Third grade, they say, is the year that school shifts from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” I can remember my own third grade year feeling a lot harder than school had up until that point. And one of the things that happened that year was that my third grade teacher insisted that we learn to conduct a research project and write a report. This was, of course, way back before internet access, so it meant many library trips, organizing things on index cards, writing outlines and, if you didn’t have access to a typewriter, writing out pages and pages of longhand research in painfully awkward third-grade cursive. Including the bibliography.
Ten research reports were due that year. This was an assignment unique to my third grade class. None of the other third grade classes were given this task–not even the other gifted class. There were no specific due dates, but we were expected to produce a total of ten by the end of the school year. It worked out to one per month, if you were organized and the kind of kid who didn’t do things at the last possible second. I was not that kind of kid.
One of the exciting things about the shift between learning to read and reading to learn is what you can actually do with the things you read. Reading, and making sense of instructions for things is a big step. And in my case, it was the year my mother began to teach me to cook from written recipes.
Before the Great Cookie Research Project
I was getting over strep throat. I’d reached the point in my illness where I was feeling much better and getting antsy and anxious. Bored of being trapped at home, but not yet allowed back in school. My mother had been bringing home an endless supply of books and video tapes from the library. She took the time that week to introduce me to movies like The Producers and Romancing the Stone. Things that were too grown up for my younger siblings to watch but that I could watch from the family room couch as long as the younger siblings were still in school. It felt like a real treat to be catered to that way. Oranges sliced the way I wanted. All the wonton soup and popsicles I could eat. A movie extravaganza.
The joy wouldn’t last for too long. Mom returned from one of her many library trips and reminded me that my convalescence would be ending soon and it was an ideal time to get a little work done on some of those research reports. I had already written one that week, but my mother was suggesting that I get started on a second. And then she invited me into the kitchen to bake chocolate chip cookies and talk about ideas.
That invitation into the kitchen was different. Baking cookies was always a treat, but it was also a big project. Usually, Mom was trying to bake cookies with the help of three energetic children who were excited to participate, but whose enthusiasm often overwhelmed their helpfulness. This time, though, it was only Mom and me, and, in hindsight, the goal probably wasn’t as much about baking cookies. It was probably to try and get me to talk about things that I wasn’t talking about. I wasn’t interested in talking. I was interested in baking.
My mom is a good cook, but baking has never been her specialty. And, while I learned the basics from her, she never bothered to do things like weigh ingredients, nor to measure dry ingredients with dry measuring cups and wet ingredients with liquid measures. It would be a few years and quite a bit of reading before I learned about doing some of these things. It didn’t matter. I loved watching the butter and sugar come together in the bowl, to feel the texture change from gritty to smooth as the ingredients were creamed in the bowl, and to see the cookie dough transform with each step.
The Origins of the Great Cookie Research Project
As the cookies were coming out of the oven, Mom suggested that I write a report about chocolate chip cookies. I could talk about the history, and explain the science behind the process. And maybe even bring in cookies to share with the class.
I wasn’t actually interested. I didn’t want to write another research report. Even though it was halfway through the school year. And I still had six or seven research reports to go. I certainly didn’t want to write another report while I was recuperating. Even with help. Even though my mother pointed out that I could finish in just a few days if I did an hour of work here and there over those few days.
It was an argument I knew I’d lose.
The Research Part
The next day, Mom returned from the library with new VHS tapes and plenty of books. I learned all about cookies–why both baking soda and baking powder are important (it has to do with the amount of acid needed for leavening and it also affects browning–that lovely golden color that homemade cookies get.) About Ruth Wakefield, who accidentally invented the first chocolate chip cookies at the Toll House Inn when she was experimenting with drop cookie recipes after a trip to Egypt. I began to understand a little of the science behind cookies. I read recipe after recipe. Margarine vs butter. The ratio of brown to white sugar. Chill the dough or don’t chill the dough.
And with more science came more questions. The question was so much bigger than the “chewy vs crunchy cookie” dilemma. The big question of course: “which cookie is best?” And who could decide? My family certainly wasn’t a reasonable sample–there was a strong, pre-existing familial bias towards soft cookies and too few people to get a real sample-size, anyway.
There had to be a way to figure it out. It was the 80s, and food-based contests were all the rage. Pepsi and Coke were embroiled in the Cola Wars. My family had even taken the Pepsi Challenge one day while we were all out shopping together.
Could there be a way to create a head to head competition to choose the best cookie?
This trip into the kitchen introduced me to a lifelong love of baking. But in trying to learn more about the cookies, I discovered a love for the questions. Big questions. The kind where you’re not just asking “which cookie you like better” but “why do you like this cookie better?”
