The Holy Grail of Cookies

Holy-Grail Chocolate Chip Cookies

My dear husband celebrated a birthday recently, and like every year, I started steeling myself for the inevitable conversation several days in advance. Normally it goes something like this:

Me: “What kind of cake do you want for your birthday?”
Him: “Oh you don’t have to make me a cake.”
Me: “But I want to, and besides it’s not a birthday without a cake. What kind would you like?”
Him: “Oh I don’t care.”
Me: “Come on, how about something with lots of chocolate?
Him: “Nah.”
Me: “Okay then, tiramisu again?”
Him: “Just make whatever you feel like.”
Me: “But it’s your birthday! I’m supposed to make whatever you feel like!”
Him: “But you know I’m not picky.”
Me: “We both know that’s not true! Now just choose something!!!”
Him: “I’ll be happy with whatever you make. But you really don’t have to make anything.”
Me: “$%&#@%!!!!!!!!!!!”

I suppose I could just accept that he doesn’t care nearly as much as I do and just drop the whole thing, but I have two fundamental problems with allowing someone a cake-less birthday: one, there’s already a tragic lack of opportunities to make and eat cake in life and I couldn’t in good conscience contribute to this cosmic cake deficit, and two, without cake (or something remotely cake-like) where would the candles go? Heaven knows the nachos and beer—a.k.a. the two things he can’t imagine having a birthday without—are not a very good stand-in (though don’t think I haven’t tried).

This year, though, things went a little differently. I hadn’t even broached the what-kind-of-cake question yet when he asked: “Can you make chocolate chip cookies for my birthday?”

I don’t think I could’ve been more stunned if I’d learned that gospel-singing aardvarks had secretly colonized the moon. “Chocolate chip cookies…for your birthday?” “Yeah!” he replied enthusiastically, “is that okay?” “Um, of course,” I said, feeling slightly bewildered that the battle I’d been psyching myself up for had failed to materialize. Of course what he’d requested still wasn’t a cake, but, well, at least he’d come up with it on his own. And truth be told chocolate chip cookies sounded pretty good to me too, even if they’d offer only a slightly less-dubious surface for holding candles than nachos or beer.

But what chocolate chip cookies would be worthy of a birthday? Unlike many (most?) of my countrymen, I don’t have a tried-and-true recipe. Oh sure, just about every recipe I’ve ever made has been somewhere between good and great (can a chocolate chip cookie be bad?), but none has quite been my personal holy grail. Even discounting all the ones that fall beyond the borders of a ‘classic’ chocolate chip cookie—the ones with things like oats and grated chocolate and cinnamon and dried cherries—I must have baked a dozen and a half different recipes over the years, from the Nestlé back-of-the-package recipe my mother and I used to make to recipes calling for all kinds of weird twists on the basic formula: browning the butter, hard-boiling the egg yolks, slamming trays of half-baked cookies on the counter to limit their rise(!)… Like many people I was impressed by the Jacques Torres/David Leite recipe featured in the New York Times a couple years ago which calls for aging the dough for three days and sprinkling it with a finishing touch of sea salt; those were some gorgeous, tasty specimens. But I don’t always want to have to plan three days in advance when I want chocolate chip cookies, and what’s more I found that those cookies went stale very quickly; by the second day they were a shadow of their fresh-from-the-oven selves.

So I started poking around, dropping in on blog and forum conversations about favorite chocolate chip cookies. A lot of of the same names kept popping up—Martha Stewart, Alton Brown, Thomas Keller—but then I noticed that I’d run across more than a few enthusiastic mentions of a recipe by Pam Anderson (this Pam Anderson, not that one!) from her book CookSmart. I’d discovered this fascinating book, in which she tests her way through dozens of versions of comfort-food favorites to arrive at an ‘ultimate’ version, last fall in the course of my pumpkin pie quest. Even though I hadn’t been completely won over by her pie, it was still good enough to convince me to give her cookie recipe a try. At the very least her ideal chocolate-chipper sounded an awful lot like my mine: buttery, puffy, crisp-edged and chewy-centered. And even better, her final recipe didn’t sound too fiddly (no hard-boiling eggs or slamming hot cookie sheets on countertops!), and crucially could be whipped up in only a couple of hours.

