When the National Capital Area YWCA ceased baking its famed chocolate chip cookie in 1981, the dismay of some cookie loyalists rivaled the response of baseball fans when the Washington Senators left town a few years earlier.
On the cookie's last official day -- the Y was moving into a new building without a commercial kitchen -- the scene veered toward high drama. Even out-of-town newspapers covered it. The New York Times said the line to buy the cookies -- "crisp but chewy, large as saucers, oozing with pecans and chocolate chips" -- wound through the Y's soon-to-be demolished K Street headquarters and down the block. "It was a madhouse. People were jumping the line and when the cookies ran out, why, those people were ready to commit murder," baker Wilhelmina Hebron told the paper. The cookies were available from a kiosk and a few other places for a while, before they disappeared for good.
Baseball is back. And soon the YWCA will be back to selling chocolate chip cookies. It won't, however, be the version some still dream about. That recipe -- alas -- was never written down.
"They were cookies to die for," says syndicated columnist and commentator Mark Shields. His remembrance of cookies past prompted him to volunteer as a judge in a bake-off the Y sponsored last week to select its new chocolate chip cookie.
The winning entry will be sold by the National Capital Area YWCA from Sept. 28 through the end of the year as part of the Y's centennial celebration. Executive director Orysia Stanchak says she hopes the cookie revival will raise funds for YWCA programs while reminding area residents of the Y's contributions. "For 100 years, the National Capital Area Y has been providing training and social services to women, regardless of their race or ethnicity," she says. "In 1944, we were the first public facility to integrate our lunchroom."
The bake-off came about from necessity. "The original recipe was a big secret," Stanchak says. "For 30 years, from 1951 to 1981, the same four women baked the cookies. They never wrote the recipe down, and they never revealed the cookie's secret ingredient. It would appear they took what they knew to their graves."
Starting from scratch to find a new recipe was daunting -- "chocolate-chip cookie" brings nearly 900,000 hits on Google -- so Stanchak narrowed the search to recipes submitted by local applicants.
The faculty of the Stratford University School of Culinary Arts & Hospitality in Falls Church selected 10 finalists, based on the quality of their recipes. Bake-off finalists were vying for the thrill of having their creation produced and marketed.
"If the cookie takes off and we are able to bake and ship it at reasonable cost, who knows how far this thing can go?" asked Stanchak. "I keep thinking Keebler."
All 10 contestants, each with a food processor, measuring cups, scoops and rubber scraper, crowded along the length of two stainless steel tables in one of Stratford's brightly lighted teaching kitchens July 12.
Most chattered and laughed, but a few worked with silent intensity. The heat in the room crept past the comfort point as the professional ovens reached their designated temperatures.
Lawyer Christine Lee revealed that she had repeatedly taste-tested her cookie on her office mates. "Actually," she admitted, "I am pretty sick of making this cookie."
Stratford student Patricia Walls of Oxon Hill, seeking what she called "an infusion of flavors and textures," added graham cracker crumbs, blackstrap molasses and white chocolate bits to her batter.
Paralegal Sarah Croake created a cookie combining bits of salty pretzels, peanut butter and chocolate.
Ann Brown, a former neonatal nurse who works as a volunteer pastry chef at a homeless shelter, incorporated Guittard chocolate bits and roasted hazelnuts.
As flour was scooped and eggs were cracked, contestants remained amiable.
"I've seen competitions get pretty nasty," commented Dan Traster, dean of the cooking school. "We gave the contestants lots of time -- 1 hour and 45 minutes. We wanted the winner to be the best recipe, not the most polished cook."
Each baker picked her best-looking specimens and arranged them on a plate with her identification number for the judges. The rest were gathered on large platters for general tasting.
In the judging room, the nine judges were given rating sheets to assess each cookie's taste, creativity, appearance and overall excellence on a scale of 1 to 5.
National Public Radio senior news analyst Cokie Roberts said she didn't have a particular tasting technique because "I never did this before."
Shields said he has been to the Iowa State Fair, "so I know what I am doing." He took a large bite and gobbled down the whole cookie. "This is an enormous responsibility," he said.
Husband and wife jazz musicians Davey Yarborough and Esther Williams shared their cookies.
The culinary professional judges -- Stratford's Traster, chef Janis McLean of the Red Dog Cafe in Silver Spring and retired baker Dorothy Schoeneman -- took small bites and stopped to contemplate.
Soon the pace of tasting slowed. Shields, still eating whole cookies, approached No. 9, groaned and said, "I can't keep up the pace."
One judge called for more milk.
Then it was over, and the sheets were tabulated.
Croake, creator of the salty pretzel and peanut butter cookie, was the second runner-up.
Brown, who made the roasted hazelnut chocolate chip cookie, was the first runner-up.
And the winner was Walls, a home cook and baker with a background in nursing. She entered Stratford's culinary school this spring hoping to start a business with her daughter that will teach clients about healthy eating. Walls had named her graham cracker crumb and molasses cookie "the new-fashioned chocolate chip cookie."
Williams pronounced it "just the way a chocolate chip cookie should taste -- not too crispy or too chewy."
Orders for the new-fashioned cookie can be placed by going to www.ywcanca.org and following the prompts from "news and events." The Y is working out the price with local bakeries. Quantities will be limited.
Freelance writer Michaele Weissman last wrote for Food about office coffee clubs.