I'm a patriot about baked goods, soldiering bravely along in the belief that the British rule the waves at teatime. I'm proud of the fact that, according to a recent radio programme, we Brits are "one of the word's biggest spenders when it comes to biscuits. But while we've created some fine examples in our time (the wholesome fig roll, the posh viscount, even the garish pink wafer), it's America, birthplace of the awful whoopie pie and the downright evil red velvet cake, which takes the gold medal in this arena, for inventing the chocolate chip cookie. It was dear Ruth Wakefield of the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts, who came up with the brilliant idea of adding chocolate to her butter cookies some time in the 1930s.
We don't go in for cookies much in the UK and it's not just a linguistic difference, but a practical one. In much of the world the biscuit follows the Oxford Companion to Food's definition of something "small in size, thin, and short or crisp in texture" while in North America it closely resembles a British scone. American cookies, meanwhile, tend to be richer and softer than our biscuits. Think of the difference between the puzzlingly named Rich Tea, and a double doozie or a snickerdoodle: the Puritans clearly left their recipe books behind when they fled these shores.
There are thousands of great American cookies but none more loved than those of the chocolate chip variety. In the interests of sanity and my blood pressure, I've kept to the simplest version: no triple chocolate chunks or cranberry oatmeal here, just cookie and chocolate. And a big, non-Puritan amen to that.
Given the unapologetically sweet nature of the cookie, the sugar content is of paramount importance. The Toll House combination of granulated and soft brown sugar is a common one: the former presumably adding crunch, the latter a caramel flavour. Claire Clark, who admits "there are some things Americans simply do better than anyone else and making chocolate chip cookies is one of them", supplies the recipe used for staff meals at her former employer, California's Michelin-starred French Laundry, which uses soft dark brown sugar instead.
This gives the cookie itself a treacly flavour which I'm not entirely keen on – I'd prefer to save the bitterness for the dark chocolate chips. Marcus Wareing and Nigel Slater both use caster sugar and soft brown sugar rather than granulated – but I like the crunch the larger grains give the biscuit edges.
The Toll House, Claire Clark, Great British Bake Off 2010 winner Edd Kimber and pastry god David Lebovitz all use plain flour in their cookies. Intriguingly, however, American culinary celebrity Alton Brown and Marcus Wareing both use strong bread flour instead – with Jacques Torres, aka "Mr Chocolate", using a mixture of strong bread and fine cake flour in the recipe for his chain of American patisseries.
Both bread and cake flour, according to McGee on Food and Cooking "produce doughs and batters that spread less" – giving a puffier, chewier result which, in Wareing's case, even verges on the crumbly. I'm not sure about chewy, frankly: as a Brit, I like a bit of crunch to the edges of my cookie, which means allowing a little bit of spread in order to give a slightly thinner result. Plain flour it is.
Raising the game
Bicarbonate of soda is the most common raising agent in chocolate chip cookies, used by Nigel Slater, David Lebovitz, the Toll House, Alton Brown and Claire Clark, while Marcus Wareing goes for baking powder, and both Edd Kimber and Jacques Torres plump for both. This definitely gives a lighter texture, but I'm not sure that's what I'm after from a cookie – I want it doughy or crunchy rather than cakey.
A short note on fat
The fat in most cookie recipes comes from butter – usually creamed with sugar. Alton Brown's recipe, however, starts with melted butter, which, according to American magazine Cooks Illustrated, is essentially for a chewy result: "In its solid state, butter is an emulsion of butter and water. When butter is melted, the fat and water molecules separate. When melted butter is added to a dough, the proteins in the flour immediately grab onto the freed water molecules to form elastic strands of gluten. The gluten makes a cookie chewy." Again, I'm not sold on the chewiness, so I'll be sticking with the creaming method.
One recipe, however, eschews butter entirely. My school friend Alex's authentically American mother Charlotte makes fabulous chocolate chip cookies to a recipe whose origins are lost in the mists of time. This uses equal amounts of vegetable oil and margarine whizzed together with the other ingredients, and produces a moist, yet crisp result – but I miss the taste of the butter.
Let it rest
Jacques Torres' recipe created a stir among foodies when it appeared in the New York Times in 2008, mostly because of the instruction to chill the dough for between 24 and 36 hours before use. According to food writer Shirley Corriher, resting allows "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".
In fact, chilling the dough before use is fairly standard. Although the recipe published online doesn't mention it, Ruth Wakefield explains in her 1953 Little Toll House Cook Book that at the inn they refrigerated cookie dough overnight. Alton Brown suggests an hour's chilling, Marcus Wareing two, and David Lebovitz and Edd Kimber both go for 24 hours.
I bake batches of Torres' recipe at 12, 24, 36 and 48 hours, and the increased firmness of the older cookies is very noticeable, as is the more complex, almost caramelly flavour. Texture wise, however, I like them best between 12 and 24 hours – the doughiness in the middle is more pronounced.
There's surprisingly little to say about this most vital of ingredients – everyone calls for dark chocolate. I do try milk chocolate and a mix of the two in a couple of batches, but miss the contrast between the sweetness of the cookie and the bitter richness of the chips. Go for good quality dark chocolate too – the more cocoa there is in it, the more cocoa butter, which helps the chip to melt into the cookie, rather than remaining obstinately and grittily separate. And the uneven chunks created by chopping your own chocolate gives a better result than even little chocolate chips.
In order to achieve the desired variety of textures, one must embrace the super sized cookie – trying to make them small and biscuit-sized just doesn't work. Tapping them with a spatula during baking, as David Lebovitz suggests, does give a neater look, but I'm not too bothered about that: the taste's the thing here.
You can adopt a suitably pioneer spirit when it comes to chucking things into your cookie dough: nuts are a popular addition, particularly hazelnuts, as are dried fruits. I've kept mine simple, but, inspired by David Lebovitz, I have upped the salt content to give them a more adult, less sickly flavour. After all, you don't eat these every day, do you? Not in theory, anyway.
Perfect chocolate chip cookies
120g salted butter, at room temperature75g light brown sugar75g granulated sugar½ tsp vanilla extract1 egg240g plain flour½ tsp bicarbonate of soda170g dark chocolate, roughly choppedSea salt flakes (optional)
1. Using a wooden spoon, or (even better) a food mixer, beat together the butter and sugars until just combined. Add the vanilla extract, then the egg, and beat in well.
2. Sift together the flour and bicarbonate of soda, then use a spoon to add to the mixture, stirring until it just comes together into a dough. Fold in the chocolate pieces, then chill overnight, or for up to 72 hours.
3. Preheat the oven to 180C. Line two baking trays with greaseproof paper, and divide the mixture into golf-ball sized rounds, spacing them well apart. Bake for about 15 minutes, until golden, but not browned.
4. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt if using, and allow to cool on the tray for a couple of minutes, before moving to a wire rack to cool completely – or scoffing immediately.
Are chocolate chip cookies America's single greatest contribution to world cuisine – and how do you like yours, thin and crisp, soft and doughy, with nuts, or double or even triple chocolate? And is there any better accompaniment than a cold glass of whole milk?
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