First, let me tell you what sets these cookies apart in terms of technique. Unlike most recipes that call for a single kind of fat, these call for two: butter for flavor and a small amount of vegetable oil for texture and keeping properties. Then there’s the handling method, in which the dough is rolled into balls and frozen before being baked. This allows the outside of the cookie to crisp up while the center—i.e. the part that thaws last—remains delicious chewy and moist. Finally there’s the baking which is done in two stages, first at a higher temperature and then at a lower one. The blast of high heat sets the outside of the cookie quickly to prevent excess spreading while the lower heat gently finishes the interior without over-browning the edges. The result, Pam promises, is a cookie that achieves the best of all worlds in terms of texture, flavor and longevity.

But did they deliver? Well, I can tell you this: after having these cookies around the house for two days I desperately unloaded half the batch on Manuel’s colleagues after finding myself literally unable to eat anything else. I mean I always like chocolate chip cookies, but these are in another league—the same league, I’d say, that boasts various banned substances and other things which render you powerless to control your impulses. With their crunchy golden edges and soft, squidgy centers, their heady bouquet of butter and brown sugar edged with electrifying little jolts of salt and just enough bitter chocolate and toasty nuts to keep each bite interesting, these are most certainly the best cookies I’ve ever made, and probably among the best I’ve ever eaten. They even look great too, with their puffy, wrinkled tops. In terms of both flavor and consistency I’d say they’re as good if not better than the 72-hour cookies, only that they can be made on the spur of the moment and stay fresh for days. In a word, they are perfect. Manuel thought so too. And so did his colleagues, who I hear started to get a bit violent over who would get the last one.

Oh, and as it turns out they even hold a birthday candle quite admirably. Which is good, because I just might want chocolate chip cookies for my next birthday too.

p.s. What are your favorite chocolate chip cookies?

Holy-Grail Chocolate Chip Cookies

This is basically Pam’s recipe, with just a couple of my own (minor) touches. I prefer my cookies slightly smaller than hers (which almost qualify as meals unto themselves), so I made 20 per batch instead of 16. You could probably even go a little higher, but don’t make them too small or you won’t get the full spectrum of textures. I also borrowed my favorite touch from the Jacques Torres recipe, namely the finishing sprinkle of flaky sea salt. If you haven’t tried that, do—it sends the flavors over the moon. Also definitely use the darkest brown sugar you can find; I love dark muscovado, sometimes labeled as ‘molasses sugar’. Finally I don’t have access to the kind of flour Pam felt works best in these cookies, namely bleached all-purpose (bleaching flour has apparently been outlawed in Germany since the 1950s—who knew?), but didn’t feel my unbleached all-purpose (type 550/T55 for those of you in Europe) did them any harm. Still, if you feel like trying them with bleached—or even better, a side-by-side comparison!—I’d be really curious to know the outcome.
Yield: 16-20 cookies
Source: Cooksmart by Pam Anderson

2 1/4 cups (315g) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon fine salt
14 tablespoons (210g/1.75 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
3/4 cup (150g) dark brown or muscovado sugar
3/4 cup (150g) granulated sugar
2 tablespoons (30ml) flavorless vegetable oil
8 ounces (240g/about 1.5 cups) good-quality chocolate chips or your favorite bitter/semisweet chocolate cut into 1/4-inch (1/2-cm) chunks (I like Lindt Excellence 70%)
6 ounces (180g/about 1 cup) chocolate chunks/chips PLUS 3.5 ounces (100g/about 1 cup) toasted, chopped pecans or walnuts
flaky sea salt, for finishing (e.g. Maldon)

Stir together the flour, baking powder and baking soda in a bowl; set aside. Stir together the eggs, vanilla and salt in another bowl; set aside. Microwave the butter on high power until just melted but not hot, 30 to 45 seconds; set aside. Mix the brown and granulated sugars in a large bowl, then stir in melted butter and oil until smooth. Add the egg mixture and stir until smooth and creamy. Add the dry ingredients and stir again until smooth. Stir in chocolate and nuts, if using. If the dough is very soft, refrigerate it until it’s firm enough to shape. Roll the dough into golf-ball-sized spheres (I made them 60 grams/2.1 oz each) and arrange on a pan that will fit in your freezer. Freeze until the dough is hard, at least 30 minutes. (Once the dough balls are frozen, they can be stored in freezer bags up to 3 months and baked as the craving strikes.)

Meanwhile, put an oven rack into the upper middle position and preheat to 400F/200C. Working in half batches, place 8 frozen dough balls onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet leaving at least 2 inches (5cm) between them. Sprinkle the top of each ball with a pinch of flaky salt (don’t worry if some salt falls onto the parchment—the cookies will pick up the stray flakes as they spread). Bake until set but not yet brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350F/175C. Continue to bake until cookies are golden-brown around the edges and lightly colored on top, about 8-10 minutes longer. If your cookies are smaller than Pam’s, you may have to shorten each stage by a minute or two. My cue for taking them out is that the cookies are lightly puffed all over except for the centers, which should still look a little underdone. Let the cookies cool on the sheet before removing them to a rack. Repeat for the remaining cookies, preheating oven to 400F/200C again before baking each batch.

