Visionary philosopher Brillat-Savarin said “The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star.” Most of us would agree that a wonderful culinary invention would make us happier than knowing Pluto’s planetary status. What if it were the invention of a new cookie? Now we’re talking happiness. One such great invention: The Toll House Cookie™. Most cookie lovers will agree that the invention of chocolate chip cookies ought to be ranked near the top on the New Dish Happiness List way ahead of turducken (strange and weird and can’t easily be made at home) and perhaps just under ice cream in terms of Happiness Generation Units in recognition of their continuing contributions to the welfare of all humankind.
The entire creation story of the Toll House Cookie™ is full of half-truths and outright misinformation. It’s time we knew the truth about the history of chocolate chip cookies.
Back in 1930 Ruth Wakefield and her husband Ken bought what would become the Toll House Inn, intending to open a restaurant. It was in a good location, on the road between Boston and Cape Cod. With Ruth Wakefield’s experience as a Home Economist and her skillful cooking, high standards, and favorite family recipes, they were successful their very first year. Former employees attribute that success to Ruth Wakefield’s strict attention to detail and insistence on providing excellent service in addition to delicious meals. She had rules about every little thing, including the exact distance from the edge of the table the silverware should be. (She has a whole chapter on setting the table in her book.) In countless interviews, former customers raved about her sticky pecan biscuits (recipe below) that were set on every table for guests to nibble on while they decided what to order. Famous food critic Duncan Hines (yes, the cake mix guy) was particularly fond of her Indian pudding. Joseph Kennedy Sr. was said to drop by frequently for Boston Cream Pie. The restaurant was such a family favorite that Rose Kennedy had the Toll House Inn send weekly care packages to her sons overseas during WWII (JFK was partial to their Mary Jane Gingerbread.) In numerous newspaper articles from the forties on, customers and employees interviewed praised the gracious service and the wonderful desserts (they had their own separate menu!) Does this sound like the kind of place run by a woman who didn’t know what she was doing in the kitchen?
One creation myth asserts that she just chopped up some chocolate and added it to cookie dough as a shortcut, expecting to get chocolate cookies. (I don’t think our Mrs. Wakefield, Registered Dietician, would stoop to shortcuts.) In the thirties the standard method for treating chocolate was to melt chocolate completely over a double boiler before adding it to batters. But she didn’t do that. She already knew how to make chocolate cookies. It wasn’t a rookie mistake. She didn’t “run out” of nuts and swap in chopped chocolate. Ruth Graves Wakefield had graduated from the Framingham State Normal School Department of Household Arts in 1924. She worked as a dietitian and had lectured on food. The recipe in her book, Toll House Tried and True Recipes (available here for free) that precedes the Toll House ™ Chocolate Crunch Cookies is for chocolate cookies made the traditional way. Both her cookbook and the Joy of Cooking from that time period have brown sugar- based butterscotch cookies that look similar to the Toll House base batter. The base recipe is right there in plain sight! The plain truth must not have been exciting enough for the advertising people.
Many stories claim that she was trying to add chocolate to an old colonial recipe called a “butter drop do.” This is easy enough to verify, since Amelia Simmons’ book (the first published work of American cooking) is available in facsimile form online. But this turns out to be a complete fabrication on the part of some advertising person who wanted to link the Toll House ™ Cookie to colonial cooking traditions. It has been repeated frequently without reporters questioning whether or not it is true. If we take a quick look at the text in question we can readily see that Amelia Simmons’ recipe can’t be the source: there is no such cookie recipe as a “butter drop do.” There is a listed variation on a gingerbread recipe, and variation number three is the one in question. It’s clear as day in the facsimile edition that it is NOT even called “Drop Do” at all. It is called Butter Drop and then D O with a period. D O with a period is a common 18th and 19th century abbreviation for DITTO. As in “another one of these gingerbread recipes, again, called butter drop, or butter drop, DITTO. Or another variation, called Butter Drop, Ditto (same procedure as above). Reporters just ate this fantasy up (Modernized Old Colonial recipe! Traditional recipe made modern!) and seemed to have never checked with anyone who had any background in colonial food history who could dispute this crazy Toll House™ origin theory. Almost every early article lazily refers to the Amelia Simmons’ first American Cookbook fairy tale without ever looking at the primary source. I read about those damn “Drop Do’s” everywhere. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A “DROP DO.”
Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery,” published in 1796, page 36:“Butter Drop Do. No. 3. Rub one quarter pound of butter, one pound sugar, sprinkle with mace,into one pound and a quarter flour, add four eggs, one glass rose water, bake as No. 1. [Bake 15 Minutes]”
As one reads the recipe above, please note that that there is no brown sugar (as in chocolate chip cookies) and it would make something completely different. One stick of butter plus a pound of sugar, mace (a spice related to nutmeg), four eggs and a glass of rose water (vanilla was not commonly used in Colonial era cooking) won’t make anything close to a chocolate chip cookie. Chocolate chip cookies use a combination of brown and white sugar, fewer eggs, more butter…the recipes are clearly not even related.
You’re probably asking yourself, well how do you know that “Do and a period’ is an abbreviation for Ditto? When I studied history, in the primary source texts I used for research (19th century Navy logs, among other things), it was a commonplace abbreviation. They were fond of writing “weather do.” which meant “Weather ditto, or weather the same as before.” Navy ship logs are quite laconic.
Abbreviations for “ditto” are also listed in several internet dictionaries. I rest my case about the Butter Drop Ditto fantasy. (I suspect Don Draper or his ilk had something to do with it.) Below is the autographed page in my copy of Ruth Graves Wakefield’s Toll House Tried and True Recipes. I found it in the Friends of the Library Sale for 50 cents several years ago. I only bought it out of curiosity; I didn’t know what it was or that it was signed by the author until I got it home and learned who she was.
Now that we have dismissed that whole “Butter Drop Do” fever dream as pure fiction, we’ll move on to the imaginary origin story recounted by a former chef at the Toll House, who claims (as some men are wont to do) that Actually It Was All His Doing. He says that while they were mixing a giant batch of cookie dough in the big mixer, the vibrations of the mixer caused bars of chocolate to “accidentally fall into” the cookie dough. This requires us to believe that those bars of chocolate (remember that chocolate chips do not yet exist) just happened to be unwrapped on the shelf above a mixer. (In a meticulous kitchen, run by the iron hand of a professional dietician.) He then claims that Mrs. Wakefield wanted to throw out the dough, but he talked her into using it, and the Toll House Cookie was born. How would those bars of chocolate (so thick and sturdy that cooks would have to chop them into bits with ice picks!) magically turn into chips in the mixer? And only you, the man, saw the potential of this? Sorry, Chef. Your story doesn’t make sense.
Years later, in an interview on the cookie’s anniversary, Mrs. Wakefield told a reporter that she was thinking about a new cookie to serve and came up with an idea she wanted to try involving her Butterscotch Nut Wafers and bits of chocolate, and that’s where the idea for the cookies came from. Even though she said this, most stories persist in ignoring the truth and using the fabrications. The truth is, Ruth Wakefield made experimental cookies until she got what she had in mind. It was a deliberate attempt on her part to make a new cookie. People loved them and started asking for the recipe, which the restaurant would happily provide. She didn’t think it was all that big a deal; they were only cookies, after all. She doesn’t even have a picture of the cookies in her Toll House cookbook. Her story is the most plausible of all (not just because it’s true) but because the recipes for those brown sugar cookies are in her book and a similar one is in the Joy of Cooking from this same time. She took an existing idea and improved it and invented the Cookie That Changed the World.
In 1939 the Toll House Restaurant and the Toll House ™ Cookie were featured on Betty Crocker’s popular radio show, “Famous Foods from Famous Places,” and interest in the new cookie spread from New England to the rest of the country. Nestle bought exclusive rights to the recipe and the use of the Toll House Name from the Wakefields in 1939. They started to sell the semisweet chocolate bars with little score marks in the chocolate so people could cut the pieces in just the right size. Then, in 1940, they introduced the Toll House ™ morsels (chocolate chips) so that bakers would not have to chip off bits of chocolate with an ice pick (thus the common name: chocolate chip).
Nestle printed the original recipe on the back of their semisweet bars and then on the packages of the chocolate morsels. They also advertised the heck out of them as a huge breakthrough in desserts, second only to ice cream.
“Such flavor! Wonderful Housekeeper!” (A 1940’s primitive example of doge -speak?)
Your soldier boy is far from home. Won’t you send him a batch of cookies? Do it to Save Democracy.
Many soldiers tasted chocolate chip cookies (formerly a Northeastern specialty) for the first time in USO canteens, and from other soldiers sharing with friends. They then requested them from home as well, and this, combined with Nestlé’s heavy advertising that baking these cookies was something women at home should do for soldiers away fighting for the American Way of Life might account for their increasing popularity outside of New England. That, plus they are delicious. Thus, when the post-war baby boom generation grew up eating chocolate chip cookies the die was cast: these would become our National Cookie. Just as France can claim the macaron, Scotland the shortbread cookie, Canada the Nanaimo Bar and Australia and New Zealand the ANZAC Biscuit, the Toll House™ cookie is our unofficial National Cookie.
