Recently, a thought-provoking new book landed on my countertop. No, it wasn't the newest bible of molecular gastronomy or encyclopedia of exotic cuisine. It was a slender volume written by two accomplished chefs, with 41 different recipes for chocolate chip cookies. "Chocolate Chip Cookies: Dozens of Recipes for Reinterpreted Favorites" (Chronicle Books, $19.95) made me wonder, not for the first time, what accounts for the enduring appeal of this American classic. I gave authors Carey Jones and Robyn Lenzi a call to see if they could answer some of my chocolate chip-related questions, and they happily obliged.
On the cookie's place in the American imagination, Lenzi cites the well-known story of its origins (Ruth Wakefield, owner of the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Mass., published the recipe in a cookbook in the 1930s, and it quickly became a sensation). But its appeal isn't simply nostalgic or historical. Jones and Lenzi attribute the cookie's popularity to its combination of butter, brown sugar and salt, which "has a very umami quality," exciting the taste buds. Further contributing to their charm, chocolate chip cookies satisfy both chocolate lovers and those who could take chocolate or leave it. Lenzi, who falls into the latter camp, remembers as a child looking for that one cookie in the batch with no chips at all, and considering it a prize.
How does one tinker with a classic? Jones and Lenzi were not content to churn out variations on a basic recipe. Determined to incorporate recent food trends -- bacon in sweets, the gluten-free phenomenon -- into the book, they worked tirelessly to perfect each version. If duck fat made the best French fries in the world, Jones figured, why not try it in a chocolate chip cookie? It wasn't a simple matter of substituting duck fat for butter. Ground coriander and orange zest became the keys to unlocking the alternate fat's flavor.
Is there such a thing as a bad chocolate chip cookie? Jones and Lenzi admit to a few failed experiments. Despite a plethora of agave syrup cookie recipes on the web, they never found a formula that produced a cookie that wasn't too caky for their taste. In love with togarashi-spiced popcorn, they folded some of the popcorn into cookie dough, only to watch in dismay as it deflated and became soggy. But this failure did lead them to using togarashi (a Japanese spice mixture that includes sesames seeds, chilies, ginger and orange) in a more successful version.
Jones and Lenzi said they had favorites (the sea salt and olive oil cookie came up), but that the "best" is a matter of taste. People fall into categories: soft, crisp, chewy. You know who you are. To help you navigate the book, they classify their cookies according to texture, so you can bake something new that also will be comfortingly familiar.
SALTY PRETZEL CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES
To infuse extra pretzel goodness into this cookie, the authors use both chopped pretzels and pretzel "flour," made by grinding pretzels. They've also added malted milk powder to play up the sweet, malty flavor pretzels naturally have.
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons malted milk powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 3/4 cups mini pretzels, sticks or twists, divided
3/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Adjust the racks so they divide the oven into thirds. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. Whisk together the flour, malted milk powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl.
3. In a food processor, grind 1 3/4 cups of the pretzels to a fine powder. Add it to the flour mixture and whisk to combine. Either by hand or in the food processor, chop the remaining 2 cups pretzels into small pieces.
4. In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and both sugars on medium speed until smooth and well blended, about 1 minute. Add the egg and mix until completely combined. Scrape the sides of the bowl with a spatula. Add the flour mixture and mix on low speed until just combined, scraping the bowl, if necessary, to incorporate the dry ingredients. Add the chocolate chips and pretzel pieces and mix on low speed until evenly distributed. The dough should be smooth, dense and somewhat pliable.
5. Using a small ice-cream scoop or tablespoon measure, drop well-rounded balls of dough, about 2 inches apart, on the prepared baking sheets.
6. Bake for 9 to 11 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through the baking time, just until the edges of the cookies turn golden.
7. When cool enough to handle, transfer to wire racks to cool completely. Stored in an airtight container at room temperature, the cookies will keep for 2 to 3 days.
Makes about 38 cookies.