Sweet somethings: The chips make all the difference in chocolate chip cookies

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For better chocolate chip cookies

Here are principles to keep in mind when you’re making chocolate chip cookies:

• Follow the recipe word for word. Small substitutions can have a big impact. For example, if you use baking powder instead of baking soda, you’ll get cakelike cookies instead of chewy ones.

• If you’re baking for someone with a food intolerance, find a tested recipe with the needed substitutions; don’t just wing it.

• Use butter. Salted or unsalted, it’s up to you, but the recipe is designed for butter. If you need to use margarine or a vegetable oil spread, be sure to test the recipe with your selected brand before you make it for public consumption.

• Start with room-temperature butter: soft but not melting.

• Refrigerate the dough before scooping and baking. Dough that’s too warm might not spread correctly in the oven. An hour will do the trick.

• Don’t crowd the baking sheet. Leave enough space between the mounds of dough for the cookies to spread.

• If you have any doubts about oven temperature, use an oven thermometer to make sure you’re at a true 375 degrees. At 350 degrees, the cookies will spread too much. At 400 degrees, they’ll brown too fast.

• For more evenly baked cookies, bake only one sheet at a time.

• When the cookies are almost done, hover by the oven door, checking on them. A cookie can go from perfectly baked to overbaked in a minute.

After years of baking for teacher luncheons, tailgate parties and cookie exchanges, I can say that chocolate chip cookies are traded enough to merit their own seat on any public stock exchange. They are America's favorite.

I'm not competitive, exactly, but I wanted my cookies to stand out — in a good way. Tweaking the dough recipe was not the answer, because I'm fond of the one printed on the bag of Nestle's Toll House chips. Varying the size of the cookie and the chocolate, however, made all the difference.

My first success came with semisweet chocolate mini chips. Shot through a standard-size cookie, they got a little lost; when I made the cookies smaller, the little chips mixed evenly throughout the dough, guaranteeing that every bite of cookie had plenty of mini chips. I used a "teaspoon" cookie scoop that actually holds about 13/4 teaspoons of dough (38 ounce) to make a cookie just shy of 2 inches across.

Then, inspired by my friend Mary Lee Montfort, owner and chief baker at Mary Lee's Desserts in Vienna, Va., I went in the opposite direction. She makes a large chocolate chip cookie for her cookie platters "for the wow factor. It draws people to the cookie," Montfort says. "It's also a cookie that combines textures: crisp and brown on the edges and soft in the middle."

Going big

For that, I knew I needed to go bigger on the chocolate. Chocolate chunks were the logical choice. I quadrupled the amount of cookie dough, settling on a scoop somewhere around a generous 11/2 ounces and no more than 13/4 ounces. Placing the mounds of dough far apart on the baking sheet, I flattened them just a bit, so they were about 1/2-inch thick. The semisweet chunks spread out more than standard-size chocolate chips do and were like little melting pools of chocolate in the 31/2-to-4-inch cookies.

But what could I do to that old standby, the regulation-size chocolate chipper, to change it up? Dark chocolate chips were my answer. They are flatter and wider than the regular chips, giving my cookies a new look, and I love their bittersweet flavor. Like the chunks, they also spread a little while baking, adding visual appeal. Best of all, my family instantly declared them a favorite. The bittersweet chocolate complements the brown-sugar sweetness of the dough.

I wasn't done yet. Left with sugar cookie dough trimmings after making cut-out cookies, I decided to mix in some hand-cut chocolate shavings and chunks. Using a heavy knife, I chopped a bar of bittersweet chocolate, half shaving it, half making very tiny chunks no bigger than 1/4 inch. I mixed the chocolate into the dough and rolled it into a 21/2-inch-thick log. Wrapped tightly in plastic, the log went right into the freezer. When I was ready to bake, I sliced the dough into thin rounds, and my last variation, the chocolate-studded sugar cookie, was born.

I'm a particular fan of that last variety. The chocolate shavings and little chunks mix right into the dough. There's hardly a part of the cookie that's not chocolaty.

Why some people prefer big cookies and some small is a mystery. Carla Hall, "Chew" co-host and cookie maven, makes her line of petite cookies much more mini than mine.

