Toll House Cookies History: Where Did Nestlé Get the Name For Its Chocolate Chip Recipe?
mobi-logo

Posted on 04 Sep 2014 15:21

What do chocolate cookies have to do with toll houses? Doesn't this seem an odd thing to name a cookie? Well, believe it or not, Nestlé started making chocolate chips in 1939 for the express purpose of making it easier for people to make chocolate chip cookies and these chocolate chips are called Toll House Morsels. If you figure that they couldn't have just pulled such an improbable name out of thin air, you're right. There is a concrete historical connection to the name, and to the recipe for "Original Toll House Cookies" printed on every bag of chips. Original toll house cookies really do derive from the first chocolate chip cookies.


The History of the Chocolate Chip Cookie

The chocolate chip cookie was invented in the small town of Whitman, Massachusetts. In 1930, Ruth and Kenneth Wakefield opened a restaurant in an historical house that, legend has it, had been the home of a famous painter named Frank Vinny Smith. This house was across the street from the Boston/Bedford Turnpike toll gates, so the Wakefields decided to name their restaurant the Toll House. Both the Wakefields were exceptionally qualified to run a restaurant, and the place was a success for many years, even being featured in Life magazine.

Legend has it that one day, Ruth Wakefield was making a batch of Butter Drop-Do cookies, which were an old colonial recipe. This recipe called for nuts, instead of chocolate, but Ruth did not have any nuts on hand. Instead, she decided to chop up a bar of semi-sweet chocolate and mix the pieces into the dough. It is claimed that she expected the pieces to melt and therefore create a type of chocolate cookie, but they did not melt, and so the chocolate chip cookie was born. Although chocolate had not always been so widely available, there were recipes for chocolate cookies, or cookie made with cocoa powder, where the chocolate would be mixed into the dough. For instance, Fannie Merrit Farmer includes such a recipe in the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book from 1896, which used melted Baker's chocolate with butter, sugar, eggs, etc. It is unlikely, to my way of thinking, that Ruth Wakefield would have thought that mixing chunks of chocolate into a cookie dough would have resulted in chocolate cookies, so the "happy accident" part of the story is questionable. She may simply have not know what would happen. As well, the chocolate chips we put into cookies DO melt, they just don't stay melted, but even a casual observation of cookie dough would probably tell you that chocolate chips could never melt and mix themselves into the dough while cooking. Wakefield probably knew what she was doing. She was, after all, a graduate of the Framingham State Normal School Department of Household Arts.


ruth-wakefield.jpg

Ruth Wakefield

ruth-wakefield.jpg

Ruth Wakefield



As for the Butter Drop Do cookies, a very important early American Cookbook by Amelia Simmons, called American Cookery includes a recipe for Butter Drop Do "cake," which is found in the Gingerbread section. Keep in mind that the distinction between cakes and cookies in those days was not as concrete as it is today. This recipe called for mace, and no nuts. It is, however, one of the only historical references to such a recipe I was able to find.

Cookie History versus Cookie Advertising Myth

Now, since a food company became involved, it can be difficult to separate marketing invention from reality. It is hard to say whether the fact that Wakefield "chopped up a Nestlé bar," was as significant at the time as advertising later made it out to be. In this version of the story, she was following a newer recipe for Butter Drop Do cookies, which called for Baker's chocolate. She didn't have any Baker's chocolate, but she did have a bar of Nestlé 's semi-sweet chocolate. Some even go so far as to say this bar had been given to her by Andrew Nestlé himself! She used the Nestlé bar instead of the baker's chocolate, and, a miracle occurred! The pieces of chocolate didn't melt! The great chocolate chip cookie was born, to immediate success at the restaurant and beyond. If you believe that version, well, you've been Nestléfied. Chopped up pieces of Baker's chocolate should not have been expected to act much differently in a cookie than pieces of a Nestlé bar. It is a silly story based on silly assumptions, almost certainly invented after-the-fact for purpose of promotion. But, by whom and to promote what? Come on, I shouldn't have to tell you!

