Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Doubleplusgood Choco Chip Biscuits


There are some foodstuffs the English do very well. Beer, for example. And roast lamb. They have an amazing variety of potato chips, too, imbuing the humble "crisp" (as they call it) with all sorts of exotic flavors. Then there are the things the English don't do very well, or don't do at all. I'm talking about the cookie.

The English don't even have cookies. They have biscuits, which aren't really the same thing at all. There is a place for a biscuit--dipped in a mug of milky tea, for example--but it doesn't satisfy the longing, the craving, that an American feels for a cookie. I hope I will get no argument if I suggest that the king of the cookie is the mighty chocolate chip.

You never notice how ubiquitous the chocolate chip cookie is in the United States until you are denied it. It has become such a part of the landscape that you can purchase one literally almost anywhere. I guarantee you that eight out of 10 cash registers in America have a stack of chocolate chip cookies next to them, wrapped up in plastic and awaiting that impulse buyer. We Americans consider the chocolate chip cookie a birthright, like potable water and easy access to firearms.

That isn't the case in Britain. This isn't to say that chocolate chip cookies are completely unknown. There's a stand called Ben's Cookies in Oxford's historic Covered Market that sells something it calls a chocolate chip cookie. But it has a disappointingly cakey mouthfeel, not the satisfyingly granular mouthfeel of a true CCC. And you can buy factory-made chocolate chip cookies at the grocery store. The brand names they go by suggest that the Brits are trying to capture some of that American magic, even if they are a bit misguided:

marylandccc
Funny, I don't really think of Maryland (or "Merry-land," as an English person would say) when I think of chocolate chip cookies. Then again, nor do I think of Tennessee:

tennesseeccc
The Tennessee High Quality Chocolate Chunk Cookies are actually made in Germany, where they apparently have less of a grasp of that particular baked good than in England. (I love that little picture of the antebellum mansion.) I suppose I should be thankful I'm not shopping in Japan, where the brand name would probably be something like HomeRun Armadillo Cookie Chip.

How do Maryland and Tennessee chocolate chip cookies taste? Not that good, though you will notice that both those packages are empty, so they must be good enough. Luckily, My Lovely Wife, after much experimentation, has successfully baked real, American-style chocolate chip cookies in our idiosyncratic little cooker. Hopefully we can get through the next five months without withdrawal symptoms kicking in.

I Heart My Heart
Of course, I shouldn't be eating these things at all given that they aren't the healthiest of choices. But I strive for moderation in all things, which is sort of the point of a little piece I have in today's Washington Post Health section. It's about how my life has changed since having a heart attack in 2001. I'll be chatting live with web readers toay at noon Eastern Standard Time (5 p.m. here in Britain). If you want to join us, just go here.

I Don't Know the Muffin, Man
We Americans are no better when it comes to geographically mis-named food. "English" muffins, anyone? A British person would look at you blankly if you asked for one. Not that I recommend the English tea cake, a baked good beloved of little old ladies in tea shops. It resembles nothing so much as the bottom half of a toasted hamburger bun. That's pretty much what it tastes like, too.

For sheer breakfast grotesquery, nothing can compete with the American Cinnabon. Talk about a heart attack on a plate....

19 comments:

Jo said...

We actually made Alton's Brown chocolate chip cookie recipe this past weekend as well, just a few blocks away from you. Took a couple dozen cookies to an Oxford student party and watched them get hoovered up. Those students now mistakenly think that I am some sort of baking goddess. It's a secret weapon.

Anonymous said...

I was surprised to see the cookies when I opened your web page just now. I had read your piece about having a heart attack in your thirties in the Post this morning. I like the part about not shoveling snow. Now I feel like having cookies for breakfast.

Candadai Tirumalai said...

The English are amused by the American pronunciation of Birmingham but they themselves don't do very well with Maryland or Michigan (the "ch" in the latter made to sound like that in "church").
I heard of an American graduate student who practically lived on chocolate chip cookies while writing a seminar paper.

Arlene said...

