For March Madness champion-'chip,' we searched for the most slam-dunkable chocolate chip cookie
A traditional but perfectly baked cookie from Jen's Bakery and a surprising 'bracket buster' from Twenty Below Coffee rose to the top of our Forum taste-testers' snack bracket.
FARGO — When it comes to March Madness, the business and features team here at The Forum throws air balls .
But when it comes to snack brackets, we're a slam dunk.
So we decided to create our own brand of “snacketology.”
For the second March Madness in a row, we asked readers to nominate a favorite food item served up by local businesses, then taste-tested these finalists to pick an NCAA (that’s Nordakota Cookie Appreciation Alliance) champion.
After judging mac-and-cheese dishes last year, we got to sample the most iconic of American goodies—the chocolate chip cookie—this year.
A crumbly job, but someone had to do it.
Our team consisted of a "starting five” of snackers: Features/Business Editor Angie Wieck, Associate Features/Business Editor Thomas Evanella, Business Reporter Helmut Schmidt, Features Reporter John Lamb and Features Reporter Tracy Briggs.
I rounded out the bench as the scrappy but injury-prone sixth player (translation: I have an ulcer).
We all put on our stretchiest pants, stocked up on milk or coffee and proceeded to judge the good, the bad and the fudgy.
We noshed on an “Edible Eight” of champion-chip-worthy contenders: Jen’s Bakery , Twenty Below Coffee , Breadsmith, Third Drop Coffee, Nichole’s Fine Pastry, Crumbl Cookies , Great Harvest Bread and Insomnia Cookies.
Which competitor would crumble, like that scorned raisin cookie which was left to petrify in the bottom of Grandma’s cookie jar? Would anyone melt amid the competition, like a fistful of chocolate chips stolen from the pantry by a sneaky toddler?
We are happy to report that no competitor crumbled. These cookies were all so different from each other, yet any would make a slam-dunkable snack.
Every judge also had their own subjective preferences, with some preferring soft and chewy while others craved a bit of crunch.
So not too surprisingly, the top three spots were occupied by three dramatically different cookies.
As our overworked pancreases wouldn’t permit overtime play, we wound up with a first-place tie between the more traditional Jen’s Bakery cookie and the gluten-free offering from Twenty Below Coffee.
Second place went to Breadsmith’s scone-like chocolate chip.
Jen Woinarowicz, owner of Jen’s Bakery, was thrilled to hear her chocolate chip cookie came out on top. “So excited! You should’ve seen all our faces when I read your message out loud to our girls yesterday,” she texted, while at home with one of her daughters, who was sick. “We definitely sell thousands throughout the year with craft markets and street fairs. On an average week in store I would say (we sell) 150-200 of that flavor alone.”
Woinarowicz runs the bakery with her husband, Travis Nelson, and daughters, Reese and Liv — “our impeccable taste testers.” The recipe is a chip off the old block — that is, it is based on her grandmother’s recipe. It's nothing fancy, although she relies on a few sure-fire tricks to make these cookies shine.
“It needs to be butter-based,” she told us while ticking off her tips for cookie mastery. “I prefer a chilled dough overnight . Quality vanilla.” And: “Good taste testers until you get it right!”
As a gluten-free option with a gourmet twist, the Twenty Below cookie was the bracket-buster in this taste tourney. Co-owner Michael Moran was pleasantly surprised to learn of their first-place ranking. “I think the fact it’s gluten-free is fairly impressive,” he said.
The winning recipe actually came from Britta Christiansen, one of Twenty Below’s former bakers. Christiansen’s sister, Sophia McGraw, still works for the business, where she’s a manager on its baking team. She says the cookie’s magical formula contains rice flour and oat flour, as well as cornstarch and xanthan gum, which provide some of the binding agents and elasticity typically provided by gluten.
McGraw said she let her sister know that her recipe had helped the coffee business create blue-ribbon cookies.
How did her sis respond?
“She’s thrilled,” McGraw said.
Read on to hear what our judges had to say about our Elite Eight. The winners are listed first, but the other contenders are listed in no particular order.
First (tie): Jen’s Bakery, 5050 Timber Pkwy S., No. 108, Fargo
Price: $3 apiece for larger size or 4 for $10
I literally sighed with happiness upon biting into this large, chunky cookie. THIS cookie is for whom the Tollhouse tolls. The center was slightly underbaked (just the way I like it) and buttery. It had that perfect homemade flavor cocktail of butter, semi-sweet chocolate, brown-sugary goodness and real vanilla.
