No fewer than seven people had chocolate on their face when I walked into the newest location of Levain Bakery, on Lafayette in Noho, last week. Levain, which opened its first location on the Upper West Side in 1995, sells over a dozen other baked goods — including baguettes, round loaves of wheat, small pizzas, ciabatta, brioche, and muffins — but most people, “probably like 90 percent,” according to one staffer, come for the cookies. Prior to opening the Noho location, Levan sold just four varieties: chocolate chip-walnut, dark chocolate chip, dark chocolate peanut butter chip, and oatmeal raisin. Its newest offering, dubbed the “two chip” because it contains both semisweet and dark chocolate chips, makes it five. Levain says this is its first new cookie flavor in 25 years, and for people who follow such developments, it’s a very big deal.
Levain is wildly popular. In 1997, two years after Levain opened, the New York Times called its signature product the “largest, most divine chocolate chip cookies in Manhattan.” Since then, its cookies have been named the best in New York by seemingly every publication, including, in 2005, in this one. They garner international praise. Blake Lively, Andy Cohen, Ellie Kempner, Danielle Brooks, and a dozen other celebrities have professed their love. Nearly 200,000 people follow Levain Bakery on Instagram; thousands more tag the bakery in their photographs of its gooey, craggy, chocolate-studded cookies. This is a boulder of a cookie, with a size, texture, and heft that approximates an experienced baker’s fist.
I say this as a former baker and pastry chef myself. After college, I went to culinary school to study pastry, and then to France, where I spent time in kitchens run by Joël Robuchon, Georges Blanc, and Michel Troisgros. I worked as a pastry chef and private chef for 10 years before shifting to journalism. Like most other American-born kids, I grew up with chocolate chip cookies, a cookie as American as capitalism.
The cookie, of course, was famously invented in 1938, when Ruth Wakefield, owner of the Toll House restaurant in Whitman, Massachusetts, published her recipe for Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookies in her Tried and True cookbook. A year later, Wakefield sold Nestle the rights to her recipe for $1.
Over the years, many innovations have been applied — with varying degrees of success — to the original recipe. Levain’s cookies are six ounces and about four inches wide by an inch or so high. (The company doesn’t share specific ingredient information, but they do say that the cookies contain dairy, eggs, and wheat, and note that they’re produced in a facility that handles tree nuts, peanuts, and soy.) Besides making a cookie so massive it couldn’t be ignored, Levain did two other important things to ensure its cookies stood out: It baked the cookies fresh at least every 30 minutes, ensuring each customer received a warm cookie, and it started in a space so small that only a few people could fit inside at a time, resulting in a near-permanent line out the door. Levain’s new locations are larger, but the size and freshness of its cookies has stayed the same. And until this year, it didn’t budge when customers asked for a chocolate chip cookie without walnuts.
“People have been asking almost since day one why we didn’t make a chocolate chip cookie without walnuts,” co-owner Pam Weekes told the Post. “We’re chocolate chip-walnut cookie people. We’d never done one without [nuts], but we finally caved.” Levain’s two-chip is built out of the same dough it uses for its signature chocolate chip-walnut, except instead of semisweet chocolate chips and walnuts, bakers fold in semisweet chocolate chips and dark-chocolate chips.
After you order a cookie at the counter at Levain, the cashier turns around and gently picks up a fragile cookie with a piece of bakery tissue paper. It’s slipped into a paper bag and handed over with a (laughably insufficient) single white square paper napkin. The cookie’s warmth radiates through the bag, and its heft is comforting. It is the weighted blanket of pastries.
The first thing everyone does when they pull a Levain cookie out of the bag is break it into two. This is something of an ingrained cultural tic — learned from commercials, magazine ads, or social media — which quickly demonstrates how fresh the cookie is: If the chocolate chips are still warm, they’ll stretch, pleasingly, between the two halves and the inside of the cookie will be a bit gooey. Levain’s cookies are served very fresh and are, by design, almost raw inside. The many, many chocolate chips are no longer chips but puddles of chocolate, and the inside is a damp, warm mass of undercooked dough, gooey and soft.
