Biagio Abbatiello, owner of Biagio Fine Chocolate in Adams Morgan, is not a baker. He is, however, familiar with a very specific recipe for chocolate chip cookies, one that bills itself as, perhaps, the key to making the quintessential chocolate chip cookie. Achieving this cookie has not been easy.
“Several people have been in here with that New York Times recipe,” he says. “They are pulling their hair out a little bit.”
Published last July in the paper’s food section, the New York Times Chocolate Chip Cookie is already legendary. To bake it, one is required to mix two kinds of flour (bread and cake), hunt down a shape of high-end bittersweet chocolate that is neither chip nor chunk, and let the dough rest in the fridge for approximately 36 hours.
People who bake only occasionally are familiar with the phenom that is this cookie. Three people sent the recipe to me, and I am by no means a professional. I don’t even have a blog. But Dorie Greenspan, doyenne of the living baking world (Julia, with whom Greenspan wrote Baking With Julia, is dead after all), does: “I got in my 2-cents worth championing salt,” she wrote. Greenspan, inspiration for the online baking club “Tuesdays with Dorie,” has been touting the perfect marriage of salt with butter and chocolate for years, so was especially delighted to see “sea salt” as the last ingredient listed.
Bloggers less well known have also weighed in. Nicole Funderburk (funderburks.blogspot.com) in Cedar City, Utah, wrote she cheated “and didn’t use hoity toity cake flour or chocolate disks and I didn’t even chill them overnight. But wow. Wow. They were DELECTABLE.”
It all started with freelance food writer and cookbook author David Leite, who adapted the recipe after spending an entire day baking with Jacques Torres, the superstar pastry chef and chocolatier. Leite picked Torres’ version after testing “at least four dozen” chocolate chip cookies from some of the most famous bakeries in New York and elsewhere. He then wrote up his feature, which took the form of a quest for perfection beyond the back of the Tollhouse bag. He included the finicky recipe, and moved on.
Others have not. “It’s pretty much exploded across the Internet,” Leite says in a phone interview. “I’ve probably gotten hundreds of e-mails from people, mostly thank yous, and a few ‘Are you nuts?’”
To that last point, let me chime in. David Leite and the New York Times: Are you nuts? Let’s start, as most cookie recipes do, with the flour.
The New York Times Chocolate Chip Cookie calls for “2 cups minus 2 tablespoons (8 1/2 ounces) cake flour” and “1 2/3 cups (8 1/2 ounces) bread flour.” Torres mixes flours to adjust their protein levels relative to the humidity, Leite says. All-purpose will do in a pinch for those of us unfamiliar with the humidity levels in our kitchens, but will create cookies that are “cakier and denser, and not in a good way....They’re more toothsome and they don’t have the wonderful chewiness that you want from a cookie.”
Let me be clear: What I want from a cookie is to have most, if not all, of the ingredients in my refrigerator and cupboard. I want to start the project the same day I finish the project, and I want to give away the cookies, preferably warm, so I do not eat every last one of them myself. To me, homemade cookies are not an example of instant gratification. But they’re close.
Still, with so much raving, with Nicole Funderburk using ALL CAPS to describe how good these damn cookies are (and she is by no means alone), I tried the recipe out, following it as exactly as I could. Which is to say, it was not exact, for a good reason. The star ingredient is impossible to find.
Leite’s/Torres’ recipe calls for “1 1/4 pounds of bittersweet chocolate disks or fèves, at least 60 percent cacao content.” Literally translated from French, fèves means “beans” or “broad beans.” According to the recipe’s accompanying note, fèves in this application are oval-shaped pieces that can be found at Whole Foods under the brand name Valrhona or—of course—at Jacques Torres Chocolate. Since I was not willing to hop on the Acela to New York (the fèves are not among the many chocolates sold at jacquestorres.com), I opted to try Whole Foods, heading to the high-end chocolate area near the cheese counter. The fèves could not be found near the cheese, nor in the baking aisle; they were not available at all at the Wisconsin Avenue store in Glover Park, nor at the P Street location in Logan Circle. The closest cousin I found was a small salad-size container filled with dark chocolate disks, 73.5 percent cacao content, distributed by a company from Venezuela called El Rey Chocolates. By the time I rounded up enough of these disks (three containers) for the recipe, the chocolate alone cost $17. This cookie, I thought, better be better than cold beer after a 10-mile hike.
I mixed my flours, sifting them with the baking soda, baking powder, and salt—“coarse” salt is what’s called for at this stage; the sea salt comes later. I creamed my unsalted butter and my sugars for a full five minutes using trusty electric beaters. (The recipe calls for creaming with a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment; trust me when I tell you your beaters work just fine, if not better.) I beat in the eggs and the “natural vanilla extract” and finished the dough off with the pricey chocolate disks, mixing them in by hand so as not break them. I’d like to say that I then covered the whole concoction with plastic wrap and placed it in my fridge for “24 to 36” hours—it can stay in there for up to 72 hours—which is a step supposedly essential to the cookies’ texture. But I did not. I began eating the dough.
People will tell you that is gross. They will tell you they don’t do that. They are wrong and they are lying. Chocolate chip cookie dough sitting in your refrigerator for two or three or four days is a dangerous thing. By the time I got around to actually baking off these things (and also after a certain member of my household discovered the dough), I had a little more than half of it left.
The recipe calls for a generous 3 1/2 oz. ball of dough per cookie, describing it as a large golf ball. As per Dorie Greenspan, it also calls for the sea salt sprinkled on top. I happened to have some fleur de sel someone picked up for me on a visit to France and thought the time had finally come to break out my fancy salt. I baked a few without it, just to see.
The cookies were indeed good. They were made with $17 worth of chocolate. Unless I baked them to the consistency of crackers, how could they not be good?
And yet, they were not “quintessential.” They were not made with the bittersweet fèves. Even Biagio did not have them. When I stopped in with recipe in hand, Abbatiello told me he had recently spoken to a representative from Valrhona and hoped to be carrying the fèves this winter. He pointed me to other options in the store: drinking-chocolate pieces by Askinosie Chocolate out of Missouri and disks by Recchiuti Confections, a San Francisco chocolatier. Neither would do, although a 1-pound box of 72-percent cacao bittersweet wafers from E. Guittard seemed pretty close to the proper shape. It was $12. I bought one box.
I did finally find the fèves online, at worldwidechocolate.com, where a 2.2-pound package is sold for $31.99, pre-shipping. One pound is sold at l’epicerie.com for a mere $14.75, but keep in mind you’d have to order two to complete the recipe as written.