Wow! Unmelted Chocolate! And…Poor Baker's

The idea that there was amazement over the fact that the chocolate pieces didn't melt should have always been a confusing part of this story. After all, chocolate melts at about 90°F. You bake cookies at 375°F. Do Nestlé chocolate chips (and the earlier bar) have some special property that would keep them from melting in a cookie, even though they melt easily on a stove-top over low heat? And is this special property not enjoyed by Baker's chocolate?

Only someone who had never baked a chocolate chip cookie — even from store-bought dough — would buy into this nonsense. Of course the chocolate chips melt. All you have to do is snag a still hot cookie off the pan and pull it apart to see that the chocolate is melted. But there is no way for the melted chocolate to do anything but sit there in its own little pocket. Then, after the cookie cools down, the chocolate solidifies again. This is because the chocolate has been tempered. It is common to see recipes for "chocolate chunk cookies," which use chopped up pieces of semi-sweet (or bitter-sweet) baking chocolate instead of morsels or chocolate chips. They melt during baking…and become solid again after cooling. Big deal. Indeed, more modern advertisements for Toll House cookies have included an image of a still-warm cookie being broken apart to expose the melted chocolate.

Mrs. Wakefield herself clears up some of the confusion over the nuts verses Baker's chocolate versions, and the "wow" factor, saying "I had intended to use Baker's dipping chocolate…but our wholesaler didn't have any." Ironic, since Baker's chocolate was made right up the road. Regardless, she got some Nestle's instead. We are expected to believe that this experienced cook had intended to make chocolate cookies, for which she would have melted Baker's chocolate before mixing it into the dough. Instead, she didn't have Baker's dipping chocolate, so she just threw pieces of Nestle's chocolate into the dough, thinking they would melt. Of course they would melt. But, are we to believe she thought that they would also blend themselves into the dough and make chocolate cookies? Why would Mrs. Wakefield not have melted the Nestle's chocolate if she had intended for the cookies to be chocolate?

However, one possible explanation could be found in a subtle difference in technique that made all the difference in outcome. At the time that Ruth Wakefield was making her fabled batch of cookies, there already existed recipes for chocolate cookies that called for grated baking chocolate. Instead of the chocolate being chopped up into chunks, it was finely grated before being mixed with the other ingredients. These many small pieces of grated chocolate would produce something much more like a uniformly chocolate cookie rather than a chocolate chip cookie. Still, there were other recipes that called for melted chocolate.


early-chocolate-chip-ad.jpg

Early advertisement, c. 1942 promoting Nestlé Toll House Cookies and including
mention of the new Morsels: ""Toll House Cookies made with Nestlé's Semi-Sweet
Chocolate are such a never-failing favorite that we have made the chocolate to fit
the cookies! Nestlé Semi-Sweet is no available in bags of Morsels as well as in
Economy Size Bars. Morsels are just the right size for Toll House Cookies as well as
other famous Semi-Sweet recipes. Both packages have the Original Toll House Recipe
on the wrapper."

early-chocolate-chip-ad.jpg

Early advertisement, c. 1942 promoting Nestlé Toll House Cookies and including
mention of the new Morsels: ""Toll House Cookies made with Nestlé's Semi-Sweet
Chocolate are such a never-failing favorite that we have made the chocolate to fit
the cookies! Nestlé Semi-Sweet is no available in bags of Morsels as well as in
Economy Size Bars. Morsels are just the right size for Toll House Cookies as well as
other famous Semi-Sweet recipes. Both packages have the Original Toll House Recipe
on the wrapper."



The amazement over the non-melted pieces of chocolate in chocolate cookies may have been invented in early advertisements by Nestlé. Then later, even Baker's got in on the act, with early ads saying "How can you possibly bake cakes and cookies with unmelted bits of chocolate in them. It seems like magic!" So, clearly, the miracle had nothing to do with Nestle, who just seized on the opportunity to market the new and popular cookies into a huge business. Baker's was too late but they could have done the same thing, probably. Other chocolate makers tried to follow in Nestle's footsteps, and even some of the companies that made other ingredients used in cookies, such as McCormick (vanilla extract), Spry Shortening, and Gold Medal Flour. You can read much more about this early advertising, as well as a lot more Toll House history, in The Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie Book: Scrumptious Recipes & Fabled History From Toll House to Cookie Cake Pie, by Carolyn Wyman.

