deconstruction of a cookie

25 Sep

These are the famed New York Times chocolate chip cookies (henceforth occasionally referred to as ‘NYC CCC’). Introduced in July 2008, the cookie recipe was published in the NYT under the name “Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookies” and later shot to meteoric fame on the Net. Currently, a Google search for the term yields 135,000 sites, which breaks down to roughly 320 created webpages per day since the original recipe’s publication. The recipe was notable if only because no one imagined the 70-year-old cookie classic could get any better; word that the chocolate chip cookie could be improved was tantamount to claiming a reinvention of the wheel.

Food writer David Leite of Leite’s Culinaria wrote the article and created the adapted recipe (originally by Jacques Torres) after months of research. He found that there were three important modifications: (1) letting the dough rest for a 12-36 hour period, as it allows the dry ingredients to soak up flavors and creates a better dough consistency prior to baking; (2) adding a sprinkling of sea salt to bring out a sweet-salty contrast; and (3) spooning out large golf ball-sized servings of dough onto the cookie sheet to get a cookie with a 5″ diameter. Supposedly, only at such a large size will there be texture rings: crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, with a chewy secondary ring where the two textures combine.

I should also remark that his recipe is in near excruciating detail. A stickler for precision, Leite actually specifies the size of the balls of dough (3.5 oz), notes that all chocolate disks should lay horizontal and not point up because that inhibits the chocolate melting process, underscores the importance of using fèves as their size and flatness allows for “chocolate strata” within the cookie, and so forth. (Re: the latter two specifications, see video.) Baking is indeed a science, but … well, whatever.

I’ve done a lot of research on this cookie (i.e., looked at way too many food blogs), and have seen that responses of those who’ve baked the cookie separate into three groups. Nothing scientific here, but I’d say the first group of people, about 75%, extols the cookie and underscores the “toffee notes,” “incredible addition by the salt,” and “texture rings” that are achieved by following the recipe’s stipulations.

From “Believe the Hype: The New York Times Chocolate Cookie Is It!“: It felt like an eternity as I waited the twenty minutes baking time. Then ding! Out of the oven, the cookies emerged tanned, golden and oozing chocolate. The little flecks of salt embedded themselves into the cookie and sparkled in the light. … Oh heaven. The chocolate was molten and the cookie, crisp on the outside, buttery and tender on the inside. The dusting of sea salt created an interesting and complex contrast against the sweetness of the chocolate. It’s subtle but this addition makes this a chocolate chip cookie for grown ups.

From “And finally, the long weekend“: I’ll tell you this much: it’s worth it. It was worth it when I brought them to a dinner party Saturday night and saw people going for seconds, then thirds. It was worth it when the batches disappeared at home as fast as I could bake them. It was, mostly, worth it the moment I bit into a cookie’s crunchy outer rim and moved into the soft, chewy center. These aren’t just any chocolate-chip cookies. These are the ultimate chocolate-chip cookies, the only chocolate-chip cookies, the ones you have to, have to, have to try.

From “THE New York Times Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe“:  It is nothing short of orgasmic and has replaced my old standby CCC recipe forever. ORGASMIC, I say. There are too few things out there that can be described this way.

The second group of bakers is lukewarm towards the cookie and constitute 15% of the crowd. They find the cookie tasty, but on par with — or even falling short of — other versions. It seems to me that this group is made up of experienced bakers since they’ll often give detailed comparison with other cookies. See this post at the King Arthur Flour blog, or this one at Dessert First.

The third group of bakers, 10%, are not worth readers’ attention. They pooh-pooh the NYT CCC, but admit that they’ve either (1) decided not to wait the 12-36 hours, (2) did not want to add salt, (3) found the size too impractical and so scooped out smaller portions of dough, or did all in combination and even added more modifications. Effectively, they’ve made another cookie entirely, rendering their criticism moot.

Anyway, now that I have the experience of baking the cookie, I can give my own assessment. It’s good, but there is no appreciable difference between it and other good chocolate chip cookies. Here, it would help if I applied the wheel analogy again: there are poorly made wheels and good wheels, but no exceptional wheels. The same goes for cookies. It is simply impossible to significantly raise the tasty threshold of the sugar-flour-butter trifecta.

It is, however, possible to inflate rhetoric. Leite’s CCC encomium employs vocabulary like “chocolate strata,” “texture rings,” “perfection,” “ultimate.” Take a look at this excerpt that describes the conclusion to his CCC research:

The result was a recipe for a consummate cookie, if you will: one built upon decades of acquired knowledge, experience and secrets; one that, quite frankly, would have Mrs. Wakefield [the chocolate chip cookie’s accidental creator] worshipping at its altar.

