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TODAY

Thursday, July 18

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What makes a great chocolate chip cookie? In my opinion, there are several important factors. First, texture: The perfect chocolate chip cookie should be crisp around the edges, but chewy in the center, even days after baking. Greasy, floppy, or cement-like textures are undesirable. Secondly, form: I prefer a cookie that's about as big around as a can of soup, and thick enough to really bite into. I consider those dinner-plate-sized cookies I've seen at various coffee-shops to be an abomination, but tiny little bite-sized Chips Ahoy are no more appealing. Lastly, taste: Chocolate chip cookies are a classic and should not be fooled with, taste-wise. However, tiny variations from the standard recipe on the back of the bag of chocolate-chips can really take a cookie from tasty to transcendental.

Before I give away my recipe and all of my closely-held cookie secrets, a few words on the art of baking, in general. I've had several friends who are fantastic cooks tell me that they can't bake or that they're afraid of baking. I think this stems from a fundamental difference between the two arts -- cooking requires improvisation, looseness, a dash of this, and handful of that. Baking, on the other hand, requires precision akin to a science experiment. Flour should be spooned lightly into a measuring cup and leveled off evenly with the back of a knife. Brown sugar needs to be packed into a measuring cup just firmly enough that it holds its shape when you dump it into the mixing bowl. The proportions between wet and dry ingredients and the ratio of leavening agents are non-negotiable, and improvising is a lot riskier. In cooking, creativity pays off. When it comes to baking, it helps to be a stickler about stuff. Follow the recipe exactly at least once before attempting any changes. Unless you've got a phobia of measuring cups, there's no reason to be afraid of baking.

Chocolate Chip Cookies
1/2 cup rolled oats, ground to a fine powder in a blender
2 1/4 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 cup butter (2 sticks), at room temperature (resist the urge to microwave)
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract (preferably authentic)
1/2 tsp lemon juice
2 eggs
3 cups or one standard package of semi-sweet chocolate chips (I like Nestle brand chips)

1. Grind the oats in a blender or food processor.

2. Measure the flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon into the blender jar and use the blender to thoroughly combine all the dry ingredients.

3. Cream together the butter and both sugars. Add eggs, lemon juice, and vanilla, stirring well after each addition.

4. Combine the dry ingredients with the wet stuff, and mix until fully combined.

5. Add chocolate chips and stir by hand to evenly incorporate the chocolate.

6. Refrigerate the dough for an hour or overnight.

7. Drop the dough by large spoonfuls onto an ungreased cookie sheet. Leave plenty of room for the cookies to spread as they cook.

8. Bake at 350° F for approximately 16 minutes, or until barely golden and still slightly raw. You'll have to do this in batches, so keep the extra dough in the fridge while the first batch is baking, and make sure the pan is completely cool before you spoon on the next round of dough.

9. Cool the cookies on the pan for five minutes, then transfer to a rack to cool completely before packing the finished cookies into an air-tight jar or sealed zipper baggies.

A few notes on process:

I always beat cookie dough by hand the old-fashioned way with a wooden spoon in a ceramic mixing bowl. You can certainly use an electric mixer to speed things up and spare your arm muscles the burn, but take care not to overbeat. It's okay to whip the butter until it's fluffy, but once you add the eggs, only mix until each new ingredient is incorporated into the batter. It is pretty much impossible to overbeat the dough if you're doing it by hand, and you'll tone your biceps in the process. Give it a try.

Taking the cookies out of the oven at the right moment and not overbaking them is the first key to producing soft, chewy cookies. You can tell that the cookies are ready to come out of the oven when the edges are golden and the tops are just barely beginning to show signs of turning brown. The cookies will still appear somewhat raw at this stage, and will fall to pieces if you try to pick one up -- that's perfect. As they cool, the centers will firm up, and the cookies will be deliciously soft in the center. If you take cookies out of the oven when they really look done, they end up overdone and hard as little rocks.

I tried a lot of recipes before settling on this one. I sampled batch after batch with slightly different proportions of butter and flour. I even made cookies using shortening instead of butter. Each cookie was analyzed and thoroughly criticized before being consumed. This recipe is the best I've ever had. The road to cookie heaven is littered with diet resolutions and empty milk cartons. It was a difficult journey, but I persevered. These particular cookies have made me famous amongst select friends, family and roommates. I hope you enjoy them too.

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