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Perfecting Gram’s chocolate chip cookies: Part I

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If I had to boil my entire existence down to one food item, it would be my grandmother’s chocolate chip cookies (I talked about them once before, here). If I had to eat only one food item for the rest of my life (with no regard to health, of course), I’d likely respond the same way. Over my lifetime I have eaten many dozens, if not hundreds, of these cookies and likely my weight in the cookie dough – whether scooped by sneaky 5-year-old fingers or spooned blatantly by 16-year-old hands.

My Gram used to make these cookies professionally, selling hundreds to thousands of them each year at events, parties, and in the lobbies of some of Minneapolis’ cultural institutions during events.  She made other things as well, but these chocolate chip cookies have been the mainstay and likely the most popular item for many years.

How to describe them? I can tell you how they taste (and will in a moment), but this is one of those items that is so wrapped up with so much emotion and culture and history and memory that biting into one of these cookies brings along with it much more than just flavor and texture.  It’s a feeling like getting a hug from a longtime friend, or like those times I get to drive around the lakes by myself when I’m back home, or listening to the albums my parents listened to when I was young. It’s a thread that has woven itself through all my years of existence, that touches on all the various phases of my life and carries with it hundreds and thousands of distinct memories. We all have those sensory experiences – the foods, the music, the scents – that weave themselves through our lives in this way. This is part of why food has such power to bring people together, to foster community, and to create a collective experience.

But what about the actual cookies? Well, first:

They are large. Like really large. Like six per cookie sheet, six per wire rack large.  I grew up thinking this was a normal-sized cookie – and they are much thinner than most cookies, to be clear – but have since developed a more reasonable sensibility about dessert serving-sizes (not that I always pay attention to that sensibility) and can tell you that these are a little bigger than your average cookie.

Next, they are chewy. Like really chewy. Like five-days-later still chewy. Gooey-soft chewy on the inside, chewy with a bite around the edges. Almost as if there were a thin, barely perceptible layer of caramel between the top and bottom edges, which all together crinkle and melt in your mouth – a satisfyingly chewy, buttery bite of cookie. Sweet, but not cloying, substantial but not heavy.

Beyond that, I’m realizing it’s actually a bit difficult to fully express what makes these cookies so good. Not in a “my grandmother made it, so it’s just The Best” kind of way, but because it’s a sensory experience that is so ingrained in my psyche that it’s hard for me to describe without describing a long list of events from my life.  So I’ll just say this – a higher ratio of brown sugar, vanilla, and butter to the rest of the ingredients and you get an amazing cookie. A cookie I need to be able to recreate.

Hence, the item on this year’s food list.

And if you read what I wrote last October about Gram’s cookies, you know why this is a bit of a challenge. I did get a little more detail on the recipe from my Aunt Sal, but there’s still some tweaking and tinkering to be done until they’re just right. Even with the batch I made earlier this week, the first pan to come out of the oven was a completely different texture than the ones that followed.  The time spent resting on the parchment before moving to the wire rack also seems to be key. This is going to take a little more technique and care to get exactly what I’m looking for.

Which is why I’m not sharing the recipe yet. (Probably should have said that earlier, huh? Sorry, friends.) I’m documenting here the first attempt, and I have a lot more experimentation to do – What happens if I try to make them smaller? What if I chill the dough for a day or so before baking?

But first I just need to perfect them as I’ve known them, and as I hope I will know them forever (and as my children will know them, and hopefully their children, and on). When I get there, I’ll share all the details.

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