Most of my fellow taste-testers agreed. “Checks all the boxes,” Thomas wrote. “Chewy yet crispy on the outside.”
“I love how gooey the center was,” Tracy wrote on her ballot. ““Even the chips were melty despite the cookie not being warm.”
“Nice and fresh, chewy and chocolatey … yet right amount of crumble,” Helmut wrote. He noted that the cookies, which cost $3 each, are “not cheap, but worth it.”
Two of our judges, who like their cookies on the crispier side, were more reserved.
“A solid chocolate chip cookie,” John said.
“It’s delicious-tasting, but a little doughy for me,” Angie said. “I like a little crunch.”
First (tie): Twenty Below Coffee, 14 Roberts St N., Fargo, and 600 8th St. S., Moorhead
Twenty Below: $22.50 for 6-pack.
With posh ingredients like bittersweet dark chocolate and a sea salt garnish, this cookie is what would have happened if Tollhouse cookie inventor Ruth Wakefield had first studied at Le Cordon Bleu in France.
The Twenty Below cookie was the only gluten-free version in the lot, yet you wouldn’t have guessed it. Granted, this cookie was crispier than some of its made-from-wheat-flour cousins but remained relatively soft in the center. It also had no aftertaste, which sometimes happens when alternative flours are used.
Those alternative ingredients may be pricier, which is likely why this cookie is one of the more expensive options among the Edible Eight.
Another unique aspect of this cookie is how chock-full-o’-chocolate it was. I likened it to a “chocolate chip cookie lasagna,” because there was a solid layer of chocolate encased inside the treat. Thanks to the dark chocolate, however, it didn’t make each bite overly sweet.
Our panel also liked how the sea salt topping balanced the flavor. Tracy said it enhanced the cookie so perfectly that she plans to start finishing off her cookies at home with salt.
John liked everything about this cookie: “This is one of my favorites as it’s the right point of firm but still a little soft in the middle without being underbaked. The salt puts it over the top.”
Angie appreciated the saltiness, but wasn’t as enamored with the texture: “For as much as I say I prefer crispy, it’s maybe too crispy.”
Second: Breadsmith, 1617 32nd Ave. S., Fargo
Price: $1.25 apiece or $6.25 for 6.
The Breadsmith cookie looked different from its colleagues (can a chocolate chip cookie have colleagues?), in that it was lighter in color and more bread-like in texture.
John thought it looked like a sawed-off muffin top.
I wondered aloud if they actually used bread flour, vs. all-purpose flour, in the dough, because of its unique texture.
Ultimately, though, we really liked how the Breadsmith cookie tasted. Helmut found the exterior of the cookie to be “a bit crumbly,” but the interior to be pleasingly chewy.
A few of us chocoholics did want more chocolate in the cookie. “It works where it matters most, tasting good, although I’m a fan of bigger chocolate chips,” John said.
“Did they use mini chips?” Angie asked. “I could use a little more chocolate, but very good overall.”
“Smaller chips— just the right amount of sweetness,” Tracy said. “It almost had a scone or bread-like texture. Really yummy!”
“Perfect-looking appearance,” Thomas noted. “Flavor is strong. Crisp outside and soft inside. Homemade-type taste.”
Third Drop Coffee, 111 Broadway N., Fargo, 115 4th St. S., Moorhead
Price: $2.15 apiece
Several taste-testers commented that these cookies — which were darker in color, more mounded and more evenly studded with chocolate chips — looked like Central Casting’s idea of the prototypical chocolate chip cookie.
“Very perfect looking,” Helmut said. “Lots of crunch … Good amount of chips.”
These cookies were crispier than most of the competition, although not off-puttingly crumbly.
Tracy agreed, pointing out that their firmer texture would make it easy to dunk one in your beverage of choice without losing it in the brink (or drink). “This would be a nice complement to a cup of coffee,” she wrote.
Angie, who prefers a cookie with a bit of chutzpah, concurred. “Nice and crispy,” she wrote. “Very dunkable.”
But several of us (including yours truly) found the Third Drop Cookies a little too dry and hard for our personal preferences. “These were too crunchy for me,” said John. “They remind me of Chips Ahoy!”
Nichole’s Fine Pastry, 13 Eighth Street S., Fargo
Price: $7 for a dozen
The Nichole’s cookies turned out to be the lone David to the many oversized Goliaths in this competition.