It’s extremely compelling and quasi-religious; Leite draws readers into an veritable paradisiac Willy Wonkian (allow me this neologism) garden, one that was found after a “quest” (his word, not mine) that sounds parallel to that of the Holy Grail.

But because the cookie is, well, pretty good, and because the Internet can create viral sensations, this pretty good cookie turned into a phenomenal one. In fact, the outer and inner texture rings are no more noteworthy than those of your average chocolate chip cookie, and the touted “second ring” is imperceptible. The “chocolate strata” by the specialty chocolate discs are unremarkable and not wholly different from the effect of typical chocolate chip distribution. The 12 to 36-hour waiting period does add something — but that something is just a subtly more developed flavor.

I have no idea who were the first bakers to try the cookie. I don’t know if they were professional bakers or noted food bloggers or SAHMs or what. However, I can’t help but wonder if the speed of information dissemination played a key role in the recipe’s popularity, if only because it created an “Emperor has no clothes” effect. Briefly, the number of NYT CCC fans hit a critical mass — either in level of authority or number — that was facilitated by the rapidity of information exchange, and that created a sufficiently large group of people (i.e., group 1) to counter anyone who didn’t notice the cookie’s purported special traits.

Moreover — and I think I run the risk of sounding extremely Marxist, here — the cookie’s got class. It doesn’t just use all purpose flour, but a combination of bread and cake flour that supposedly gives it a “much better texture” (again, imperceptible to possibly Philistine me). Semi-sweet chocolate chips are ditched for chocolate discs with an at least 60% cacao content. The recipe calls not for table salt, but coarse salt and sea salt. These are not your typical staple home ingredients. That said, the Toll House cookie is your Home-Spun American Cookie. The NYT chocolate chip cookie is your Cosmopolitan Yuppie Cookie.

And maybe “you are what you eat” may not totally ring true, but in today’s society, I’d say that “you try to be what you eat.” This deserves some background: the recent-ish introduction of cooking programs like Top Chef, Iron Chef, and Ace of Cakes, as well as the proliferation of food blogs have led to an interesting trend. For one thing, food preparation seems more accessible than ever before, thanks to the visual quality and recorded preparation steps given by such media. One effect of this is, I think, the increased enrollment at culinary schools. Second, popular shows and blogs do not focus on layman’s comfort foods, but on foods with at least 5 words in their titles.

Pearl (aka Israeli) couscous, simmered with mushrooms, bacon and spinach. Like risotto, but healthier.
Brussels sprouts pan roasted in brown butter then tossed with sweet potato gnocchi and walnuts.

Delicious coconut rice with candied ginger and cauliflower.

(All of these are from the front page of TasteSpotting.com, as of 12:46 AM.)

These foods are elegant and far removed from your general eater, if only because they use specialty ingredients that are often both expensive and foreign. For example, take the couscous description, which uses an uncommon food (i.e., couscous) and mentions two foreign countries (i.e., Israel and Italy — the latter albeit somewhat obliquely with the risotto reference).

This is all to say that by buying the NYT CCC ingredients and adding one’s commentary to the food blog community, a person marks (or, at least, tries to mark) himself or herself with some level of status. Further, making the cookie takes a lot of time, which itself can be a luxury commodity. I get the sense that those who make the cookie enjoy the fact of, or even take a special pride in, having made it. I guess that last bit has double meaning, and I’m already at risk of walking too far deep into murky classist territory.

In short, I liked the cookie. But the NYT CCC represents so much more than a cookie. Its special ingredients and the atypical amount of time needed to make it grant it a mystique, which increases and is increased by the number and type of people who rally around it, as well as the effect of the inflated vocabulary used to describe it.

Note 1: It’s possible that my criticism is invalid. There’s always the off-chance that unbeknownst to me, I have only been handed perfect chocolate chip cookies all my life, a fact that has blinded me to the indeed true perfection of the NYT chocolate chip cookie.

Note 2: After writing about 3/4 of this post, I recalled an essay by Roland Barthes in his book, Mythologies (1957). Some of my later thoughts in this gargantuan entry are influenced by his essay “Ornamental Cookery” (“La cuisine ornementale”), a translated version of which you can find quite easily here.

Edit: I just posted the Barthes essay beyond the jump.

