Some people keep Life Lists of birds they’ve seen in the wild. We keep a cookie list — the best chocolate chip cookie in each city we visit. Like birders who scale cliffs to see a rare raptor, we’ve made the Search for the Perfect Cookie a true quest, driving up a mountain to sample a cookie, adding an extra stop to a flight to hit a recommended bakery, and waiting in line outdoors for an hour in freezing rain to taste a potential “best in the US” cookie. That’s commitment.
In honor of National Cookie Day on Dec. 4, we’re sharing our favorites so far, with a bias toward New England bakers. Hey, as the birthplace of the Toll House Cookie (thanks, Ruth Graves Wakefield), we’re the mother ship, so we know from cookies. If your favorite bakery isn’t on the list, no worries — the search continues.
Last meal-worthy cookie: Original Chocolate Chip, Gideon’s Bakehouse, Orlando, Fla.
How good is this nearly half-pound cookie? We mentioned it to a fellow traveler, Justin Paul Villa of Columbus, Ohio, while waiting for a flight at Logan Airport. Based on our rave review, this stranger booked a flight to Orlando to try one himself. Was it worth it? “Definitely!” Villa said. “This cookie spoils you for all other cookies.” He sent us three of the softball-sized cookies as a thank you, so we will always love him. Confession: We have added an Orlando leg to a Florida flight to finagle a stop at Gideon’s. One taste and you’ll get it. This lumpen specimen is packed, inside and out, with oversized chips, and infused with a variety of vanillas. A sprinkling of sea salt is the perfect foil. It has a soft, dough-like texture that adds to its shelf life — it can take three days to eat one of these monstrous delights, and some say they taste better on Day Three. (We’ve never made it that long.) The recipe took baker Steve Lewis 15 years to perfect.
Baked fresh every day, these cookies sell out, so buyers are limited to three at a time. Available at East End Market, a food lab in Orlando (the tiny shop with Victorian antiques and a long line is Gideon’s); also at Disney Springs. $5 per cookie; minimum order of six available online; East End Market, 3201 Corrine Drive, Orlando, Fla.; www.gideonsbakehouse.com.
Earthy, crunchy deliciousness: Funky Chunky Chocolate Cookie, Zingerman’s Bakehouse, Ann Arbor, Mich.
We can die happy, someone made a guilt-free chocolate chip cookie. “I’m really in love with this cookie,” says Amy Emberling of Zingerman’s Bakehouse. So are we. Lesser cookies deliver one taste (sweet), but with each bite of this one, you’ll notice a different flavor note: nutty, caramel-y, and a slight earthiness. That’s because of the flour: Instead of the white stuff, they use freshly milled whole grains, sourced mostly from Michigan. Plus, “We mill much of the flour ourselves,” Emberling says. “This makes a chewier, whole-wheat cookie with more flavor,” minus the heaviness and slight bitterness that is often associated with whole grain baking. This one is tender and moist, enhanced with semi-sweet Callebaut chocolate squares, real butter, fresh eggs, and real vanilla. “This cookie has tons of fiber, phytonutrients from whole grains, and antioxidant-rich dark chocolate,” Emberling says. It’s almost nutritious. Cost is $2.99 per cookie (online ordering available); 3711 Plaza Drive, Ann Arbor, Mich.; 734-761-2095; www.zingermansbakehouse.com.
A cookie the size of your head: Mt. Lemmon Cookie Cabin, Mt. Lemmon, Ariz.
Would you drive up a mountain for a cookie? We were on a birding trip outside of Tucson when we heard about this place — and quickly pivoted to a Tour de Treat. It took the better part of a day to reach the family-owned cookie cabin (an actual cabin), but it was worth some effort to experience these plate-sized wonders. Our friend Leslie, who shuns sugar, was our reluctant companion. But even Leslie couldn’t resist the siren song of Cookie Cabin’s made-from-scratch creations; we went to the restroom and returned to find her wild-eyed and chocolate-smudged. This is where carb-free resolutions go to die.
Thin, crispy, and buttery, this cookie is temptation on a plate. Go for the chocolate chip, or try a sampler cookie, with sections of each flavor: chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, the Rachel (oats, coconut, butterscotch), peanut butter, brownie, and white chocolate macadamia. $7 per cookie; 12781 N. Sabino Canyon Park, Mt. Lemmon, Ariz.; 520-576-1010; www.thecookiecabin.org.
Best in NYC: Levain Bakery, New York, N.Y.
