Monday, February 04, 2013

Levain-Inspired Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookies

Remember that time I proclaimed I'd made the best chocolate chip cookies ever? And that they were replicas of Levain Bakery's famous confections?

I was wrong.

Those cookies are fantastic, but I've since had the pleasure of actually eating Levain cookies, and those ain't them.

Part cookie, part scone, Levain's creations defy everything we've been taught about "the perfect cookie", as well as most of what I've read about Levain.

They're not exactly chewy, but they're not crispy either. They're tender, but not raw in the center. They're hefty and toothsome, each bite leaving you satisfied yet wanting more. They're full of complex flavor, but not distractingly so. They have all of the nostalgia and familiarity of America's favorite cookie, but somehow amplified and improved.

They're more, but not too much.

Since I live on the West Coast, I've been working on homemade versions for the past six weeks. Untold quantities of flour, butter and sugar later, I've not only come up with what I believe to be a close approximation of Levain's creations, but also gluten-free versions. (Thank you, Cup4Cup, for making a gluten-free flour that lives up to its promise of a 1:1 substitution for wheat flour in virtually any recipe.) And because I adore sea salt on my chocolate chip cookies, my recipe calls for a sprinkling of flaky Maldon before baking.

Gluten-free or not, I suggest you waste no time making these incredible cookies yourself. And don't bother with using frozen butter that's been cubed or grated, as so many Levain copycat recipes advise. I've tried those techniques and got the best results from the tried and true method of creaming ever-so-slightly softened butter with sugar. Nostaligia, indeed.

Salted Chocolate Chip Cookies with Toasted Walnuts
Makes about 9 (6-ounce) to 18 (3-ounce) cookies

Toasting the walnuts enhances their flavor, giving these cookies a wonderfully nutty crunch without a hint of bitterness. You can of course omit the walnuts or substitute another nut of choice, but if you're not allergic, do try them.

2 cups walnut halves
3 1/2 cups (17 ounces) all-purpose flour OR Cup4Cup Gluten-Free Flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon Diamond Kosher salt
2 sticks (1 cup/8 ounces) unsalted butter, softened slightly but still cool to the touch
3/4 cup evaporated cane juice (or standard granulated sugar)
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup Turbinado (raw) sugar (for texture and flavor; you can substitute regular or brown sugar)
2 eggs, cold
1 Tablespoon pure vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
2 cups (12 ounces) semi-sweet chocolate chips or chunks (recommended: Guittard Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips or Scharffen-Berger 62% or 70% Cacao Baking Chunks)
Flaky sea salt (such as Maldon), for sprinkling (optional)

1. Toast the walnut halves: spread nuts on a baking sheet lined with parchment and bake at 350 degrees F for 12 minutes, tossing the nuts and rotating the baking sheet halfway through baking. Set aside to cool while you prepare the dough.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

3. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter with the sugars until light and fluffy. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides and paddle. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing on low speed until incorporated. Add the vanilla and mix to combine.

4. Stop the mixer and add the flour mixture, chocolate chips or chunks, and toasted walnut halves. Mix, starting on the lowest speed and progressing to medium-low speed, until the mixture just comes together into a uniform dough. Be careful not to over mix, or the dough will become tough (or gummy, if using gluten-free flour).

5. Refrigerate the dough in an airtight container or plastic wrap for at least four hours or, preferably, two to four days.

6. When you're ready to bake the cookies, remove the dough from the refrigerator and let it stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes, or until it's softened a bit but still cold.

7. Line two half-sheet baking pans with silicone baking mats and/or parchment paper. Heat oven to 350 degrees F.

8. Portion the dough into 6-ounce or 3-ounce balls. (If you don't have a scale, use a half-cup or quarter-cup dry measure.) Place dough balls on baking sheets, spacing evenly apart and at least 2 inches from the sides, and sprinkle with sea salt if desired.

9. Bake for 12 minutes (for 3-ounce cookies) to 20 minutes (for 6-ounce cookies), or until golden brown on the sides and top but still soft in the middle. Be sure to rotate the baking sheets back to front and top to bottom halfway through baking. Remove the sheets from the oven and place on cooling racks for five minutes, then transfer cookies directly to racks to cool completely.

The cookies will keep in an airtight container at room temperature or in the refrigerator for up to four days, or in the freezer for up to a month. (Defrost cookies in plastic wrap or container to collect condensation.)

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