On the Chocolate Trail

Chocolate Chip Cookie Chronicles: Inventions & Elections

Invite an American presidential candidate spouse to submit a recipe to a cookie contest, and chocolate chips will probably be a winning ingredient. If you give a mouse a cookie, it had better be chocolate chip. If you are showing a home at an open house, put out a platter of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster’s favorite is chocolate chip. When baking most people will make them chocolate chip. Huffington Post named chocolate chip number one on its “Definitive List of America’s Favorite Cookies.” All of this because in 1938 Ruth Graves Wakefield “invented” what came to be known as the chocolate chip cookie.

Some claim that Wakefield’s chocolate chip cookie creation was accidental, chocolate bits inadvertently falling from a vibrating shelf into her mixer. Or that she did not want to waste left over chocolate and randomly tossed it into her standard Butter Drop Do batter. However, since Wakefield was an experienced restaurateur, cook and baker, with a college degree in household arts from Framingham State Normal School in Massachusetts in 1924, those scenarios seem unlikely. As she herself later reported, she intentionally developed the now familiar recipe over time. While traveling home from a vacation in Egypt, she mulled it over her as she recalled her experiments with chocolate in her student days. As Wakefield clarified, “I was trying to give them [her customers] something different. So I came up with the Toll House Cookie.”

Some think that perhaps Wakefield based her Toll House Cookie on earlier confections named “Chocolate Chips” found in the 1894 The Little Epicure’s collection of seven hundred recipes. However, those Chocolate Chips were actually chocolate flavored biscuits, baked in narrow pans, intended to be served with afternoon tea. Candies with the name Chocolate Chips turned up as early as the 1890s in several places, including Maine, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.

Surprisingly, chocolate chips, as we now know them, did not exist prior to Wakefield’s chocolate innovation. In those days bakers hacked fragments off large bars, sometimes needing ice picks to do so. To test her cookie, Wakefield ordered Nestle chocolate bars from the grocery store, chipped pieces off the bars, tried some variations, and came up with the ubiquitous delicacy. She initially had wanted Baker’s brand chocolate and expected the chocolate to melt thoroughly into the batter. As her cookies became more popular, Nestle agreed to provide her with free chocolate for the rest of her life in exchange for exclusive rights to the cookie formula, which first appeared on the packaging of the seven-ounce Nestle bar in 1939. To make it easier to chop the chocolate, Nestle started scoring their bars into 160 small segments and sold those with a small chipping tool in 1939. In 1979 Nestle adjusted the Toll House recipe for a larger and chewier cookie and at some point added the name Chocolate Chip Cookie.

Declared the official Massachusetts state cookie in 1997, Wakefield’s Toll House cookies initially contained Crisco and were baked in quarter-size small rounds to accompany ice cream. As Wakefield advised, “they should be brown through and crispy.” Like many sophisticated bakers today, she refrigerated the dough overnight. Toll House Inn customers seeking to replicate them at home were generously handed typewritten copies of the recipe. Once published in the Boston-Herald-Traveler and also on a featured radio broadcast by food editor Marjorie Mills, the cookie achieved an even greater following. The recipe also appeared in Wakefield’s often reprinted cookbook, The Toll House Tried and True (1930 edition and on), along with many other restaurant favorites. Recognizing its growing importance in the American chocolate and cookie repertoire, Betty Crocker (Marjorie Husted) featured Wakefield on her recipe radio program. The Kennedy family were fans of the Inn; President John F. Kennedy may have tasted the cookies when he visited the Toll House as state senator.

Family Circle Magazine hosts a Presidential Cookie Bake-off in election-years. The presidential and vice-presidential candidate’s spouse submits a favorite recipe. It launched the first when Secretary Hilary Clinton’s famous cookie comment in March 1992, often feature chocolate. Clinton had mused: “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life.”

Each bake-off minus two since 1992 was included chocolate and the winning cookie of those years featured chocolate; it has also usually foreshadowed the presidential victor. The contest allowed Clinton to feature her lifelong love of chocolate chips and her family Christmas tradition, which had relatives vying to bake the largest cookie. As Clinton has said, “My friends say my recipe is more democratic because I use vegetable shortening instead of butter.” She and/or Bill submitted her winning recipe in 1992, 1996, and again in 2016. The 2016 election, now that’s a different story.

David’s Cookies

The rage for artisanal chocolate chip cookies began in the 1970s. Wally Amos, a former agent for William Morris, started the Famous Amos company with bitesized, crisp, morsels, to recreate his favorite childhood cookie baked as it was baked by his adoptive Aunt Delka in 1975. Debbi Fields Chocolate Chippery bit into the market in Palo Alto, California, in 1977, using a recipe Fields had developed since she was thirteen years old. Initially banks were reluctant to give her a loan since she had no college degree, no business background, nor any commercial baking experience. Her sales approach required cookies to be sold fresh, out of the of the oven less than two hours. Cookies older than that were given to charity or distributed free to customers. With time, all of her suppliers blended each ingredient to her specifications to assure the highest quality. David’s Cookies, opened in 1979 using hand chopped Lindt bittersweet chocolate, was noted the best chocolate chip cookie in New York City in a New York Times article by Florence Fabricant (July 25, 1979). By the mid-80s there were at least 1,200 chocolate chip cookie stands around the country.

Levain Bakery

Levain Bakery, among best of New York City’s chocolate chip cookies, in my opinion, started when its owners were training for an Iron Man competition. Needing a good snack food for their workouts, they developed their highly regarded adaptation of the cookie. Luxury cookies baked by chocolatier Jacques Torres, City Bakery, Tate’s, Momofuko, and others have prompted numerous debates about the ideal proportion of chips to the dough, the size of the cookie round, how long the dough sits before baking, and, of course, choice of brand, type, and percentage of cacao in the chocolate. Of course, better quality chocolate yields tastier cookies. Need a recipe? Try this one.

We will soon find out if the winning cookie recipe of the 2020 election Presidential Bake-off contains chocolate chips. I bet it will.

Carolyn Wyman, The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book: Scrumptious Recipes & Fabled History From Toll House to Cookie Cake Pie (New York: Countryman Press, 2013), 25.

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