Formative Food Memories: Chocolate Chip Cookies

Chocolate chip cookies were one of the first things I learned to cook on my own. I always loved helping my mother make Toll House Cookies from the recipe on the back of the yellow bag. I loved turning the sifter, looking at the flour-baking soda-salt mixture, touching its aerated softness. When the first sheet came out of the oven, my mother would point to one and whisper that it was about to go bad. “You better eat that one before somebody sees that it’s spoiled,” she’d say. I was always up to the task.

Once, Mom made a joke about how the sifted flour looked like snow, and I ran to put on my toboggan and mittens. She laughed so hard. I don’t know if I really thought it was snowing, hoped it was snowing, or just wanted to make her smile. Probably all three.

I was friends with a girl named Tracey when I was in 8th grade, and one of us gave the other this cookbook of chocolate-chip cookie recipes. We made several of them together, but the one we kept returning to was the chocolate-chip cookie-pizza, a gingivitis-inducing confection studded with miniature marshmallows.

In high school, my friend Meredith’s mom gave me her family recipe for chocolate-chip cookies, which I unfortunately don’t seem to have any longer. (Mer’s mom made all kinds of great stuff, like tangy sourdough bread and a cheesecake with the alluring fragrance of amaretto.) Her eyes widened as she showed me the recipe, and her fingers pointed to the line calling for butter or margarine. “You can make these with either, but if you use the butter…oooh.” I don’t think I’ve used margarine in my chocolate-chip cookies since.

I later made those cookies at the beach on spring break with friends, and I banished anybody who tried to snitch one from the kitchen. I wanted the cookies for after dinner, when everybody would be in the house and I could enjoy watching all my friends attacking them at once. My friend Alan stationed himself near the growing pile of cookies with a fly swatter to keep teenage hands at bay. Then Johnny asked me seriously why I was keeping everybody from the cookies like that. He was right; he understood the joy in wandering into a kitchen to investigate that inimitable smell and grabbing a warm cookie off the rack. I didn’t relent that day, but I did learn something about the right and wrong way to be generous.

In college, I didn’t have a mixer, so I’d make chocolate-chip cookies using a bowl and a spoon. I baked them in my dorm kitchen, in my friends’ kitchens off campus, when I was at home with my parents. I continued making them by hand until my husband and I were given a mixer as a wedding gift. I think learning to work a cookie dough by hand is a useful skill and very satisfying, plus it burns off a few of the calories I’m about to ingest. It makes me appreciate my KitchenAid mixer that much more.

I made thousands of chocolate-chip cookies in a Hobart mixer when I was the chef for a sorority. My first week on the job, I made an enormous quantity of them for the weekly pre-meeting all-sisters-on-deck dinner. One girl popped her head in the kitchen and told me the cookies were “off the hook.” I’m so uncool, I didn’t realize this was a compliment until much later. I found that chocolate-chip cookies were a great way to endear visiting fraternity brothers to the sisters of the sorority that I worked for. Chocolate-chip cookies are the American version of madeleines: they are evocative of memory, possibly more so than any other pastry.

(Periodically, I’m going to add some food memories to this blog–as much for my own documentation as for your enjoyment.)

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