Nestlé debuted their semisweet chocolate morsels 75 years ago, which is cause for a celebration in my book. Recently, I became a bit obsessed with recreating the original chocolate-chip cookie recipe that started the craze. Back in the 1930s, Ruth Wakefield whipped these cookies up in the kitchen of her restaurant, The Toll House in Whitman, MA. Carolyn Wyman, author of The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book, presents some splendid background on the history of the cookie’s origin, which you can read in our interview with her. What I wanted to do was recreate the cookie that Ruth actually baked. The recipe on the back of Nestlé’s morsels bag has its roots in Ruth’s recipe, but I wanted to follow her own words. I used Ruth’s cookbook (24th printing), Toll House Tried and True Recipes (M. Barrows & Co 1947). She calls her recipe Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookies – and you will soon see why they are aptly named. You might be surprised at the evolution that little treat has taken since her original recipe. Much of my findings and the recipe have been published in our recent article in The Boston Globe, where I discuss the proper butter, flour and eggs to use as well as how to measure the brown sugar and chop the chocolate, among other things. Newspapers have limited space, but we don’t, so here is even more information about what went into Ruth’s cookies so that you can make them at home. Use the Globe article and the information here for a complete picture.
That Baking-Soda-Dissolved-in-Water Trick
Ruth calls for 1 teaspoon of baking soda to be dissolved in 1 teaspoon of hot tap water, and for years this technique was suggested in the recipe on Nestlé’s morsels package. I wondered why she would have called for this step and whether it made a difference. I checked in with two experts. Cindy Manzo, a representative for Arm & Hammer Baking Soda, had this to say: “Pre-dissolving the sodium bicarbonate would remove any possible issues related to inappropriate [too large] particle size and slow dissolution in a dough with low water content. Pre-dissolving the bicarbonate would [also] cut down on the ‘bench tolerance’ of a mixture – wetting bicarbonate will tend to accelerate the release of CO2.” This means that the leavening action of the soda is triggered more quickly. Perhaps this is why Ruth, in her book, recommends dolloping and baking her cookies immediately, as opposed to suggesting a chilling time. There is some research that suggests that they chilled the dough at her restaurant, but again, I was working with Ruth’s own words in this edition of her book. According to food historian Paula Marcoux, there could also be another reason. Proofing the baking soda in water gives visual evidence that the leavener is working. Decades ago, there was much less standardization of ingredients than there is now. Perhaps Ruth wanted to make sure her “soda” was going to give her cookies the lift they needed.
That’s a Tiny Crunchy Cookie!
In the edition of the book I used, Ruth’s recipes are presented with the ingredients and directions intertwined – very similar to the classic Joy of Cooking cookbook approach. Many details are left out. For instance, she calls to bake the cookies at 375°F for 10 to 12 minutes. The dough has been doled out by half teaspoons. She gives no visual cues. I have my ovens calibrated and let me tell you, this is a crunchy cookie – side and middle and all the way around – and well browned. No doughy, chewy aspects at all. And tiny! When was the last time, if ever, that you saw a chocolate-chip cookie the size of a quarter?
The Chocolate Chip Cookie Phenomenon
Friends who knew I was doing this research have asked me if I think this cookie was amazing enough to start such an enduring passion. We have to put it all into context. These days, whether we are gazing upon the ice cream or cookie section of the supermarket or perusing a restaurant menu, it is not unusual to see candy combined with a baked good: turtle cheesecakes, cookie dough ice cream, etc. Ruth Wakefield was the first to combine candy with another dessert and it was truly an inspired innovation. Chocolate had been incorporated into dough before (as in a chocolate cookie), but not strewn throughout. To take two beloved American sweets – cookies and chocolate – and to combine them in a way where the chocolate remained in individual chunks was wholly original. The cookie is small, but it is filled with crunchy, toothsome texture. The butter and sugar caramelize in the high heat, giving the cookie a butterscotch flavor. Her egg amount, along with the high heat and baking time, gives the cookie its crispy texture. She packs in a generous amount of chocolate. All in all, this is a great cookie. It might be diminutive and easy to look over when compared with the typically larger chocolate-chip cookie of today, but it has plenty to satisfy kids and adults. It is also easy to make. As Carolyn Wyman commented, the thing about these is that an 8-year-old who has never baked before can make them or an experienced baker can apply their techniques and you will always get something tasty to eat. So now that I know what Ruth’s cookie was, will I be baking it regularly? The answer is no. But then again, even before I went through this fun and enlightening exercise, I have always been a bit fickle when it comes to chocolate-chip cookie recipes. Sometimes I like them crunchy, other times chewy; 60% cacao chocolate chips one day, white chocolate chunks the next. Nuts come and go. Perhaps the one consistent thing I can comment on is that I am not partial to recipes that include baking powder. Many modern variations that are trying to replicate a thick, doughy texture will include baking powder. I am definitely a crispy edge, chewy center kind of girl; but that is what is great about this all-American cookie, there’s one out there with your name on it.
Image: Peter Muka