We thought nothing could compare to Christina Tosi’s “compost cookie” at Milk Bar, chock-full of everything, including potato chips. For a purist, though, Levain (luh-ven) takes the cake (um, cookie). In 1995, bread bakers Pam Weekes and Connie McDonald concocted a chocolate chip-walnut cookie for themselves, as an energy boost for triathlon training. Now they’ve got eight bakeries, drawing cookie fans who happily line up to get their fix. One cookie might be all it takes. “These mammoth six-ounce treats are meant to be shared with friends,” Weekes says.
We’ve braved freezing rain to snag one of these. But to make sure they’re still as good as we remember them, we enlisted a local foodie, Charlotte Ames, to do a taste test. “Buttery and melty, with a crisp edge. Not overly gooey,” she pronounced. Definitely a wonderful cookie, with excellent texture, she noted, but Levain’s chocolate-peanut butter chip cookie stole her heart. (“The best!” she proclaimed.) Bonus points for donating their leftovers to hunger-related charities. Psst: They’re looking at new markets for their retail bakeries, including Boston. $4 per cookie; locations include 340 Lafayette St., New York, NY; www.levainbakery.com.
A worthy vegan version: Sift Bake Shop, Mystic, Conn.
Oh, the gorgeous sweets on display at this French patisserie! Think mirror-glazed entremets, jewel-like macarons, and an opera torte that could grace the cover of any food magazine. No wonder owner/pastry chef Adam Young was crowned “America’s Best Baker” on the Food Network. But we think Young deserves a shout-out for considering cookie-lovers with food sensitivities: he bakes a dairy free/nut free/gluten free chocolate chunk cookie made with white and brown rice flour, canola oil, and 70 percent dark chocolate chips. “I like it better than the regular one!” a Sift staffer confessed.
That “regular one” is a thick, toothsome cookie and a melty delight, definitely worthy of America’s best baker. “A cookie dough is much like a vinaigrette. All of the ingredients provide a purpose,” Young says. “Selecting the proper ingredients is paramount.” For the signature chocolate chip cookie, he uses King Arthur’s artisan Sir Galahad flour “for the right amount of chew,” white and brown sugars “for richness,” and equal amounts of dark and milk chocolate chips “to create a nostalgic experience.” $2.25 per regular chocolate chip cookie; $4.50 for vegan; 5 Water St., Mystic, Conn.; 860-245-0541; www.siftbakeshopmystic.com.
Hometown fave: Clear Flour Bakery, Brookline
Add this to your list of reasons why Boston Rules: There are so many great chocolate chip cookies here, we should all be about twice the size we are. A short list of top picks includes Blunch, Flour Bakery, the Thinking Cup, Cookie Monster — the list goes on. But when we’re dreaming of the perfect cookie — to improve a bad day or celebrate a good one — we picture Clear Flour Bakery’s warm-from-the-oven chocolate chunk cookie. Streaked with Valrhona chocolate, this chubby cookie delivers the perfect balance of sweetness and deep, dark chocolate.
Because of COVID, this tiny corner shop only allows two customers inside at a time. Expect a line. While you wait, at least you’ll have something to look at: signs bearing bakery puns (“The tart is a lonely hunter”) that hang in the windows. And you’ll have time to think about what else you’ll leave the shop with — maybe a toasty baguette tucked under your arm? $3.75 per cookie; 178 Thorndike St., Brookline; 617-739-0060; www.clearflourbread.com.
Gluten-free deliciousness: The Pitcher Inn, Warren, Vt.
This one is a bit of an outlier — it’s a flourless chocolate cookie, studded with dark chocolate chips, that we discovered at an inn, not a bakery. The cellophane-wrapped cookies were a sweet surprise at turndown service, and so delicious, we scarfed down two in short order. Some things are too good to be shared.
We tracked down the source, executive chef Jacob Ennis, who told us, “My old pastry chef [at another hotel] made them for our gluten-free guests, and I have used the recipe everywhere since then. They are my favorite cookie ever, I think.” While the Pitcher Inn isn’t currently doing turndown service (to limit the number of times the inn’s staff enters guest rooms), “we will certainly be offering these cookies again in the future.” We left with the recipe, but haven’t been able to duplicate the perfection that chef Ennis achieves. Made with confectioner’s sugar, cocoa powder, egg whites, vanilla, and bountiful chocolate chips, they have a melt-in-your mouth, meringue-like texture that packs a chocolate-y wallop. The setting may have enhanced the appeal of these cookies (cushy inn, roaring fire), but truly, they’d be excellent anyplace. 275 Main St., Warren, Vt.; 802-496-6350; www.pitcherinn.com.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com