The cookies can supposedly be stored in an airtight container up to 5 days, though I recommend freezing the ones you won’t eat within a couple of days and thawing them as needed (I find this also helps to moderate consumption!).

57 thoughts on “The Holy Grail of Cookies

  1. ooh yum! I recently found my Holy Grail of all Chocolate Chip Cookies, and i think for an American, who's used to Nestle recipes and Mrs. Fields and Otis Spunkmeyer (all being amazingly delicious CCCs), that's really saying something. Glad you found yours and thanks for sharing!

  2. I'm not sure my European opinion counts in a field where American superiority is undisputed, but i felt quite hard for Kim Boyce whole flour chocolate cookies (which is an American recipe by the way). I made them this winter, and could not stop eating them. Now I bought the book and made them again and they are something, indeed. I made a few twists like aging the dough and adding walnuts. They have a lot of sugar, so they need very good and very dark chocolate for balance (or walnuts! they are divine with walnuts!).I can see that a mix between that recipe and some tips from your (mix butter and oil? Double baking temperature?) may well lead to a new, superior cookie. This could jeopardize the survival of all other baked goods, however, so I'd advise against it.I really do have to try those whole-wheat cookies. The reason I've been resisting, I think, is that I'm secretly afraid I might end up convincing myself that they're actually good for me and make them a staple part of my diet. With these, there's no question that they must remain a rare treat. That said, I've seen so many endorsements of that cookie (including yours) that I think I'll have to just risk it and make them. Wish me luck… -m

  3. Oh my goodness………. These sound awesome! I love the ideas like freezing a cookie before cooking it so that it doesn't spread too much. Who thinks of these things? Cookie geniuses, that's who. And I don't know about you, but I personally need to meet a few more cookie geniuses. I have printed this recipe to make for my own blog *and* I'm also reserving this cookbook from my local library to give it a whirl as well. And if you find the perfect pumpkin pie recipe, let me know, okay? I'm still on *the quest*. 🙂Paula, did you take a look at the linked pie recipe? If you like creamy, more lightly-spiced pies it might just be up your alley! -m

  4. My husband thinks Kim Boyce's whole wheat chocolate chip cookies are about perfect. I made a variation of Alton Browns thin chocolate chips that I like but I don't think I have a 'perfect" cookie yet.

  5. Chocolate chip cookies are on the brain! I recently made a batch myself from a new recipe ( and they are, to date, the best I've made and eaten myself. This recipe uses a hint of peanut butter (but not so much that it takes over the taste of the cookie. It's subtle enough to make you go "hm, maybe it's there? maybe not? Oh well, too delicious to care!') as the second kind of fat and also achieves that ace blend of crispy and chewy – so important! Nonetheless, these sound amazing as well – I'm excited to try them out and see what the outcome is.PS – I agree wholly with your sentiments about not having a favorite, true blue chocolate chip cookie – they're pretty much all good. And besides, who doesn't love a chocolate chip cookie and what hasn't been said about them before. Ultimately, my favorite type of chocolate chip cookie is the one that's in my mouth.

  6. I just had to say, I snorted out loud when I read the line: "gospel-singing aardvarks had secretly colonized the moon." Fantastic! And I do love a good chocolate chip cookie (although I tend to eat half the dough before it even makes it to the oven).Don't worry, my numbers here take into account a quite significant dough loss between bowl and oven. I like to use whisky terminology and call it "the angels' share". 😉 -m

  7. My husband and I have been fighting over chocolate chip cookies for years. He likes them soft, I like them a bit crisp. I like nuts, he hastes nuts. I like a bit of heft – some oats, maybe, he does not. Amazing how such a simple cookie can be so conroversial.

  8. despite having my very own holy grail recipe, I must admit that I trust your judgment so much to leave mine aside.I might make a batch this afternoon. xxFanny, you can't leave me hanging like that – what's your favorite recipe?? xx -m

  9. Nomatter how many times I tell my wife that I don't like cake, I like pie, she still makes me a cake every year. :)Maybe I'll try hinting at cookies next year.Ah, a pie person. I could deal with that, I think – at least they're almost as good at holding candles as a cake! -m

  10. It's good that your husband is not picky even in foods you eat. I remember every time my wife asked me to choose what food we are going to eat and then she continues to ask me when I'm not choosing from her selections. I love the feeling that she asks me and have to decide for something especially the food for dinner. Anyway, thanks for the recipe.

