When Kelly Fields looked to open Willa Jean in New Orleans, the chef knew one thing for certain: No one would have to fight for a taste of cookie dough.
“It’s always been my favorite part of making cookies,” said Fields, who recently wrote The Good Book of Southern Baking. “Still, to this day, I have a nugget of cookie dough almost every day that I’m at work. I can’t walk past it without grabbing some.”
Fields, who grew up the middle of three children, remembers jostling with her siblings for one of the two beaters from their mother’s handheld mixer when she’d whip up a batch of cookies.That’s why on the menu of her New Orleans restaurant Willa Jean, Fields’ dessert of chocolate chip cookies and vanilla milk is served with a beater generously smushed in a heaping scoop of raw dough.”I kept saying to myself, when I opened (Willa Jean), everybody gets their share of a beater, after spending my entire life fighting for one,” Fields said. “It was as simple as that: This is the best part, so we should serve it.”
There are few things as reliable during the holidays as a good plate of cookies. We ship them to family and friends, leave them at a neighbor’s doorstep, bring a platter full to a party and Santa quietly nibbles a few during a Christmas Eve visit. Just as ubiquitous are the bowls of dough, which for many, like Fields, are as delicious and tempting as the final product. To understand why, especially when the potential for bacterial contamination isn’t warded off, we still eagerly snag a batter-wrapped beater or hastily dip a finger in the prepared dough, is to understand why we love cookies in the first place.
That’s exactly what Dr. Linda Bartoshuk was considering when she wrote the introduction to a chapter on taste for the latest edition of Sensation and Perception, the textbook she co-wrote about those aspects of the human experience. “Why do we love chocolate chip cookies?” Bartoshuk mused before diving into the very real and rather unsexy explanations of retronasal olfaction. The answer, Bartoshuk said, is like the experience we have with any food: It’s partly instinct, and partly learned through experience.
“Our brain is hard-wired to make us love calories,” said Bartoshuk. “Anything’s that got calories in it, your brain is going to record that fact and make you like the flavor of that food a little better.”That instinct has long helped humans survive, Bartoshuk said, because as high calorie foods digest in our gut, that triggers a positive signal in the brain.
Then, if you snag a spoonful of unbaked chocolate chip cookie dough, you’ll find the most predominant flavors are chocolate and vanilla, according to Gail Civille, the president of Sensory Spectrum, a consulting firm that helps brands understand how people experience consumer products. It’s no coincidence that both are the result of caramelization, itself “very much an American preference,” Civille said. And, as it turns out, both vanilla and chocolate are excellent flavor markers, so it’s easy for our brains to remember those flavors and tie them to the coinciding high-calorie experiences.
Another thing high-calorie flavors mix easy with? Happy memories. Flavor is directly tied to smell — it travels to your brain in the same way, but you can parse out whether you’re chewing or sniffing — and smell is deeply tied to memory.
“That’s why people have smell flashbacks,” Civille said. That connection, Civille believes, is why, for some people, cookie dough holds a greater allure than the baked cookies themselves. It’s what Civille called a “screen of expectation”: A cookie dough lover attaches all the warm, fuzzy memories of baking cookies with grandma at the holidays, or learning to bake from their mother, and eating cookie dough is like they’re re-experiencing that memory.”It feels good,” Civille said. “It’s like the smell of Christmas trees. It just gives you a great memory sense.”
Kristen Tomlan’s earliest cookie dough memories are just like that.Tomlan, who today is the founder and CEO of Dō, a boutique sweets cafe for edible cookie dough, and the author of Hello, Cookie Dough, learned to bake from her mother. She remembers keeping a bowl of dough in the refrigerator so her dad could have fresh cookies when he got home from work at the end of a day. When Tomlan opened Dō in 2017, she heard echoes of that experience from the dozens of people who would stand in line outside the New York City shop waiting to get a scoop of her edible cookie dough.
“Cookie dough brings everyone back to a familiar, comforting place,” Tomlan said. “That’s what I heard consistently from people coming in, ‘Oh my God, this tastes exactly like when my grandma made it.’ … It transcends generations.”In the end, the high-impact flavors hit right as the high calories in our gut send two thumbs-up to our brains. Sometimes, that goes one step farther by reminding us of joyful memories, and we’re left with a beautiful culinary experience, courtesy of evolution. Or, as Civille says, in a chocolate chip cookie, “there’s little to criticize.”
“You get a chocolate chip cookie with a combination from learned pleasure and hard-wired pleasure, and that’s why you love a chocolate chip cookie,” Bartoshuk said. “Heaven forbid you take that and throw up.”Having that kind of experience is hard to forget, too. As Bartoshuk said, “people usually learn this the first time they get drunk and throw up, and they can’t stand the liquor they were consuming.”
While cookie dough won’t leave you hungover, it could make you sick. Most recipes typically call for eggs and flour, both of which, unbaked, could prove problematic if contaminated. It’s why Tomlan spent so much time perfecting her recipes at Do, which are completely safe to eat, and it’s why Fields leaves out the eggs in the version she serves alongside baked cookies at Willa Jean.
“Permission is granted to celebrate that little bite we all want to take all the time,” Fields said of her restaurant. “It’s a judge-free zone. Eat as much cookie dough as you want.”