I was just in Oxford a month ago and happened to partake of Ben's "Cookies." Disappointing to say the least, cookie-wise, although it hit the spot, sweets-wise. I liked how they sold milk with it, as well.

SuburbanCorrespondent said...

The one time I lived abroad, chocolate chip cookies were what I missed also. The ones where I were were too cake-y and the wrong sort of sweet, if that makes any sense whatsoever.

Totally missed your article this morning - thanks for the heads up!

MARY said...

Cool tour of the "Covered Market". Just be careful not to move the curser too fast, or you're lible end up "toss" those cookies of yours.

Your Brother said...

Is it just me or is your photo on the Post's page a bit....blue? Sort of like you’ve been the victim of some sinister silver poisoning. Maybe it's just in keeping with my reddish hue and that if we'd had a 3rd blood sibling they would be greenish in completion thus completing the RGB trifecta.
Will they stop Granny Jill at the border if I smuggle some NestlĂ© Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies in her carry-on? Hmmm, either way would be interesting…..

Anonymous said...

But you have Hob Nobs! I love Hob Nobs.

mary said...

Dear Brother: It's you. He actually looks a tad bit orange.

Anonymous said...

I thought John's teeth looked a little "grey". Maybe he needs some Crest white strips.

Christopher said...

The absence of proper chocolate chip cookies will only make them taste better when you return to the States. In the meantime, may I suggest the (dark) chocolate covered digestive? I envy your ready access to these simple yet delicious, yes, biscuits. It's all the more frustrating because now that I have acquired a taste for them, I've never seen a recipe for home-made digestives, whereas making chocolate chip cookies from scratch is relatively easy.

Anonymous said...

My husband looked up from the Post as we sat at breakfast and asked, "Is this the John Kelly you're always talking about?" Good to see you on their pages again. If I had an address I'd mail you some good cookies.

John Kelly said...

I felt bad blogging about chocolate chip cookies--and posting that mouth-watering photo--on a day I'd written about heart attacks. I should have written about how much I love rolled oats and riding my bike.

The digestive--chocolate or otherwise-is not something that should be made at home. It must be made by machines, machines that have been in continuous use since Victorian times. You could try to make one yourself, but it'd be like trying to make an Oreo. Why bother?

That photo of me is widely known as The Worst Photo Ever Taken of a Human. I had left orders that it be destroyed but apparently they were not followed.

Anonymous said...

It's worse than that, John. The Post is actually selling copies of that photo. You should demand a percentage.

DLD

MARY said...

"Steel Cut" oats are the best for you and whatever ails you. Try it. They are kind of chewy, but once you get used to it, it's really delicious.

Philip Coyne said...

Hi John
Given your recent article in the Post regarding your cardiac event, I thought you'd like this clip from The Onion:

Study: Use Of Phrase 'Don't Skimp On The' Linked To Heart Disease

February 15, 2008 | Issue 44•07

DALLAS—According to a study published Monday by the American Heart Association, people who frequently start sentences with the phrase "don't skimp on the" are 40 percent more likely to develop some form of heart disease. "Use of the phrase poses a very serious health risk, especially when the speaker is in close proximity to mayonnaise," said Dr. Keith Logsdon, a leading cardiovascular researcher and chief author of the study. "We have also found data suggesting that the seemingly benign utterance 'just a sliver' could be equally detrimental to heart health, particularly when used three to four times in the span of an hour." Since completing the study, Logsdon and his fellow researchers have begun an in-depth exploration of the recent rise in heart attacks and its possible correlation with having watched all episodes of Soul Train when they originally aired.

John Kelly said...

Yes, that Onion thing was hilarious. I didn't get the Soul Train reference, though, unless they were just implying that those people were now old enough to have heart attacks.

Joyce said...

Your cookie disappointment must not have dissuaded you, as you got one at Brown's today. The bit I had was pretty good, but then again, I haven't lived in America since I was a kid.
I did a post once on French vs. English vs. American cookies. (Buttery & luxurious vs. crisp and sharp like gingersnaps vs. big, friendly & sweet). I think that sums up those three place quite nicely.

Adi said...

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