Nine p.m., Thursday. All I want to do is download a couple of episodes of The Office and relax with my husband while he rubs my feet. But just as I'm sending the nine-year-old off to bed, he drops the bomb: "It's our week for treats at school tomorrow." I didn't even bother to look for the crumpled-up memo in his backpack. I knew it would be there. This was my third snack attack of the year. "That's why I always have tubes of cookie dough in the freezer," advised my sister-in-law when I called to commiserate. That was enough to send me searching through the stores and ringing up girlfriends for a taste-off of chocolate chip cookies made from store-bought dough. I ended up with nine doughs and four friends: Cherie, Sophia, MaryAnn, and Julie. "The things you make us do," complained MaryAnn. "Actually, I'm PMSing, so I could use the chocolate."
Before tasting, everyone weighed in on the perfect cookie. Cherie spoke first: "a chocolate chip cookie should be crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside, and you must use bittersweet chocolate. I get that crispiness by using about half as much butter as the recipe calls for, and I cook them fast at a high temperature." Sophia agreed -- mostly. "The chocolate must be dark, and the inside should be gooey. But, also, the dough must be quite sweet, and it has to have nuts in it." "No nuts," countered Julie. "I'm a purist. Just dough and chips...lots of them. And it should be chewy, not soft." "No, no," argued MaryAnn. "The cookie has got to be thick and soft, like a gentle pillow. I use only dark brown sugar -- no white -- and semi-sweet chips." "Well, I'm running this tasting," I pronounced, "and I like a very crisp cookie with a sparse sprinkling of chips." With that, we set to baking and tasting.
We started with the legend -- Nestle Toll House (18 oz., 24 cookies, $3.99 at Vons). Julie and I both admired the crispy texture, but the milk chocolate -- those famous tollhouse morsels -- was nearly tasteless. "It's the white bread of cookies," quipped MaryAnn, and nobody argued. Pillsbury (18 oz., 24 cookies, $3.99 at Vons) was also crunchy, but so much so that it seemed to have no substance. "That's why you need a soft, pillowy cookie," said MaryAnn. "It makes your teeth feel like they're not wasting their time." Pillsbury won out over Nestle in the chips department, however -- score one for Hershey's milk chocolate chunks. They also beat out the chocolate in the Safeway cookie dough (18 oz., 20 cookies, $2.50 at Vons) -- "dark and dry, without much flavor," noted Cherie, although the store brand won out on texture: crunchy around the rim and chewy-gooey inside.
Things heated up some with Gluten Freedas Chip, Chip, Hooray Wheat-Free cookies (16 oz., 12 cookies, $6.99 at Whole Foods). "This is the perfect dipping cookie," marveled MaryAnn. "Pillowy inside, crisp outside, with the perfect amount of chocolate." "Ooh," moaned Julie, "and it's flaky, sugary, and buttery." "Don't you mean grainy?" asked Cherie. "And the chocolate is too sweet!" MaryAnn pounded her fist on the counter. "Wrong, wrong, wrong! This cookie is perfect!"
I quickly intervened, passing around the Trader Joe's Chunky Chocolate Chip cookie (16 oz., 16 cookies, $6.99 ). The debate ended instantly. "Oh, my God, it's good," both women raved. "The toffee flavor must come from their using lots of dark sugar," suggested MaryAnn. "This is the perfect classic chocolate chip cookie," agreed Cherie. "Good chocolate, balanced flavor, dough that's not too sweet."
We left classic behind with Tom's All-Natural Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip cookies (16 oz., 16 cookies, $4.39 at Whole Foods). "They're getting stuck in my teeth," complained Julie. "It's soft, but the peanut-butter flavor is overwhelming. I can't taste any chocolate."
Then we got fancy. Turns out Extraordinary Desserts is selling cookie dough now (16 oz., 12 large cookies, $8.95 ). We tried three varieties: cherry chocolate chip, simply Valrohna chocolate chip, and Valrohna triple chocolate. Sophia came to life. "You know, I'll eat almost anything, even bad hot dogs. But when it comes to sweets, I'm a snob, and I haven't liked any of these cookies. But these look promising."
Our first contestant, the plain chocolate chip cookie, did not fulfill the promise. Cherie screwed up her face. "The texture is grainy, and the cookie just isn't sweet enough to match the rich chocolate. But the chocolate is great." However, all our disappointment was wiped away by our first bite of the cherry chocolate chip. The litany of praises poured forth: "chewy," "pillowy," "amazing chocolate," "flavorful," "walnuts to die for." Only Julie demurred. "Nuts and fruit don't belong in a chocolate chip cookie." We ate her share.
The triple chocolate fared just as well. "Spot-on texture," said MaryAnn. "Like a brownie. And the dough balances the sweetness of the chips, even though it's chocolate, too. The whole thing is sweet without being cloying."
I'll be keeping the Trader Joe's cookie in my freezer for snack attacks, but the stuff from Extraordinary Desserts could finish off a casual dinner party. I called the store for a word or two. "The dough will keep in your fridge for several weeks, and you can also freeze it," said the sales clerk. "Just let it defrost overnight in the refrigerator before you use it."
She gave me a word on ingredients as well. "We use Valrohna chocolate -- it's a high-end French baking chocolate. In the regular chocolate chip cookie, we use dark chocolate, and we also use three different shades of brown sugar." Same goes for the triple chocolate cookie, which also incorporates semi-sweet and milk chocolates. "The cherry chocolate chip has only one kind of brown sugar and dark chocolate, plus the dried cherries and walnuts. It's a very moist cookie."