Ornamental Cookery

The weekly Elle (a real mythological treasure) gives us almost every week a fine colour photograph of a prepared dish: golden partridges studded with cherries, a faintly pink chicken chaudfroid, a mould of crayfish surrounded by their red shells, a frothy charlotte prettified with glacé fruit designs, multicoloured trifle, etc.

The ’substantial’ category which prevails in this type of cooking is that of the smooth coating: there is an obvious endeavour to glaze surfaces, to round them off, to bury the food under the even sediment of sauces, creams, icing and jellies. This of course comes from the very finality of the coating, which belongs to a visual category, and cooking according to Elle is meant for the eye alone, since sight is a genteel sense. For there is, in this persistence of glazing, a need for gentility. Elle is a highly valuable journal, from the point of view of legend at least, since its role is to present to its vast public which (market-research tells us) is working-class, the very dream of smartness. Hence a cookery which is based on coatings and alibis, and is for ever trying to extenuate and even to disguise the primary nature of foodstuffs, the brutality of meat or the abruptness of sea-food. A country dish is admitted only as an exception (the good family boiled beef), as the rustic whim of jaded city-dwellers.

But above all, coatings prepare and support one of the major developments of genteel cookery: ornamentation. Glazing, in Elle, serves as background for unbridled beautification: chiselled mushrooms, punctuation of cherries, motifs of carved lemon, shavings of truffle, silver pastilles, arabesques of glacé fruit: the underlying coat (and this is why I called it a sediment, since the food itself becomes no more than an indeterminate bed-rock) is intended to be the page on which can be read a whole rococo cookery (there is a partiality for a pinkish colour).

Ornamentation proceeds in two contradictory ways, which we shall in a moment see dialectically reconciled: on the one hand, fleeing from nature thanks to a kind of frenzied baroque (sticking shrimps in a lemon, making a chicken look pink, serving grapefruit hot), and on the other, trying to reconstitute it through an incongruous artifice (strewing meringue mushrooms and holly leaves on a traditional log-shaped Christmas cake, replacing the heads of crayfish around the sophisticated bechamel which hides their bodies). It is in fact the same pattern which one finds in the elaboration of petit-bourgeois trinkets (ashtrays in the shape of a saddle, lighters in the shape of a cigarette, terrines in the shape of a hare).

This is because here, as in all petit-bourgeois art, the irrepressible tendency towards extreme realism is countered – or balanced – by one of the eternal imperatives of journalism for women’s magazines: what is pompously called, at L’Express, having ideas. Cookery in Elle is, in the same way, an ‘idea’ – cookery. But here inventiveness, confined to a fairy-land reality, must be applied only to garnishings, for the genteel tendency of the magazine precludes it from touching on the real problems concerning food (the real problem is not to have the idea of sticking cherries into a partridge, it is to have the partridge, that is to say, to pay for it).

This ornamental cookery is indeed supported by wholly mythical economics. This is an openly dream-like cookery, as proved in fact by the photographs in Elle, which never show the dishes except from a high angle, as objects at once near and inaccessible, whose consumption can perfectly well be accomplished simply by looking. It is, in the fullest meaning of the word, a cuisine of advertisement, totally magical, especially when one remembers that this magazine is widely read in small-income groups. The latter, in fact, explains the former: it is because Elle is addressed to a genuinely working-class public that it is very careful not to take for granted that cooking must be economical. Compare with L’Express, whose exclusively middle-class public enjoys a comfortable purchasing power: its cookery is real, not magical.

Elle gives the recipe of fancy partridges, L’Express gives that of salade niçoise. The readers of Elle are entitled only to fiction; one can suggest real dishes to those of L’Express, in the certainty that they will be able to prepare them.

3 Responses to “deconstruction of a cookie”

  1. Fullmer September 25, 2009 at 8:36 AM #

    I have never seen such a detailed analysis of a cookie in my life. Impressed.

    • Paulina September 25, 2009 at 10:11 AM #

      Haha, appreciate the comment, especially given this post’s length.

  2. Paulina September 25, 2009 at 10:19 AM #

    Another thought: the archetypal CCC is extremely accessible, the NYT CCC decidedly less so. I’m sure there’s a dynamic here that can be commented on (levels of accessibility), but I’ve spent too much time thinking about this cookie as is.

    Next, if anyone wants to comment on Barthes, please do. His words are not totally applicable to what I have to say; they just offer some food for thought (zing).

    Also, does anyone know of food books or articles that touch upon contemporary American food writing? I’d be interested to know.

    And thus concludes my writing on the NYT CCC, at least, for the forseeable future.

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