup coarsely chopped toasted walnuts

12 ounces bittersweet bar chocolate, chopped into 1/4-inch or smaller pieces

Position two racks near the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or foil.

Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt into a medium bowl. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, using the paddle attachment, beat the butter, sugars and vanilla extract at medium speed until creamy, about 2 minutes.

Beat in the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary.

Add the sour cream, mixing until blended.

At a low speed, add the dry ingredients, mixing just until combined.

Using a wooden spoon, stir in the raisins, nuts and chopped chocolate.

Drop the dough by rounded tablespoonfuls onto the prepared baking sheets, spacing the cookies 2 inches apart.

Bake two sheets at a time, 12 to 15 minutes, until golden brown. Switch positions of the sheets halfway through baking so the cookies brown evenly.

Transfer the cookies to wire racks and cool completely.

Makes about 58 cookies.

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