We bought these cookies at Nichole’s original Eighth Street South store, where they are slightly larger than a silver dollar and sell in sleeves of 12.
But, as John pointed out, the petite portion size means you won’t feel bad if you wolf down more than one.
Several of us detected warm, spicy notes in the Nichole cookies. Was it pumpkin? Nutmeg? Or maybe they used Mexican vanilla, which has a floral, cinnamony essence?
“There’s an aftertaste,” Angie noted. “Cinnamon?”
“These had more of a homemade feel to me,” Thomas ventured. “Spice was a welcome addition and a distinct twist.”
We never really figured it out. The ingredient label revealed basic ingredients, free of unpronounceable additives or preservatives: flour, sugar, chocolate chips, butter, eggs, vanilla, salt and baking soda.
John also really liked the texture of these cookies. “Despite the fact that these come in a bag and may have been on the shelf for a day or two, they’re not dried out,” he said. “These may be tiny but they taste really good so I won’t feel bad about eating another.”
Crumbl Cookies, 833 24th Ave E., Suite J, West Fargo
Price: $20.98 for 6 cookies (plus $4.24 for mandatory tip, taxes and fees)
If this contest were strictly a beauty pageant, I felt Crumbl Cookies would have taken home the crown. This is a gorgeous, chunky cookie, which is generously studded with oversized milk chocolate chips. “It looks like a rocky landscape!” Tracy wrote on her ballot.
It’s also among the most expensive cookies in the corral, costing over $20 for a six pack. That is, until you break down the price per ounce. At 5 ½ ounces each, these husky treats are more like miniature cakes and generous enough to share with two or three friends.
“These are big boys,” Thomas wrote.
Although I personally like a chewy, almost-underbaked cookie, not every judge agreed. “Almost too soft but the exterior was good,” Thomas added.
The majority of our taste-testers also believed the Crumbl entry crumbled slightly in the taste category. Judges commented that it was “blander,” “has an aftertaste,” and “doesn’t have a lot of flavor.”
Several believed the milk chocolate chips made the cookie too sweet. The very slight bitterness of a semi-sweet chip would have added some welcome complexity to its flavor profile.
Insomnia Cookies, 412 Broadway N., Fargo
Price: $2.50 apiece before tax or $13.50 for six-pack
Insomnia Cookies' success is nothing to snooze at: It has made its mark by creating cookies which can be delivered warm to your home or dorm room at practically any hour of the day or night.
Thankfully, its chunky chocolate chip cookie is still pretty good, even if it isn’t prefaced by a night of partying. Texture-wise, it offers a just-right mash-up of crispy exterior with chewy interior. It is liberally studded with big, semi-sweet chocolate chunks. Or, as Lamb quipped: “I like big chunks and I cannot lie.”
(Thank you, Sir Chips-a-Lot.)
A few other tasters viewed the excessive chippiness of these goodies as overkill, with one judge commenting that the irregular shape and bulky chunks made the cookie seem “messy.”
These cookies also do taste slightly less homemade. The online ingredient list included a few extra ingredients to create a softer product with a longer shelf life, such as soy lecithin, monoglycerides and margarine.
Overall, most tasters found the flavor to be above average, even if a few of us thought it was overly sweet.
But Helmut didn’t mind. “Nice and fresh. Hmmm, chocolate,” he wrote.
Great Harvest Bread, 1523 S. University Drive, Fargo
Price: $9.25 for a 6-pack
The Great Harvest entry was unique in that it was the only oatmeal chocolate chip cookie in the lot.
No complaints here, as I like add-ins like coconut, nuts or oatmeal to amp up the flavor and texture in an otherwise basic cookie. (But step away from the raisin box, ma’am, because we’re not psychopaths.)
The cookies themselves were pretty flat — as if the shortening had been too soft.
The chips were used more sparingly, although Thomas believed they were “still enough” for a satisfying bite.
Several tasters noted that the cookies had a grainy quality. It wasn’t chewy, like one would expect from rolled oats, but a grittier consistency which seemed more like steel-cut oats.
Yet a couple of our taste-testers liked the high-fiber bite of this cookie. “It tastes like a cookie Grandma would make,” Tracy said.
Both Tracy and Helmut thought they tasted honey or molasses in the cookie, which added to its homey vibe.
Overall, we thought the cookie was more like a granola bar than a cookie. Stir in some extra protein powder or nuts, cut it into rectangles and you’d have a nice breakfast bar.