Americans love cookie dough. Despite Department of Health warnings and countless news reports, people eat cookie dough. They like to remember sneaking a bit of cookie dough out of the mixing bowl as a kid, the adrenaline rush of a very petty theft acting as an appetizer to the sugar rush. “There’s a lot of memories people have, I think, of a mom or a family member baking cookies at home and getting to have a taste of the batter,” says Dr. Mary Ellen Camire, a food scientist at the University of Maine. “Cookie dough is a different texture, and it’s a different taste from a baked cookie.” Camire notes that little kids who might be missing some of their teeth tend to really like it: “It’s easy to get into your mouth in smaller pieces, and the dough is in a liquid state,” she says. “With a baked cookie, we have to use saliva to wet it, and chew it a little, before we can start to taste it. Sugar-based doughs and batters dissolve in our mouths, so we can taste them immediately.”
New Yorkers in the know have been safely satisfying their craving for raw cookie dough since 1995 by lining up at Levain, where the cookies have always been extremely underbaked. You can pull out some of the inside of a Levain two-chip and roll it into a small ball of dough. The melted chocolate makes this a messy endeavor, but there it is, a nubbin of cookie dough, likely safe enough to eat after spending a spell in the oven. It is so sweet that it makes my salivary glands ache.
As I ate this new cookie, I looked for the nutty flavor of browned butter but couldn’t taste it past the sugar. There was the scent of vanilla and a bit of molasses. There was so much chocolate. I wanted the roasted, fruity, earthy flavors of dark chocolate to balance out the sweetness of this cookie, but they didn’t.
When I asked what kind of chocolate Levain used, my cashier had to get a manager. “We don’t actually give out our brands, but it’s one you can get at your local grocery store,” the manager told me. When I prodded further, she estimated that the semisweet chocolate chips were around the level of “a Toll House or Nestle” semisweet chocolate chip, which is 47 percent cacao solids to sugar and other ingredients, while the dark chocolate chips were “around 60 percent.” (Two emails to the company went unanswered.)
As far as dark chocolate is concerned, this is not very dark. Jacques Torres’s chocolate chip cookies, which blew up around 12 years ago, use at least 60 percent chocolate throughout. In Chicago at Mindy’s Hot Chocolate, chef Mindy Segal makes her chocolate chip cookies with 64 percent chocolate. And the author Dorie Greenspan, who once ran a cookie shop called Beurre et Sel in Manhattan, writes in her book Dorie’s Cookies that she prefers to use bittersweet chocolate, which the industry agrees is at least 70 percent cacao.
Regardless of how much sugar is in Levain’s chocolate chip cookie dough, the type and amount of chocolate it uses produces a cookie that’s so sweet it blows out the taste buds. This can be a very good thing or a not-so-good thing, depending on who you are, what stage of life you’re in, what you want from your cookies. I found it impossible to eat an entire Levain cookie, even with a cup of water and a coffee. Eating half of one made me feel as though I had accomplished a feat, not unlike finishing a kale salad.
For me, the effort required to enjoy a cookie like Levain’s defeats the purpose. I like being able to eat one without feeling ill. I like a chocolate chip cookie with a balance of flavor and texture, a little crisp on the edges, a little chew, and a little gooey in the center. I like tasting the butter and brown sugar first, followed by the vanilla and toasted flour, and then the chocolate’s many flavors as I chew. Levain’s cookie is significantly less complex and, frankly, tastes a little cheap.
Still, it seems a lot of Americans want this nostalgia-tinged comfort, and they want it in as many places and forms as they can get it. By some estimates, Levain is selling more than $6 million in cookies a year. After years of resisting expansion, it’s growing, even as copycats like Chip in NYC and Dutchess in Miami serve up gooey flavors like peanut butter jelly, funfetti, and strawberry shortcake to new, adoring fans.
As I ate my cookie in the NoHo store, listening to Destiny Child’s “Independent Woman” playing on the sound system, I noticed a woman video recording herself eating the two-chip. “It’s great,” she said loudly, while chewing. “It’s so warm and gooey. I’m so glad they got rid of the nuts. Look at all of that chocolate!” She looked so happy, but then her expression changed. She saw something as she looked back at herself on the screen. “I have to put the phone down now because I have chocolate on my face. Byeeee!”