Notice that they changed the ingredients (removing the water, possibly due to baking soda manufacturing changes), ditching the shortening for all butter, (which I can’t help but think is an improvement, but does make the cookies less crunchy), the prep–from greased baking sheets (which would make the cookies spread more, increasing crunch) to ungreased (reducing cookie spread, increasing chewiness), and lowered the baking temperature and time. The newer version of the recipe makes a larger, chewier, less crunchy cookie than the original.
Around this same time, entrepreneurs like Debbie Fields and others opened cookie stores featuring large, gooey (from under baking) chocolate chip cookies. The craze for larger cookies lasted many years, but eventually, like the recent cupcake boom and bust, the market was saturated and most stand-alone cookie stores closed. You can now buy giant chocolate chip cookies almost anywhere. But as we all know, nothing store-bought tastes like a warm homemade cookie.
According to Nestle, about half of ALL the homemade cookies baked in the United States are Toll House™ Cookies. Sales of both the morsels and the ready-bake dough go up the last quarter of the year, when cookie-lovers across the country bake chocolate chip cookies for the holidays. When asked, most cooks confess that the first thing they wanted to learn to bake were chocolate chip cookies. The best thing about baking them yourself, of course, is then you can sneak a taste of the forbidden fruit that is cookie dough, which might just be one of the best tasting things in the universe. Eating raw store-bought dough is so common a practice that a few years ago about 70 people fell ill with salmonella from the practice.
Investigators eventually determined that the culprit was contaminated flour; they use pasteurized flour and eggs now. If pressed, many people will confess that they still eat some or all of the store-bought cookie dough raw, some buying it just for that purpose. (Speaking in my capacity as a mom, you shouldn’t eat raw dough.) On the Nestle Ready-to-Bake packaging, they quite sternly state DO NOT CONSUME RAW COOKIE DOUGH (I confess to taking a forbidden taste of homemade cookie dough every time I bake, for quality control reasons of course).
One of Ben and Jerry’s™ most popular ice cream flavors is cookie dough, which they traditionally mixed to order in their store. They say that they got the idea from an unknown customer’s suggestion. Cookie dough ice cream is an amazing invention. I can recall a time as a child before things like cookie dough ice cream existed; those years were like the black and white parts of the movie Pleasantville. Nothing was mixed into ice cream but a few meager butter pecans or some random streaks of chocolate or strawberry goop. It was a plain food wasteland until the seventies, which will go down in history as the Dawn of the Golden Age of Food Combining. cookie dough in ice cream, our innovators said (as innovators will): Why the hell NOT? (During this same time period, “Cookies and Cream,” with crushed Oreos™, was invented as well.)
Ben and Jerry recall that they had a devil of a time figuring out how to get the cookie dough lumps distributed evenly throughout the ice cream in the factory without hand mixing it. It seemed like cookie dough ice cream would only be available in their physical stores. But after almost five years of experiments, a baker friend suggested that they shoot specially shaped pieces of cookie dough into the soft ice cream during the manufacturing process. Their soon-to-be best-selling ice cream was then finally released to the world, increasing Global Happiness by many points.
Like most of us, I have very fond memories associated with baking chocolate chip cookies. Baking cookies and sharing them is a great way to entertain friends. I baked many batches of cookies with guys that I was dating in high school and college. They were all enthusiastic about participating. (My husband recalls being quite taken by my baking skills when we were dating. His mother was not a baker.) Most teenagers are just happy to eat cookie dough and fresh cookies, and as long as your dough and cookies come out reasonably edible, this is a valid dating strategy: bake some chocolate chip cookies together. This works equally well for adults of all genders. Baking plus chocolate is a known aphrodisiac.
Once I was offered a job on a campaign, which, on the surface, might have been because of my non-baking skill-set, but I’m pretty sure that the candidate would not have even thought of me for the job if he hadn’t eaten dozens of my oatmeal chocolate chip cookies every time he came by the office.
Most of us have happy Toll House memories, but John Thorne wrote of a sad experience as a child coming home from school to see what he thought were chocolate chip cookies cooling on the counter, but which a bite revealed to be oatmeal raisin instead (!!!) Don’t let this happen to you! Keep your oatmeal raisin cookies strictly quarantined from the chocolate chip; when people hate raisins in their cookies they hate with the fire of a thousand burning suns, probably from a traumatic childhood cookie misidentification, such as John Thorne’s. Don’t be the cause of childhood trauma. Raisin-based cookies should be privately baked, clearly labeled, and separately stored (and according to my husband and kids, thrown in the trash).
