Every year Hixson hosts a cookie contest at their employee picnic. This year my oldest son and I judged the contest, along with a handful of other interested people who were willing to wade through tasting about a baker’s dozen homemade delights. Tuxedo Bites, Lemon Squares, Nutkins, Thumbprint, Old-fashioned Peanut Butter, Soft Chocolate Chip, Zebra Kisses, Salted Peanut Crisps, and Chocolate Peanut Chip lined the old wooden bar at the boat club. “Take a bite of each and vote on your top three favorites”, were our judging instructions.
Heading into the competition I was fully prepared to vote for something different, an unusual cookie that tickled my taste buds. I did what I was told (typical middle child) and tasted bite after bite. For some reason, despite the flavor contrast in the Salted-Peanut Crisps, or the nutty sweetness of the Nutkins, I kept returning to the Soft Chocolate Chip cookies. The distribution of chips tasted heavenly and the edges were slightly crisp, with a just-baked-soft center. I cast my vote, my son followed suit, and the winners were announced: Tuxedo Bites, Lemon Squares and….. Nutkins. My beloved softies sat scorned on their oblong, yellow platter.
A few days later a recipe book with all cookie contest recipes arrived in my kitchen. I furiously flipped through the pages dying to know what secret ingredient created the just-baked softness in my favorite of the cookie contest. The ingredient list seemed perfectly normal: flour, baking soda, butter, brown and white sugar, eggs, vanilla extract, chocolate chips, chopped walnuts, instant vanilla pudding mix. What, instant vanilla pudding mix in the cookies?.
You must know, if you’re not already aware, I tend to be somewhat of a purist when it comes to baking and even cooking. You know my type – real butter, pure vanilla extract, large fresh eggs. If I’m going to bake, I’m going to bake with simple, fresh ingredients. No “just add vanilla pudding mix” baking for me.
The next few times I shopped I neglected to buy pudding mix. Then my youngest son was prescribed to wear a retainer, glued into his mouth, for one week. In a search for soft food and convenience I picked up a few boxes of pudding mix. Then I remembered the cookies and the recipe. The deal was sealed.
The cookies turned out even better than I expected. The slightly-crisp edges and just-baked soft centers were just as I remembered.
In a recent New York Times article, “Perfection? Hint: It’s Warm and Has a Secret”, David Leite makes a quest to discover the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe. On his journey he discusses cookie recipe nuances with pastry chefs, bakery owners, and food scientists (including my friend, Shirley Corriher), and makes a strong case for canonizing Ruth Wakefield of the Toll House Inn, creator of the iconic chocolate chip cookie. In the end he presents a recipe that uses bread flour and a 36-hour refrigeration for the dough. Deterred by leaving the dough in the refrigerator for 36 hours (doesn’t meet my need for instant gratification) his recipe sits in my files unbaked. I guess in the meantime I’ll keep baking the Soft Chocolate Chip Cookies. To be fair, I should try his recipe too.