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The Boston Globe

Food & dining

How Toll House recipe became a cookie-jar staple

The chocolate-chip cookies developed by Wakefield were quite a bit smaller than today’s versions.

Karoline Boehm Goodnick for The Boston Globe

The chocolate-chip cookies developed by Wakefield were quite a bit smaller than today’s versions.

More than 70 years ago, a recipe in “Ruth Wakefield’s Toll-House Tried and True Recipes” took off and became so popular, it’s the cookie jar confection most associated with American home bakers.

Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookies, made famous at the Toll House Inn in Whitman, subsequently became known as Toll House cookies or just chocolate-chip cookies. Generations of parents and children were raised on them. Now the cookies are several inches in diameter and some bakeries make them so large, one cookie is enough for two. But the treats that Wakefield first made at the inn, which she and her husband, Kenneth, owned, were so tiny, that a single cookie — the size of a quarter — was not quite a bite. Ruth Wakefield’s book, published in 1936, didn’t initially have the recipe; it appeared in an edition two years later.

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Author Carolyn Wyman, who conducted extensive research for “The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book,” delved into the cookie’s origin at Nestle, the company that owns the recipe, and at Wakefield’s alma mater, Framingham State Normal School (now Framingham State College). Nestle claims that Wakefield had expected the chocolate to melt and turn into a chocolate cookie. Other versions of the story say that Wakefield had run out of nuts. What she did was take two bars of chocolate, chop them, and add them to a butterscotch cookie recipe called Nut Tea Wafers.

“The oft-told story that Ruth invented the chocolate chip cookie by accident didn’t make much sense when I learned how well and carefully she ran her restaurant,” writes Wyman in an e-mail. “The Toll House did not seem like the kind of place where they would run out of food ingredients.” Wakefield told an interviewer in the 1970s that customers loved the nut cookies and she was trying to give them something different.

“It’s clear Ruth Wakefield was brilliant and we thank her for the simply perfect Toll House chocolate chip cookie recipe,” writes Nestle spokesperson Roz O’Hearn in an e-mail.

That recipe, writes author Wyman, was said to have been sold to Nestle for a song. Wyman uncovered a 1976 interview in which Wakefield commented that she sold the rights to Nestle, supposedly for $1.

Nestle’s semisweet chocolate morsels are now in their 75th year of production. The recipe on the bag has its roots in the original recipe. But the recipe in Wakefield’s book has some significant differences. One is that the book recipe yields 100 half-teaspoon cookies. They bake at the same time and temperature — 10 to 12 minutes at 375 degrees — instructed on the package. But the tinier versions turn out quite crunchy, very different from what we think of when we envision a modern-day chipper, often with a bit of chew.

Toll House cookies were first  made by Ruth Wakefield more than 70 years ago at Whitman’s Toll House Inn.

Toll House cookies were first made by Ruth Wakefield more than 70 years ago at Whitman’s Toll House Inn.

Wakefield’s minis are like cookies for dollhouse china. You have to wonder why this tiny confection could launch a revolution in cookie making. Wakefield was merging baked goods with candy (her chocolate bar was essentially a candy bar) and that was groundbreaking at the time. Combining a confection with chocolate, with the chocolate remaining in individual chunks, had never been done before.

Ingredients in the 1930s were different enough to offer some insight into Wakefield’s original recipes. In the 1940 edition of the book, she addresses some of them and the techniques. At the time, eight eggs would have equaled 1 cup (small eggs, of course). Her eggs would have been 1½ ounces each; today’s large egg, the size typically used for baking, is 2 ounces.

For the butter, the author did not specify unsalted or salted butter, but salted was commonly available at the time. According to the National Dairy Association, the butterfat in commercially available butter hasn’t changed from the 1930s to now. The range is typically 80 to 82 percent butterfat.

To measure brown sugar, Wakefield states that ½ pound of brown sugar equals 1 cups. This translates to unpacked (instead of firmly packed) sugar.

According Tom Payne, marketing director of King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vt., the flour in Wakefield’s kitchen was probably on the high end of the protein spectrum, with 11.7 percent protein. All-purpose flour with the same protein will make the recipe accurate.

Wakefield began with chocolate bars, “cut in pieces the size of a pea.” She used two 7-ounce Nestle semisweet baking bars. She also used walnuts.

The original cookies might not have the wow factor of today’s large chocolate chippers, but they have a crisp texture with a buttery, caramelized, butterscotch-like flavor. The chocolate is generous but not overwhelming and nuts add both texture and flavor.

The cookies are so simple to make it’s easy to see how they could become so popular among American home bakers — and eventually known around the world.

Dédé Wilson can be reached at dede@bakepedia.com.
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