Senior Editor Stephanie Pixley Reinvents the Chocolate Chip Cookie

Pixley discusses the wonders of Sucanat and the making of a naturally sweet chocolate chip cookie that's as good as the original.

Published Sept. 6, 2016.

Senior editor of books Stephanie Pixley was charged with one of the most difficult tasks while developing recipes for our latest title, Naturally Sweet: she had to reinvent the chocolate chip cookie. How did Stephanie manage to cut out the granulated sugar and get chocolate chip cookies that were still crisp on the edges with a chewy interior? I caught up with Stephanie to discuss her development process, which included a lot of trial and error—she made 75 versions of the recipe, or approximately 1200 cookies, until she got it just right.

At what point during development did you realize that bittersweet chocolate worked better than semisweet chocolate?

I realized early on that the chocolate we used could help or hinder us in our development of the perfect low-sugar chocolate chip cookie. Sugar plays a very important structural role in baked goods. Simply eliminating half the sugar in our favorite cookie recipe left us with tough, dry hockey pucks, but we were committed to developing a recipe with 30 to 50% less sugar. Since every gram of sugar counted, I decided to take a closer look at the chocolate. I put our favorite recipe through our nutritional program and found that nearly half of the grams of sugar in our favorite recipe were coming from the chocolate. Switching to bittersweet chocolate in the dough meant that we had room to use more Sucanat—which is more important for the structure of the cookie than the added chocolate—while still using a generous amount of chocolate. Bittersweet chocolate was also better suited to the bold flavor of Sucanat in our cookies.

Pixley (left) compares tasting notes with Jack Bishop and her book team colleagues during recipe development for her version of naturally sweet chocolate chip cookies.

You found that adding baking soda and baking powder—and more of each than usual—was vital to the perfect texture. Was the over-leavening strategy the result of a lightbulb moment, or did it come from our traditionally rigorous testing process?

The idea of over-leavening the cookie dough was absolutely a lightbulb moment! We had reached the bottom of our bag of tricks and I was talking with a coworker about the problems we were having—the cookies were delicious but just a little cakey, they were lacking the crispy edge and soft center that everyone craved—and he mentioned over-leavening, a trick we had used in the past in a recipe for oatmeal cookies. I took a stab and it worked; we upped the usual amount of baking soda and also added baking powder, which caused the cookie dough to rise and then collapse, creating a crisp exterior and a softer, denser center. For reference, most chocolate chip cookie recipe don’t use baking powder at all, instead they just use baking soda.

Do you know about how many times you tested this recipe from start to finish?

I did about 75 different iterations of this recipe—that works out to about 1200 cookies.

Can you detect a major difference between this recipe and a more traditional chocolate chip cookie recipe?

The only difference I can tell between these low-sugar cookies and a traditional recipe is the flavor—the Sucanat (or coconut sugar, depending on what you use) brings a totally different depth of flavor that is more similar to toffee or caramel than boring white sugar cookies!

What were the greatest challenges with this recipe? Was it difficult tackling something as iconic as the chocolate chip cookie?

Whenever we start on a new project in the test kitchen we start by doing a lot of research to get an idea of what other people are doing and introduce ourselves to new ingredients and techniques. One of the biggest challenges with this book and the chocolate chip cookie recipe was that there was so little information about low-sugar baking available, and most of what we found was very diet specific—think diabetic or low-glycemic diets—which used artificial sweeteners like aspartame or Splenda. On top of that, we also wanted to swap processed sugars for natural sweeteners. Either one of those tasks on their own would present significant challenges, so combining them made it a pretty monumental task.

Of course, I think the ambitious nature of this project is what makes it so special: not only did we create recipes that highlight natural sweeteners, we took it one step further by reducing the amount of sugar in each of our recipes and included nutritionals for every recipe in this book to prove it! The chocolate chip cookie recipe was certainly a challenge to develop since it’s such an iconic treat. Cookies were particularly challenging to develop because, as we found through trial and error, they get their chewy, moist texture from the presence of sugar. Take away even 25% of that sugar and you end up with unsatisfactory results. It really took racking our brains, trying any strange idea—we even tested adding pectin and gelatin to these cookies at one point—and long conversations about the science of sugar to finally achieve a cookie we thought anyone would be excited to eat and make.

Baking with Less Sugar

Naturally Sweet

Naturally Sweet is a collection of 100+ truly groundbreaking recipes that rely only on natural, less-processed sweeteners like Sucanat (unrefined cane sugar), coconut sugar, date sugar, honey, maple syrup, or no sweeteners at all, just dried fruit and chocolate.  
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