I went through cookbook after cookbook, reading each recipe carefully. The basics were always the same. Sugar and fat (usually butter) creamed together, add eggs. In another bowl, the dry ingredients–flour, salt, baking soda, were mixed together. Then add dry stuff to wet, and get dough. Add chips to dough. (Sugar is a wet ingredient in cookies, but it would be many years before I learned why.)
There had to be one type of cookie that people liked better. Why else would there be so many variations? And so, with my mother’s help, I hatched a plan. We could survey my third grade class–most third graders like chocolate chip cookies, right? We could pick out a bunch of recipes. Bake them Create a survey to go with it. Have a taste test. We could then analyze the results and write up the report. Without telling me, Mom was introducing the scientific method–something I’d find myself using again and again throughout school and beyond.
So many of the details have faded–how we came up with the number of recipes, how we chose most of them. I remember that one used margarine instead of butter and was supposed to be flattened with a fork like you would with peanut butter cookies. We definitely chose that one. It stood out. There were five others, each marked with a different color M&M plus the cross hatched batch and the original, the Toll House cookie with no marking.
I had no idea how much time it would take to bake seven different batches of cookies. It was a huge undertaking and required a great deal of adult help and supervision–I wasn’t even tall enough to open the oven door or shift the baking trays around without struggling. It didn’t help, either, that one day, a curious puppy decided to see if she could leap up onto the counter and eat an entire batch of cookies. The dog was fine, canine reaction to chocolate notwithstanding. The cookies, on the other hand, had to be baked again.
Seven batches of cookies. Just over two dozen cookies from each for a classroom of 26 or 27 third graders. This also meant that my family was overwhelmed with chocolate chip cookies for quite a while after this little experiment.
The Survey: How to Structure the Results of the Project
There was, of course, still a survey to write to go along with all the baking. What did I need to know about the cookies? What made one stand out more than the others? Was there a really significant difference in taste? How could we define “best” when we were talking about something as subjective as chocolate chip cookies–especially when my own family couldn’t even agree on what makes a perfect chocolate chip cookie? As with opening the oven door, a survey was more than I could do alone.
Helping me construct the survey? That was Dad’s job. Although both of my parents taught science, math and science were much more Dad’s arena. And so he and I sat, with a plate of cookies and cups of tea between us, and analyzed the cookies. Seven cookies in front of us. A visual inspection of each one. A smell test. Texture. Shape. Every feature was considered. Taste, of course, topped the list. We came up with a rating scale, and a few open ended questions. And, with Mom’s help, it was typed up so that it could be mimeographed and have time for the smell to fade before the taste test. We didn’t want the delicious smell of dittos to interfere with tasting cookies.
The Moment of Truth
Finally, the day of the taste test arrived. As snack time began, I stood up in front of my class and talked a little about the history of the chocolate chip cookie, and explained what we were going to do. Everyone got a plate with seven cookies, a score sheet and a cup of water to drink in between cookies. My instructions included not discussing your choice with your neighbors until after the score sheets were collected and not eating the part of the cookie with the M&M before you scored the cookie. We couldn’t have the additional flavor of the M&M accidentally biasing the test.
Snack time was usually a noisy time. Not that day. Everyone seemed engrossed in examining the details of the cookies and taking careful notes about each one. Pencils scratched. A few voices whispered. And many cookies were eaten. When each cookie had been sampled and every survey filled out, I collected the papers. As I did that, the first question of course was “can we eat the rest of the cookies now?”
A Questioning Soul is Born
Of course they could eat the rest of the cookies. I was more interested in reading through every detail on each page that had been returned to me than in eating chocolate chip cookies, but there wasn’t time for that. It would actually be several days before we could really dig into the results of the survey but when Saturday rolled around, Dad and I spread out all of the surveys on the kitchen table to begin examining our results. With Dad’s tally sheets in hand we reviewed the rankings–which cookie looked the best, which tasted the best, and which one met the standard for the ultimate chocolate chip cookie.
Dad became frustrated quickly with my desire for in-depth analysis. He explained the range–that we needed to look at the highest and lowest scores, and how to calculate the average for each category. I wanted to dig into the comments. It was nice to know which one looked the most appealing or which one had the best texture, but I was much more interested in the details. Anyone can say “that’s a nice looking cookie.” I wanted to know what you looked at to determine that this particular cookie was a nice looking cookie.
Mom played referee a few times as I worked through the analysis with Dad. I don’t remember which cookie came out on top although I do remember that it wasn’t the one I’d predicted it would be. The other result I remember? The cross hatch cookie with margarine instead of butter was definitely not the winner.
After a long Saturday afternoon tallying cookie results, I finally had an answer. I wrote the final pages of my research report, adding in a copy of the survey, the complete analysis of the results, and my conclusion. I’d just completed my first original research report, from hypothesis to conclusion, and I was fascinated. I had some answers. I had more questions, too. Most of all, I had discovered a love of research. The skills I learned from this project are ones I’d apply again and again, conducting research about topics ranging from human-computer interaction to the impact of cab conditions on locomotive engineers to the impact of peer-provided HIV education on adolescent behavior.