"You don't have to commit," she says, meaning that, for some, it's preferable to make their way through a few tiny cookies rather than a single giant cookie. That's one theory. For me, all bite-size foods are attractive, especially on a buffet.

My favorite tack these days is to put some of each style of chocolate chip cookie on a platter: big, little and in between. All together, they become standouts.

Chocolate Chip Cookie Variations

Yield: 26 mega chunk cookies

If you use salted butter, omit some or all of the teaspoon of salt. Make ahead: The dough needs to be refrigerated for at least 1 hour and up to 1 day; freeze for longer storage. The cookies can be stored in an airtight container for 10 to 14 days. Adapted from the Nestle Toll House Cookie recipe.

2¼ cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt (see headnote)

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted or salted butter, at room temperature (see headnote)

¾ cup granulated sugar

¾ cup packed light brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 large eggs

12 ounces chocolate chips of your choice: mini semi-sweet chocolate chips, regular semisweet or dark chocolate chips or semisweet chocolate chunks

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners.

Whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl.

Combine the butter, sugars and vanilla extract in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer: beat on low, then medium speed. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. On low speed, gradually add the flour to the mixing bowl, beating just until incorporated. Stir in the chocolate chips by hand. Remove from the mixer stand and use a large spatula or dough scraper to make sure the chocolate is well and evenly spread throughout the dough.

Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.

For mini chocolate chip cookies, scoop rounded teaspoons of dough, 3∕8 ounce each.

For traditional or dark chocolate chip cookies, scoop rounded tablespoons of dough, ¾ ounce each.

For mega chocolate chunk cookies, scoop 1½ ounces to 1¾ ounces of dough. Form into balls, then flatten into discs about ½-inch thick.

Place the formed dough onto the prepared sheets, leaving enough room for the cookies to spread.

Bake the mini cookies for 8 to 9 minutes, the traditional-size cookies for 9 to 11 minutes and the mega-chunk cookies for 10 to 12 minutes. Cool on the baking sheets for 3 to 4 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

Chocolate-Studded Sugar Cookies

60-72 cookies.

Make ahead: The logs of dough need to be frozen for at least 2 hours and up to 1 month. The dough needs to defrost for 5 to 10 minutes before slicing. The baked cookies’ flavor improves after a few days’ storage. They can be kept in an airtight container for several weeks. Adapted from a recipe by cookbook author Lisa Yockelson.

4 cups flour

½ teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

21 tablespoons (2 sticks plus 5 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1½ cups sugar

2 large or extra-large eggs

1 tablespoon whole or low-fat milk

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped until the largest pieces are no bigger than ¼ inch

Sift or whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt on a piece of wax paper or in a bowl.

Beat the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer on low speed for 2 minutes. Stop to scrape down the bowl. On low speed, gradually add the sugar; increase the speed to medium and beat for 30 seconds or so, until well incorporated. Stop to scrape down the bowl.

Add the eggs one at a time, beating (on low speed) for about 15 seconds after each addition. Add the milk and vanilla extract; beat on medium speed to incorporate.

Reduce the speed to low; gradually add the flour mixture, beating until just barely incorporated. Stop to scrape down the bowl. On low speed, add the chocolate; beat for 30 seconds or until evenly distributed.

Divide the dough into three equal parts, forming each one into a log that’s 2½ to 3 inches thick. Wrap each tightly in plastic wrap; freeze for at least 2 hours and up to 1 month.

Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven; preheat to 375 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners.

Let the frozen dough logs sit at room temperature for 5-10 minutes. Unwrap the logs; discard the plastic. Slice each log into 20 to 24 thin rounds, making them as uniform as you can to ensure even baking. Arrange them on the baking sheets, at least 1 inch apart, as you slice.

Bake on the upper and lower racks for 5 to 6 minutes, then rotate the sheets top to bottom and front to back. Bake for 4 to 5 minutes, until the edges of the cookies are just starting to brown. Cool on the baking sheets for 4 or 5 minutes before transferring the cookies to wire racks to cool completely.

Repeat with the remaining dough.