  11. i have the SAME conversation with my husband every year. cookies is a great idea – and these look delicious!

  12. Ah, I find men never do get as excited to celebrate their bdays as we do! I plan months in advance the food details of my loves Birthday, and he always gives the same "really, you don't have to get/give/make me anything." These cookies are fantastic, one of my go to chocolate chip cookie recipes. Glad making them was a big hit for you!

  13. I know it is sacrilegious to say this in the Land Of The Cookie but I've yet to taste a single chocolate chip cookie in the US that I like. I am, however, ecstatic over the ones from Ben's Cookies in Covent Garden. (Have you ever tried them?) I'm hoping against hope that they'll publish their recipe someday. If you hear anything on the blog-vine, let me know…!!

  14. I´ve never made any chocolate chip cookies before, but you had me at hello with these. And yes, they were mighty tasty! But mine did not look as pretty as yours. They turned out much flatter, and a little too dark around the edges. It might have been cause I used arrowrot and oats instead of all purpose flour? Oat-flour might not bind as much fluid. Also tried different oven temperatures, and the warmer boost sure won! Made them more chewy and less crumbly. So thanks a lot for the recipe! PS. I used to read your blog a lot when it was new, and has found my way back here recently. Still great! Keep up the good work!

  15. Mmmm I think I'm going to have to try these out at the weekend. Oh, and happy belated birthday to Manuel!

  16. PS Is all purpose flour the same as plain flour?Yes! Hope you like 'em! xx m

  17. I'm in the midle of this recipe right now – I just couldn't wait to try it! I have one suggestion, something that I learned from the America's Test Kitchen people: try browning about 10 Tbsp of the butter first, then add it to the rest of the butter, sugars, etc. I think you'll find the browned butter gives it an even richer, deeper taste! Gotta go get my dough out of the fridge…..

  18. These chocolate chip cookies look wonderful. I think chocolate lover's everywhere might enjoy these. Thanks for the recipe.

  19. We just made these, but ours look different than your picture. Yours look like the perfect chewy crisp delights that the recipe promises, but ours look still vaguely like the frozen golf balls they began as. We followed your recipe every inch. Should we have smashed them? Did we miss something?Hmm, no, the balls should melt by themselves in the oven. My money would be on too much flour — did you measure by volume or weight? Maybe try weighing the flour if you didn't last time. Alternatively you could be using flour that's too high in gluten. For these cookies you want not much more than 10% protein. You didn't say where you're located, but I doubt it's down to local ingredient differences since it's an American recipe and I had no problems using European flour, butter, etc. In any case I'm sorry they didn't turn out as promised, and let me know if you try them again! -m

  20. Just so you know, your hubby is not the only wishy washy one…I've been married to mine for coming up on 23 years now.So-favorite cookie? I'm a lazy ass when it comes to this sort of thing..I'll tub or tube of chocolate chip cookie dough.Pretzel sticks, crunched up.Mix the pretzels into the dough or just press them into the dough before baking. Grab a glass of milk.Enjoy.

  21. I didn't think any chocolate chip cookie could be better than the Tollhouse recipe, but these are. They are just close enough, but much richer. Thank you!

  22. I made these and they were delicious. I still want to try the Kim Boyce cookies and the Kate Moses cookies, though.

  23. I haven't found my holy grail of chocolate chip cookies yet, but then I haven't been looking that hard! There are just so many other things to make. I seem to try a different recipe each time, and always like them but they are always lacking in some way. My go-to for a while was Jeffrey Steingarten's best-so-far ccc, but I've packed up the recipe. This one is next on my list–thanks!

  24. These look – amazing. I can't wait to try these out. Chocolate chip cookies are such a staple in my dessert books :)Your blog is too cute! I've added your blog to the iStopOver Community Blog because I know others will appreciate the reads! Cheers.

  25. Hi I dont usually bake cookies because I've never had much success with them in the past – but this recipe sounded SO deelish that I tried it out yesterday. It's rather embarrassing to admit that the frozen dough balls didn't spread when they were baking! Not even a TEENY bit! I followed your recipe exactly (the only change being that I used hazelnuts instead of walnuts). Would you have any idea what might have gone wrong? The cookies tasted fine… but they stayed domed! 🙂

  26. Oh wait – I just saw that someone else had the same problem as I did… I'll try weighing the flour next time!Yes, do weigh the flour and see if that makes a difference. I find that with the correct amount of flour the dough is very soft at room temperature and definitely needs to spend an hour or so in the fridge to firm up enough to be rolled into balls. -m

  27. I had the opposite problem from everyone else – mine spread far and fast. I ended up with one big brown, caterpillary shape which I broke apart before they cooled. They tasted great so if I can just figure out a better cooking time, they probably will end up with a terrific texture, too. And a little bit of kosher salt on top was really not optional.