Paying it Forward
There were more important lessons. Ones that I would apply decades later with my own kids. My parents’ method for teaching me about research and experimentation became the blueprint for how I introduced those concepts to my kids in an age-appropriate manner.
Our route took us past one of the local tv affiliates and their helipad was visible from the road. My younger kid and I started taking notice about whether the helicopter was there or not there on our way to pick up my older kid. And then we began guessing whether or not it would be there on our way back. It’s such an idle question. Not as inherently interesting to a kid as “which cookie tastes the best.” But still, it was something that was part of their world every day.
And so the guessing-game took on a life of its own. We used clipboards to record their guess for the day, and after we observed the helicopter on the way home they would place a sticker on the page in the column that indicated whether their guess for the day was correct or incorrect. And each month we would calculate whether we were correct more often than not, culminating in one final calculation at the end of the school year about whether the helicopter was more often there or not. Once again, the scientific method became a family affair.
My kids are not old enough to have chosen career paths yet. They’ve still got some time before they do that, before they decide what kinds of work they want to do. They don’t seem to love questions the same way I do, and that’s fine. They understand how to find answers, to make observations, and to ask the big questions. And research? They know that’s a family affair.
I can’t write a whole entire essay about cookies without giving you a recipe, can I? I’m giving you a list of ingredients and instructions. But before you bake, read the entire recipe and all of the notes below the recipe. Because there’s a lot of room to experiment and find your own ultimate chocolate chip cookie.
Ingredients for Basic Recipe
- Chocolate Chip Cookies
- 2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup butter
- 1 ½ cups sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 eggs
- 2 cups chocolate chips/chunks
(I don’t put nuts in my cookies. If you want nuts in yours, toast about a cup of pecans or walnuts and toss them in a tablespoon or two of flour before you add them to your cookies. Toasting will bring out their flavor and tossing them in flour will keep them from sinking into your batter.)
- Preheat your oven to 350.
- Mix your flour, salt, and baking soda in a bowl and set it aside.
- Cream together your butter and sugar in a larger bowl. Add vanilla, then add the eggs, one at a time, beating them in completely before you add the next.
- Beat in your flour mixture gradually until it’s completely incorporated. Watch carefully–you don’t want to overbeat it; you’re not trying to develop gluten in your cookies. (Make sure you scrape down the bowl sides or you don’t get a good creamed butter/sugar mixture and your cookies can collapse)
- Stir in your chocolate (and any other additions) while mixing by hand.
- Optional: Chill the dough for up to 24 hours if you like. (Chilled dough will spread less, and the butter will take longer to melt, giving you a chewier cookie. You may need to let it soften a bit before shaping, depending on how firm it is after chilling.)
- Using a cookie scoop or rounded tablespoon, drop onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake 10-12 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool on the pan for 2-3 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to finish cooling.
Don’t just Make the Cookies; Make the Cookies Your Own
- Do you want to brown your butter or not? Melted butter makes crispier cookies. Browned butter removes the milk solids from melted butter. It also brings a little bit of a toasted, nutty flavor to the cookies. It’s good, but it changes the texture of the cookie. Whatever you do decide, use unsalted butter, and use the best butter your budget allows.
- Consider chopping your own chocolate bars instead of buying chips. You get more varieties to choose from, the texture is also a little better (melty but not totally melted)
- What about the balance of your white and brown sugar? The balance here affects how crispy your cookies are. More white sugar means crispier cookies. More brown sugar makes softer cookies. Darker brown gives more molasses flavor than light. I like softer cookies so I go with at least half brown, and I prefer the richer, darker brown sugar.
- Extracts? Use real vanilla, not imitation vanilla, if you can. And don’t feel you have to stop at vanilla. You can swap it out for other flavors like mint, raspberry or orange if you want. Any flavor you might like with chocolate–many will be enhanced by the vanilla.
- Don’t feel like you have to stop at chocolate chips either. Try peanut butter chips or crush up a favorite candy bar. Substitute M&Ms for chips. Crush up some peppermint candy and sprinkle it into your cookie. Me? Sometimes I’ll chop up dried apricots and mix them in with the chocolate chips. Dried cranberries or cherries are great, too. If you’re looking for ideas, this article has some, or just search for “flavored baking chips” online and see what you come up with. The possibilities are endless.
- And if you’re not in the mood for an entire batch of cookies all at once? My sister and I used to mix up double or triple batches of this recipe, drop it on the parchment-covered baking sheets and freeze the cookies. Once they’re frozen, you can remove them from the baking sheet and layer them into a container for storage. Then, when you’re in the mood for warm cookies, pull out just what you want and bake a few at a time. I’ve even done this in the toaster oven.