Myth Busting in the Kitchen
With this blog posting, you will be getting two recipes for the price of one (They pay?). Several years ago I encountered a myth (in an email) that told of a woman who liked the cookies at a Nieman Marcus coffee shop in Dallas so much that she wanted the recipe. They put the charge on her bill, “two fifty”, which turned about to be $250, rather than the $2.50 she expected. As the story was told, she decided to publish the recipe over the then-new Internet as revenge for the charge. Tom, a friend of mine from Dallas assured me that the Nieman Marcus store there had no such coffee shop, so it must be a hoax, and so it was. The recipe however looked like a good one, and I decided to try it out one day. Well, the day is upon us.
There is another little wrinkle; Neiman Marcus decided this was a marketing opportunity, and published their own, somewhat different recipe on the Internet, which they give away for free, as they do all of their recipes. I thought, “Why not try that one too, and see which was better.” So, it's a contest. By the way, the details of this urban myth can be found on snopes.com and several other sites. The old recipe came from my archives, but you can find that online too.
From a baking perspective, there is nothing special about either recipe. You cream the butter, combine the dry ingredients and add the chocolate. They are then drop cookies, although one recipe flattens them (and I consider this optional). Some of the ingredients are the main differentiator.
The $250 Cookie
The original (urban myth, 1980s) recipe is notable for the variety of its chocolate, and perhaps the processing of the oatmeal. Apart from that and the story, it is fairly ordinary.
Processing the oatmeal is simple, just drop it into the blender and turn it on to about medium speed. Let it run for a few minutes, until the consistency is like a very coarse wheat flour.
Grating chocolate, on the other hand, can be a bit challenging, but keeping it chilled in warm weather helps. Wrap the doubled bar in a paper towel, and grate with a box grater. Warmer chocolate will yield long strings; colder chocolate produces small chunks and powder. The latter mixes better in this dough. I also used an extra ounce of chips, since I had them from the later recipe. I'm glad I did.
I strongly recommend a stand mixer for both the creaming and combining the final dough. I was (barely) able to mix everything together with a strong hand mixer, but I would have used a stand mixer if I had one. I just don't do enough of this kind of cooking to justify one. The other, and cheaper, accessory I would recommend is a scoop for portioning the dough for the individual cookies. I haven't found one I like yet. The next recipe calls for one.
Even with a stand mixer you will need to scrape the sides of the bowl a time or two.
(This is the halved recipe; which was plenty for me. The larger size may have been intended to make it appear as a recipe for a larger operation):
1 cup butter (two sticks), softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup flour (I favor unbleached)
2½ cups oatmeal, blended (see below)
½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
2 oz. chocolate chips (left over from the recipe below)
½ of an 8 oz. Hershey bar (grated) (The Extra Large Hershey Milk Chocolate bar is now 4.4 oz.; I used that)
1½ cups chopped nuts (your choice; I used pecans)
Put oatmeal in blender and blend to a fine powder, the consistency of [very] coarse flour.
Pre-heat oven to 375 F. Cream the butter and both sugars.
Add eggs and vanilla; mix together with flour, oatmeal, salt, baking powder, and soda. These should be sifted or mixed together in advance.
Add chocolate chips, Hershey bar shreds and nuts. Roll into sub-golfball sized balls and place two inches apart on a cookie sheet.
Bake for 10 minutes, until browned at the edges. Place on cooling rack.
Makes 56 cookies.
With all that butter, you would think that you wouldn't need to grease the cookie sheet, but we would be wrong. A spritz of cooking spray for each batch helps. At this temperature the sugar sticks to the pan. The cookie coming out of the oven has flattened itself, and is not very cohesive. Wait for a few minutes before removing them from the sheet onto the cooling rack.
Neiman Marcus Strikes Back
The later (Neiman Marcus, 1995) version is even more conventional, and a bit smaller size (I didn't need halve this one). It has fewer, and lighter, ingredients, lacking the oatmeal and with only half the butter and eggs, and a lot less sugar, but adds a bit of instant coffee powder for flavor, and bakes longer in a cooler oven. Espresso coffee powder is less common these days, but is available in your average grocery.
This too is a straightforward recipe to follow. Cream the butter and sugars as usual, if goes very quickly if the butter is soft enough, and a bit slower if it is still somewhat chilled. Then add such wet ingredients as there are, an egg and vanilla extract. Follow with the flour with the baking powder and soda mixed in. You can use a hand mixer for this much with no problems. This mixture is not as stiff as the above recipe. The expresso powder happens to be the contents of one serving, at least for the powder I used. Depending on your taste, you may want to dial this back to one teaspoon of the powder. I found the full amount a bit over the top. At this point, I added a cup of coarsely ground pecans (not in the recipe), to match the earlier recipe, and because I just like the flavor. The mixture is stiff now, but not as bad as above. Finally add the chocolate chips and stir, either with the hand mixer on low, or with a wooden spoon. That's it.
I spritzed the cookie sheet before the first batch, but didn't need subsequent greasing. Now use the cookie scoop, heavily loaded to portion out the cookies. I broke down and bought one at Crate and Barrel, and I was glad I did. It was much easier and faster than using spoons to do this. I did not smash them down, and I am happy with that decision as well. The result is a much prettier cookie than the earlier recipe. They look like chocolate chip cookies are supposed to look. The texture is nice too, with a nice crispy bottom and chewy interior.
½ cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1 cup light brown sugar
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 large egg
2 tsp. Vanilla extract
1¾ cups all-purpose flour (again, I favor unbleached)
½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
1½ tsp. Instant espresso coffee powder (I used Folgers Fresh Breaks Black Silk)
1½ cups semi-sweet chocolate chips (9.4 oz.)
Preheat oven to 300 F. Cream the butter with the sugars until fluffy using an electric mixer on medium speed (approximately 30 seconds).
Beat in the egg and vanilla extract for another 30 seconds.
In a mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and baking soda and beat into the butter mixture at low speed for about 15 seconds. Stir in the espresso coffee powder and the chocolate chips.
Using a 1-ounce scoop or 2-tablespoon measure, drop cookies onto a greased cookie sheet about 3 inches apart. Gently press down on the dough with the back of a spoon to spread out into a 2-inch circle.
Bake for about 23 minutes, or until nicely browned around the edges. Bake a little longer for a crispy cookie.
Makes 2 dozen cookies.
And the Winner Is!
This is a tough decision. There are a number of dimensions to the question of which is the better cookie; appearance, texture, mouth feel, and of course taste. Lets call the $250 recipe cookie A, and the Nieman Marcus recipe cookie B.
Cookie B wins on appearance, yielding a fairly fat cookie with a nice distribution of chips visible. Cookie A is thin and almost lace-like, with thin or empty areas among the cookie lumps.
I like the texture of Cookie A a bit better. I think it's the oatmeal. The same goes for the mouth feel.
The taste is harder still. I liked the strong chocolate flavor of Cookie B, but it is almost too strong. Cookie A is more balanced, and brings out the pecan flavors better. The butter flavor is nicer too.
So for me Cookie A is the best, but don't take my word for it, try them both yourself and leave your comments with your choice.