The Many in the One

There are so many possible ways to go with chocolate chip cookie formulas it would take me weeks to go through them all. Extra-chewy, double chocolate, super chunky, double butter…a baker could get so lost in the forest of variations he’d never come out again. However I think it’s clear that all of them have their origin in one single source, the urtext of chocolate chip cookies recipes, Ruth Wakefield’s Toll House Crunch Cookie (now on the back of every bag of Nestlé semi-sweet chocolate chips).

The amazing thing about that recipe is not merely its deliciousness, it’s its variability, since the same set of ingredients, ostensibly combined in the same way, can yield a bewildering variety of results. I remember as a young baker-to-be, going to 4th of July block parties in my old neighborhood, I’d gaze in wonder at the various batches of cookies (each prepared by a different neighborhood mom) laid out on the buffet. No two were exactly the same. Some were small and deeply caramelized, others pale and puffy looking, still others flat as coasters with the individual chips poking out of them, like ribs out of my skinny friend Billy Connelly’s torso. I wondered then as I still do now, what strange combination of forces could have produced them.

Crispy, cakey, chewy, pretty much every mom (or grandma) somehow managed to deliver her own unique take on Wakefield’s classic. It’s nostalgia for these homespun variations — I believe — that has led subsequent generations of bakers to meddle with the base recipe, in attempt to exaggerate the characteristics of the chocolate chip cookies they loved so much as children. I’m personally not interested in that kind of fiddling. However I am interested in investigating what can cause a few batches of the same cookies to bake up so differently. So that’s what I’m going to do this week. I’ll make three or four batches of standard Wakefield chocolate chip cookies, not deviating from the ingredients list one bit — however I will handle them differently, and put up the results. That done, I’ll add information that will allow you to do your own fiddling if you like.

Sound fun? Well, it does to me at any rate.

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