This Is What It’s Like to Make America’s Most Famous Cookie

We sat down with the founders of Levain Bakery to talk inspiration, copycats and their favorite items in the shop

March 21, 2023 6:30 am
a stack of levain cookies cut in half
If you've never tasted one of these coveted confections, you're truly missing out
Levain Bakery

When Pam Weekes and Connie McDonald first opened their New York City bakery in 1995 — long before the sourdough baking craze of pandemic lockdown days — it was with the goal of providing New Yorkers with phenomenal bread. As such, the name they chose for the bakery seemed like the perfect fit.

Levain is a French term for a sourdough starter,” Weekes and McDonald say. “It can be hard to pronounce if you don’t know the origin, but we sort of love that — it creates fun debate and conversation.”

Despite starting out with sourdough, Levain Bakery is now renowned for its softball-sized cookies, which New Yorkers know quite well. And Weekes and McDonald are far from mad about the spotlight shifting. The cookies, after all, play their part in the bakery’s origin story, albeit as a bit of a B plot to the central narrative

The idea for a bread bakery sprouted during, of all things, grueling training for Ironman in the early ‘90s. While the longtime friends had already found success in their respective careers in fashion and finance, they took advantage of this time together to discuss a shared sensation: the call of something new.

“During those training rides, we had a lot of time to talk and dream and think through those big life questions, like ‘what’s next?,’” Weekes and McDonald say. Conversations that started during the rides would often continue while enjoying their post-training snack. “We’d finish our workouts and would be ravenous,” they say. “We made these cookies to satisfy our seemingly never-ending hunger.”

Their first bakery was set within an existing restaurant. Following its success, they opened their own space, the now famed flagship on West 74th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. “It was tiny and needed a lot of TLC, but it was perfect for us,” they say.

If you’ve ever seen the line out the door of the now-famous address, you’d be surprised to learn that the early days were slow. Starved for something to do, “one day, Connie whipped up a small batch of our chocolate chip walnut cookies and they sold out immediately! The rest is history,” Weekes says.

Pam Weekes and Connie McDonald of levain bakery holding a tray of cookies
Pam Weekes and Connie McDonald holding a tray of their famous cookies
Levain Bakery

If the cookies are so beloved, it’s partly because of their consequential size. The heft of the six-ounce confections leads to the ideal crispy-on-the-outside, gooey-on-the-inside texture. It’s a characteristic only helped by the fact that Levain Bakery sells them fresh out of the oven — and even off the trays on which they are baked. “We bake cookies all day long, every day, in each bakery,” they say. “Ideally, nothing is cold before it is in your box.”

It’s no surprise that the cookies quickly gained a fan following, but despite lines out the door, Weekes and McDonald wanted expansion to happen in a sustainable way to ensure quality control. In fact, the Levain in Wainscott, New York opened five years after the original. “We’re able to expand at a faster rate [now], but we’re still incredibly careful in choosing our locations,” they say. To date, there are 11 Levains spread throughout New York, Washington, D.C., Boston and Chicago, with an additional location opening this spring in Los Angeles.

Still, sometimes the expansion doesn’t go quickly enough, as there’s a plethora of recipe developers around the world attempting to imitate their beloved cookies. “We are so flattered by the copycats,” they say. “We are always impressed at how fast they do it.”

For example, a dark chocolate peppermint cookie was released just in time for the holidays late last year, only to be replicated a mere few days later. But did it come close? “We think ours will always be a little different,” they say coyly, and they’re certainly not sharing any of their secrets. 

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Levain Bakery has five permanent cookie flavors on offer: dark chocolate chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, dark chocolate peanut butter chip, two chip chocolate chip and the flagship chocolate chip walnut. A handful of seasonal specials pop up from time to time — like the caramel coconut chocolate chip cookie that is launching this spring on April 3 — which are labors of love and loads of research. “You would be surprised how long developing a new cookie takes,” they say. “We go through lots and lots of trials before we consider a recipe ready for show time.”

Seasonality and upcoming holidays often inspire the cookies, which are also crafted with a heaping helping of good old fashioned nostalgia. “A lot of our cookies are created from cookies that we both love to make at home and taste memories that we grew up with,” they say. “For example, our fall chocolate chunk is a variation of a cookie we used to make at home for many years. And our upcoming spring cookie is inspired by a taste memory from our youth.”

But one new addition is particularly near and dear to their hearts: a vegan, gluten-free iteration of the original chocolate chip walnut cookie that launched in early March, made with cashew butter and born of one of their core values, “welcome all.”

Even the cookie-averse (uh, who are you?) can find something to fall for at Levain. The bakery still sells its sourdough bread, as well as muffins, brioche, coffee cake and more. And aside from the cookies, each of the pair has a personal favorite in the bakery case. For McDonald, it’s a tie between ciabatta with olive oil and salt or whole wheat raisin walnut bread with peanut butter. As for Weekes, she says “Anything with chocolate, but always our Valrhona chocolate rolls.”


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