  28. The title really got me: hook, line, and sinker. At first, it sounded like an overstatement but upon closer inspection, it really looks like the holy grail of cookies! And for the record, it sounds like you care more about baking the cake than the occasion itself…but it's okay, I don't blame you 😛

  29. These cookies were incredible! My only comment would be that for some reason I only had peanut oil on hand – which I used, and think added an amazing bit of nutty flavor to the cookies (I left out the actual nuts, so this oil gave a great illusion of nutty). Thanks for sharing the recipe!

  30. My best ever is 101 Cookbooks' Itsy Bitsy Chocolate Chip Cookies (… and I'm also in the process of trying these out. Only, I'm in Brazil and there's no brown sugar (except demarera), so I decided to improvise and just sub in some off-white sugar and a mashed banana. Oh, and 1tsp of espresso since the vanilla extract is all artificial. No matter how they turn out, I'm already excited. The fabulousness of melting the butter and freezing the dough means I a) don't have to plan ahead to make these, and b) can bake just a few at a time.

  31. oh, man. i've been a dedicated maker of nancy silverton's ccc's (found in, of all places, The Making of a Pastry Chef). they meet the same criteria — crisp edges, barely set centers. though i always double the quantity of chocolate; makes the cookie.i'm intrigued by the keeping powers of this variation, though. hmmm….

  32. Wow… Oh Melissa, I've been away for far too long! Your blog is still as lovely as ever and these cookies, well, let's just say I'm putting the ingredients into my phone now so I can scoop them all up at the grocer. Hope you are well.. wherever you are. The NW is as green and wet as ever…Heather(formerly vivaepicurea now busy mama of two!)

  33. I enjoyed your recounting the conversation about birthday cakes, as I just had a similar one with my Mum, but then spent the best part of the morning trying to keep her out of the kitchen while I baked! I guess being a Mum doesn't switch off for birthdays :)I love the idea of toasted pecans or walnuts for these cookies. I eat gluten-free, and my favourite recipe combines almond meal with millet flour. I think the next batch will have to include toasted nuts.I'm a newcomer and really enjoying reading through your blog, by the way!Kate.

  34. These look fantastic and I will definitely be trying them this weekend if the humidity isn't so awful here in NY!!!! My holy grail cookies so far are Malted Milk Chocolate Chip Cookies from a website someone recommended I try, and they were AMAZING! I will make these and compare!!! Thank you for posting!

  35. I made these yesterday with some small changes. I didn't have baking soda so after some internet-searching I made them with 2 tsp of baking power (instead of just 1tsp) and omitted the salt in the dough. I used the chocolate chips + roasted walnuts combo and they turned out beautifully! (I just had some for breakfast…)Regarding the problem with no-melt cookies: could it be that you forgot to preheat the oven rack?

  36. I was delighted to find a new and different recipe for chocolate chip cookies which are a favorite with our family. I will be sure to give these a try. They truly do sound great.

  37. just got round to trying these. hands down the best cookie recipe, and i have been searching for a while. worth getting fat for. thank you!!!!

  38. The cookies look delicious, I can't wait to try them as well and it's just such a good idea to replace a birthday cake by cookies. Wonderful!

  39. These sound awesome! I have an idea though. Birthday cake AND cookies. Yes, I will keep that in mind for my next birthday.

  40. I'm the same as you – I like cookies that are crispy yet chewy 😀 I love cooking but I really love baking so when I'm in the mood our house is full of brownies, cookies, muffins, anything I can make basically!I have a recipe for chocolate chip cookies from my mum's Mary Berry book that we call "island cookies" at home – when I make them they always end up looking like mini islands 🙂 I don't know whether it's because I try and make them so big and they never spread or what but they're really good if you want an entire, really unhealthy meal in one!Here's the recipe in case you want to try them anyone? They're really good if you put about 75%/80% dark chocolate (basically standard dark chocolate) ones are slighlty cake-y when they come out though becasue they're so fat, so can't wait to try this recipe!Amyx

  41. I made these today and found the dough very simple to make with a wooden spoon. No lugging out the stand mixer! I went with the weights for measuring. We all (3 of us) thought these were just the cookie we were looking for! Thanks for

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