Every four years the media makes a big deal out of a First Lady Cookie Bake-off, where the competing candidates’ spouses submit their “family recipe.” It’s no coincidence that the winning recipes usually contain chocolate chips. Many a baking reputation has been made with a skillful variation on the Toll House™ dough. Margaret Fox, former chef-owner of the famous Cafe Beaujolais in Mendocino, CA claims that she got her start as a chef by baking and selling Congo Bars. (Congo Bars are a bar variation of the chocolate chip cookie, baked with added coconut.)
Christina Tosi of the famous Momofuku Milk Bar makes a variation of a chocolate chip cookie she calls Compost Cookies that many New Yorkers are addicted to; her cookie contains chocolate chips, pretzel pieces, potato chips, ground coffee and other secret possibly magical things.
The chocolate chip cookie is the pizza of the cookie world: the possible variations are endless.
At this point in the story, perhaps you, Gentle Reader, are thinking, “What is the secret to making these fabulous cookies?” It’s no secret that if you use really good ingredients, follow baking recipes exactly (until you know what you’re doing) and share the cookies good fortune will follow.
If you already know how to bake you know what to do. If you don’t, please note that “baking” is not improvisational like cooking: it’s more like chemistry. Every ingredient has a part to play in the chocolate chip cookie symphony.
The following are the recipes I mentioned above, with my own annotations to assist you in your quest for Cookie Nirvana. I can’t guarantee marriage proposals and job offers (YMMV) but you will be mixing up some serious happiness, just like Ruth Graves Wakefield.
Universally popular, in our solar system and beyond.
The recipe below has been ever so slightly amended by me to make it easier for a cook not from 1930 to know what to do.
Famous Toll House Butterscotch Pecan Biscuits (these were served in a basket to each table in the restaurant when customers first sat down to nibble on while they decided what to order)
Prepared biscuit dough. (Any biscuit recipe that uses 2 cups of flour will work)
Melted butter (I used 6 tablespoons)
Brown sugar (recipe doesn’t say how much; Oh you old time recipes! I used about ¼ cup on the biscuit dough and about that much on the pan prep)
About 1 cup pecans (recipe says halves but I used chopped because that’s what I had.)
Walnuts or sliced almonds would work just as well.
After my first try at this, I used a 9 inch cake pan, covered the bottom with parchment paper, because butter and brown sugar makes molten lava that can burn on to your pan. This was obviously not a concern at the restaurant — they had a dishwashing staff. So, butter your parchment or foil lined (either 9-inch round or 9-inch square) baking pan (you’ll thank me later) and festoon the bottom with half of the melted butter and brown sugar and half of the pecans.
Pat dough out to ¼-inch thickness. Brush generously with the rest of the melted butter, and sprinkle with brown sugar. Cover with the other half of the pecans or other nuts and roll up dough like a jelly roll. Cut in one inch thick slices and place close together cut side up in the pan which you have buttered and sprinkled with brown sugar and pecans. Bake in 400-degree F oven for 12-15 minutes. Remove from pan (recipe says immediately but molten sugar is HOT and you can get burned. I’d wait about 5 minutes, and use a spatula or fork to separate the rolls (not your fingers, trust me) and serve butterscotch side up.
These were a BIG HIT chez me and the testers had many suggestions for variations, including adding cinnamon to make cinnamon biscuits, adding chopped or grated apples rolled up with the nuts or instead of the nuts, and using cheddar cheese instead of pecans and brown sugar.
Nut Tea Wafers – this is the foundation recipe of the Toll House™ Cookie and pretty good by themselves. These are refrigerator cookies. The dough is easy to make in advance and keep on hand in the freezer for cookie emergencies.
½ cup (I stick) butter
1 cup brown sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla (I added more than this and you should too)
1 ¼ cups flour
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ cup chopped nuts (if you toast the nuts slightly first they will be even more flavorful)
Cream the butter and sugar together, and then add the egg and vanilla. In a separate bowl mix the flour with the baking soda and salt. Add to butter and sugar and egg mixture, then add nuts. Divide in half and pack dough into two 8×5” bread pans and cover and chill overnight or freeze for longer storage.
When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375F. Turn out of pans, decide how big you want your cookies (I sliced my rectangle in half long ways and then into slices.) Slice dough as thinly as possible. Mine were less than ¼ inch thick. Bake about 7-10 minutes. I’m not sure exactly many there were because helpers ate some dough and cookies.
