Legend has it that chocolate chip cookies are one of history's sweet accidents. One version of the story has it that Toll House Inn owner and home economist, Ruth Wakefield, was baking cookies for her guests and had run out of nuts for her Butter Drop Do Cookies. She hastily chopped up a Nestlé chocolate bar as a substitute, thinking that the little chocolate pieces would melt and distribute. The chips held their shape and a cookie sensation was born.
In the more than seventy years since Mrs. Wakefield first published her recipe it has appeared on the back of millions (billions?) of bags of Nestlé semi-sweet morsels. The "Original Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies" were certainly one of the first recipes I mastered on my own, so I was surprised to discover that the off-the-bag "original" recipe might not actually be the original recipe that Mrs. Wakefield first published.
According to The New England Cookbook by Brooke Dojny, the recipe has evolved over the years, first with the addition of nuts. And comparing the modern package recipe with one printed in the 1949 edition of Mrs. Wakefield's Toll House Tried and True Recipes, I also noticed some fundamental differences in technique.
The old school recipe used flour sifted with salt, suggested that you beat the eggs before including, and also told you to dissolve the baking soda in water rather than mixing in it with the dry ingredients. The older recipe also didn't mention that you should soften the butter before creaming and required a longer cooking time, despite the fact that it made much smaller cookies.
But the most interesting difference was the little note below the recipe: "At Toll House," it says, "we chill overnight. When mixture is ready for baking, we roll a teaspoon of dough between palms of hands and place balls 2 inches apart on greased baking sheet. Then we press balls with finger tips to form flat rounds. This way cookies do not spread as much in the baking and they keep uniformly round. They should be brown through, and crispy, not white and hard as I have sometimes seen them."
With the older recipe it was all about the timing. Resting overnight improves the older version somewhat, but resting for 36 hours works deliciously. (You might be familiar with this if you read David Leite's New York Times article about the quest for the perfect chocolate chip cookie. In the article Leite consulted biochemist and cookbook author Shirley O. Corriher, who confirmed that the extra time allows "dough and other ingredients to fully soak up the liquid—in this case, the eggs—in order to get a drier and firmer dough, which bakes to a better consistency."
In the 36 to 48 hour zone the cookies still had more of a raise to them than the modern recipe and a more intense brown sugar flavor than cookies made hours earlier from the same batter. Best of all, the old-school cookies remained deliciously chewy even on the second day.
For the purpose of selling chocolate chips I can see why Nestlé would scrap the instructions to let the dough rest overnight (or longer). When you want a homemade chocolate chip cookie you want it now—not two days from now. But good things do come to those who wait. And if you can delay cookie bliss by a couple of days, you will be handsomely rewarded.
Got a favorite classic American dessert recipe you'd like to see featured here? Email us with the subject: "American Classics."