In Search of Chocolate-Chip Cookie Perfection (archived from the Wall Street Journal)
Ralph Gardner Jr. and Tracey Zabar whip up a batch of overdose chocolate-chip cookies
Nov. 8, 2015 7:43 pm ET
There are several skills I wish I possessed, suspecting my survival might some day depend on them. These include starting a fire from scratch; mastering the rudiments of home repair—plumbing, carpentry, electricity; being able to diagnose what is wrong with my car, and making a foolproof chocolate-chip cookie.
You may scoff that I include chocolate-chip-cookie mastery in my pantheon of competencies. Or should that be pantry of competencies? But I think we can all agree that this taste treat occupies a unique place in the culinary universe. With perhaps a world-class oatmeal raisin cookie running a not-too-distant second.
I suspect that were you to match a superior chocolate-chip cookie against pretty much anything else you may have the occasion to pop in your mouth, you’d discover that it lights up more of the brain’s circuitry than any other confection.
It probably boils down to its simplicity, to the yin-yang of baked dough and chocolate chips; the dough, or cookie part, serving two functions, at once complementary and competitive.
On the one hand, that gleeful combination of flour, butter, eggs and sugar acts as an unparalleled chocolate delivery system. But on the other, it serves as the taste equivalent of a nightclub bouncer, stalling you behind the velvet rope and only occasionally giving you the green light to enter that Studio 54 of the senses.
That happens when you’re lucky enough to land a bite with the perfect ratio of cookie to chips.
And while there are few things in life as affecting as an excellent chocolate-chip cookie, there are also few items as capable of quickly sending you, or at least me, into a funk of despair as a chocolate-chip cookie that fails to live up to expectations.
For example, pretty much any such cookie I’ve baked myself.
I’m not sure what my problem is. But the cookies almost always emerge from the oven too dry, almost biscuit-like, and I’m being unfair to biscuits.
So last week I decided to consult the nutritional equivalent of a Freudian psychoanalyst about my cookie issues— Tracey Zabar, a baker and author of a new book that suggests she gets my obsession with chocolate chips.
It’s called “Chocolate Chip Sweets” (Rizzoli) and includes recipes from celebrated chefs, ranging from Jacques Torres’ overdose chocolate-chip cookies to chocolate-chip brioche doughnuts from Laurent Tourondel of Brasserie Ruhlmann.
“You’re probably using too much flour,” Ms. Zabar told me when we got together to bake the Jacques Torres recipe in her airy Upper West Side kitchen. “Do you put [in] the flour [as] the last thing before the chocolate chips?”
I can’t say I do. Though I was pleased to see we were on the same page when it comes to chocolate. In other words, there’s no such thing as too much. Or at least a lot.
Indeed, Ms. Zabar, who is married to David Zabar—her husband helps run the eponymous family food empire—had stockpiled chocolate in three forms: traditional chocolate chips from Ghirardelli, large Valrhona chocolate lozenges and some sort of tiny chocolate pearls.
I resisted the impulse to toss all three into the mixing bowl together, instead joining Ms. Zabar as she made three separate batches of cookies, using a different sized chip in each batch. Then she deposited the raw, chocolate-laden dough onto parchment-covered baking sheets, using stainless steel scoops for quantity control.
Conversation is a lovely perk of cooking with another person. So, as the cookies baked, I decided to ask Ms. Zabar about a subject that has been troubling me lately: her opinion of Levain Bakery’s bacchanalian chocolate-chip walnut cookies.
For those who are unfamiliar with them, they are sold hot out of the oven and are approximately the size of a Fiat Cinquecento.
“Anybody who uses all-natural ingredients and makes hot cookies is great with me,” Ms. Zabar said.
But I’m wondering whether I’m responding to the artistry of the cookie making, or to the sheer mass and lava-like flow of the chocolate?
Does the experience circumvent my ability for rational thought? In other words, am I being brainwashed?
Ms. Zabar answered my existential question with one of her own, as she pulled her cookies from the oven:
“They’re not the most beautiful,” she conceded. “Do we care? Why would we care?”