My Version of Chocolate Chip Cookies (these are chewy/crunchy variety)
1 cup butter (that is two sticks)
¾ cup brown sugar (I use dark brown)
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 eggs, beaten (I break them into a measuring cup or bowl and beat lightly with a fork)
2 teaspoons vanilla (that’s 1 extra because why not? I make my own vanilla, see below)
2 cups and 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (I’ve substituted 1 cup whole wheat flour here with excellent results)
1 teaspoon salt (if you use salted butter use ½ teaspoon)
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups chocolate chips
1 cup nuts if desired (some people love nuts, some don’t. If baking for others I never add them, because some people are allergic)
I cut the firm, but not ice-cold butter up and put it in the mixing bowl and cream it with the sugars until it is super fluffy. Then I always add more vanilla than the recipe says because I’m a ninja warrior of baking. I indicated two teaspoons above because that’s what I add. Add your eggs to the sugar/butter mixture and blend well. Then add the flour which you have previously mixed with the baking soda and salt. Fold in the chips, nuts, cut up bars of chocolate, Halloween candy, pretzel pieces, peanut butter cups, whatever you have. Then, THIS IS IMPORTANT — put it in the fridge to chill. DO IT. If you like your cookies chewy, this is a vital step. (At least three hours minimum chilling.) Now, on the other hand, if you are a crispy crunchy person, forget all that, and don’t chill the dough. Most people like chewy cookies, with crunchy outside and chewy middles. Other people like them flat and crunchy. You do you.
When you are ready to bake, preheat your oven to 350F. I put parchment paper on my baking sheets. You could also use foil: if using foil, lightly grease the foil.
You have a choice here – do you want to make 6-inch cookies like gourmet store-bought ones, only better, or do you want to make normal sized 3 1/2-inch ones? If making 6-inch sized, use a ⅓ cup measuring cup and level the dough with a dampened spatula, a greased bottom of a glass, or (shhh) your fingers. You can put three giant cookie scoops on a sheet. I smoosh them down to about 5 inches in diameter. Then I bake 13 to 15 minutes — I do a test one first to see how long. Every oven is different. The cookies look done when they have puffed up and then unpuffed a little and are firm but not hard when touched in the center. Let them cool until you bite one, molten chocolate is HOT.
If you are baking normal sized cookies, make one inch sized scoops of dough (I use a tablespoon cookie scoop that looks like a mini-ice cream scoop so they are all the same size). Make sure you space them far enough apart on the baking sheet, they will spread to three inches. This size takes 12-14 minutes depending on your oven, altitude and atmospheric conditions. Cool about 5 minutes, slide gently off baking sheet to complete cooling.
After they have cooled I keep them in a sealed cookie jar so they stay crunchy/chewy. (It’s humid in Virginia.)
They freeze well, and if you are baking for the holidays this is an excellent strategy.
This recipe makes about 4 dozen 3 ½ in smaller cookies or about twenty six inch sized.
Now you can have some serious fun.
Make chocolate chocolate chip cookies by adding ½ cup unsweetened cocoa and reduce the flour by two tablespoons.
Make them mocha by adding two tablespoons instant coffee when you add the eggs
Add a cup of crushed granola instead of nuts.
Add a cup of your favorite cereal, slightly crushed – corn flakes, chex, Cap’n Crunch, Wheaties, Cocoa Krispies.
Add a cup of different chips – cappuccino, cinnamon, white chocolate, mini chips, chopped up Halloween mini bars, peanut butter cups, crushed malted milk balls
If you want to go chewier, use 1 cup brown and ½ cup white sugar
I make my own vanilla and you can too. Take a clean jar (I use a jam jar that holds about 12 oz.) and put a couple cut-up vanilla beans in it. Cover with liquor of your choice. I have had jars of vanilla brandy, rum, bourbon and vodka. I like brandy best. Shake every few days for a couple weeks and then use in your baking. This also makes a great easy- to- make gift for baking or drinking friends. I just keep replenishing the liquor and every six months or so I throw in another vanilla bean.
For gifts, I put it in an ornamental jar and attach a pretty label and ribbon. A whole set of different vanillas would be an impressive gift. Also try adding lemon or orange peel to a jar of your vanilla. Your cakes and cookies will thank you.
Now that you too have won hearts and minds with your baking, let us together raise a toast to Ruth Graves Wakefield, who not only thought outside the box by adding chopped up chocolate to cookie dough when no one had ever done so before, but was smart enough to recognize that it was an idea worth pursuing.