Toll House Cookies Go National

It is claimed that Ruth contacted Nestlé after inventing her cookies, and suggested they make a product to make the whole process easier. The company began making a bar that was scored so that it was easier to break into pieces, and then later they developed semi-sweet morsels or chocolate chips. However, it was probably not until the Toll House cookie was featured on the Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air, a radio show with the fictional Betty Crocker character invented by the Washburn-Crosby Company, that the popularity of the new cookies boosted sales of Nestlé's semi-sweet chocolate bar, causing Nestlé to become excited. Washburn-Crosby was the company behind Gold Medal Flour, so there we have our answer as to why Betty Crocker might enthuse about a trending cookie recipe on "her" radio show. Yes, you need chocolate chips or pieces to make the cookies, but you also need Gold Medal flour!1, Soon, Nestlé began scoring their bar into more pieces than it had previously been scored, even including a special chopper. The bar package included the recipe for the cookies. In 1939, Nestlé Toll House Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels were introduced, and included the recipe on the package again. Gold Medal Flour bags also included a recipe for Chocolate Chip Cookies on the back of their bags in the early 1940's.

To be clear, and in case you haven't noticed, the original Toll House Cooke recipe on the back of Nestlé packages included nuts, and so did Mrs. Wakefield's published version of her original recipe. Whether this lends credence to the nut substitution version of the story is hard to say. It is possible that Wakefield used chocolate pieces instead of nuts, and liked the addition, and then later used the same recipe, including the missing nuts, the chocolate just becoming an addition. Based on the quote from Mrs. Wakefield herself, saying she had intended to use Baker's, it seems that nuts were just part of the recipe. Chocolate Chip cookie purists insist on no nuts! Little do they know, it seems.

Although the cookies did not become famous over-night, they were apparently very popular with the restaurant's guests and the recipe was printed in a Boston newspaper, and some other local papers. Mrs. Wakefield then went on to include the recipe in her 1937 book Toll House Tried and True Recipes. In the book, the cookies were called Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookies. The book contains many other baking recipes, including brownies, which were also popular. During the war, according to Mrs. Wakefield, thousands of dozens of the cookies were shipped to boys and girls in service all over the world. "Our Brownies were popular with them too.." she adds.

Original versus Modern Recipe

The Nestlé recipe is simplified and updated to modern baking techniques. The main difference from the original recipe, as given in the book, is that the original called for dissolving 1 teaspoon of baking soda in a teaspoon of water, and then adding this alternately with the flour, to the creamed butter, sugar, and egg mixture. Just like the original, Nestlé calls for chilling the dough, but Mrs. Wakefield recommended chilling the dough overnight and then forming it into balls by hand, and pressing the balls into flat rounds. She claimed that this kept the cookies from spreading as much during the baking. It actually makes little sense to go to the trouble of chilling dough only to roll it between your palms and warm it up, and modern recipes call for either forming the dough into a tube for chilling, and then slicing the tube into rounds, or simply scooping up portions of the dough with a spoon, and mounding them onto the baking sheet.

The Toll House Restaurant Today

The Wakefields retired in 1967 and, sadly, the restaurant building burned down on New Year's Eve in 1984. A Wendy's restaurant now occupies the space, but, as a concession to the significance of the spot, and to meet the town's wishes, the Wendy's is also a sort of "Toll House Museum," displaying photographs of the Wakefields, as well as famous celebrity guests, and newspaper stories about the dramatic fire which claimed the building. In the parking lot stands the colonial bell ringer that used to sit on the front lawn, along with a commemorative plaque erected by Nestlé. The Saccone family had taken over the restaurant in 1973, and greatly expanded on the cookie making front. Today, The Toll House Bakery, in Abington, Ma. still makes cookie doughs, mainly for fundraising activities (such as for schools).

This article contains one or more Amazon affiliate links. See full disclosure.

© 2016 by Eric Troy and CulinaryLore. All Rights Reserved. Please contact for permissions.