Talk of the Table // Just (Deli) Desserts
by Rachel Ament
Like much of the Jewish culinary canon, modern Jewish pastries were influenced by the world around them. The familiar cookies we see now in Jewish-style delicatessens were, in many cases, riffs on the desserts of various immigrant groups comingling with Jews in America. Soon after settling in New York, Jewish bakers started “kosherizing” their neighbors’ most in-demand items, altering them to fit Jewish tastes and religious needs. Here are the stories behind some of the most beloved, nostalgia-tinged deli-style cookies.
The black-and-white—a spongy pastry frosted with black fondant on one half and white fondant on the other—isn’t really a cookie. It’s a drop cake. In adherence to the Jewish baking edict of “waste not, want not,” Jewish bakers made the pastries out of leftover cake batter mixed with flour. Marcy Goldman, author of A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking, assumes the cookie is a Western creation, as its decorative approach wasn’t evident in European baking at the time, nor was the use of icing. The cookie may have originated at Glaser’s Bake Shop, a bakery on First Avenue in Manhattan, which has been baking black-and-whites since it first opened in 1902. Another theory: The cookie descended from a similar pastry called “half-moons,” which were invented in a bakery in Utica, New York at the turn of the 20th century.
Today, these iconic edibles continue to be Jewish staples at bakeries, delis, weddings and bar mitzvahs and have even assumed new shapes and forms. Manhattan’s The Donut Pub makes a custard-filled doughnut version, and Le Gourmet on the Upper East Side offers a miniature version of the mainstay, cut in the shape of a heart.
They’ve also become a cultural touchstone. In the 77th episode of Seinfeld, entitled “The Dinner Party,” Jerry delivers some incisive commentary on race relations: “If people would only look to the [black-and-white] cookie, all our problems would be solved!” Indeed, the black-and-white cookie has been heralded as an emblem of coexistence, a melding of opposites, the Western version of yin and yang. It was even christened the “unity cookie” by Barack Obama when he ordered one at a Florida kosher deli on the campaign trail in 2008.
But the black-and-white can be divisive, too. Over the past century, New Yorkers have argued over how best to bite into the treat. Some eat all of the black side and then all of the white, while others take a more indecisive approach, burrowing down the center. Commitment-phobes tend to alternate between sides, enjoying both flavors at once. But no matter the method, how you bite can say a lot about who you are. As Molly O’Neill wrote in The New York Times, “New Yorkers…can measure a man by the tracks of his teeth imprinted in a black-and-white cookie.”
The Jewish rainbow cookie, a moist tri-color confection of pink, yellow and green, was inspired by another immigrant pastry: an Italian-American dessert also known as the rainbow cookie, whose original colors were pink, white and green—an homage of sorts to the Italian flag. That cookie began to morph as Jews and Italians started moving into the same neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side and their cultures and cuisines began to mix. Culinary scholars theorize that Jewish bakers started making the cookie pareve after being inundated with requests from their Jewish customers. The Jewish and Italian versions are similar—both consist of almond-based layers, brushed with raspberry jam and encased in chocolate.
Jewish bakers did make one major change, in addition to eliminating butter from the recipe: They started coloring the white layer with yellow dye to make it look more like a rainbow and less like an Italian flag, according to Stanley Ginsberg, author of Inside the Jewish Bakery: Recipes and Memories from the Golden Age of Jewish Baking. In more recent years, Jewish hostesses and caterers have turned this crowd favorite into a Hanukkah treat by adding blue and white dyes to the batter. Some Jewish celebrities are rainbow-cookie devotees: Ivanka Trump orders them regularly for Shabbat meals. “Even when she’s on trips, they’re on the menu,” says Laura Frankel, a popular kosher caterer in Chicago.
Recently, the cookies have been imbued with new symbolism. To celebrate the legalization of gay marriage this past summer, the Connecticut-based kosher catering company Challah Connection featured an image of its rainbow cookies on the front page of its website with the message “Never had these treasured cookies had such meaning.” The company was shocked when they received outraged e-mails asking how Jews could support gay marriage. The company didn’t back down. “We were glad we did and we’d do it again,” says Ann Delaurentis, the company’s director of customer service.
The black-and-white cookie has been heralded as an emblem of coexistence, a melding of opposites, the western version of yin and yang. It was even christened the “unity cookie” by Barack Obama when he ordered one at a Florida kosher deli on the campaign trail in 2008.
Almond Cookies a.k.a. Chinese Cookies
The Jewish almond cookie, also known as the Chinese cookie, was, as its nickname-sake implies, a Chinese invention. A century ago, Jews frequented Chinese restaurants not just because they served moo shu chicken (or “safe treif”) but because they were the only dining establishments open on Sundays and, of course, Christmas. The restaurants offered almond cookies in addition to fortune cookies, and soon Jewish bakers started revising the recipe to fit Jewish dietary needs.
According to Ginsberg, the Jewish version of the cookie is less grainy than the Chinese version, which he attributes to the use of almond paste and hydrogenated vegetable shortening instead of almond flour and liquid oil. Jewish bakers also added their own decorative flourishes to the cookie, dropping a blanched almond or a big chocolate drop in the center. In Israel, bakers whip up a healthier version of the pastry, enriching the batter with tahini and honey and topping it with poppy seeds.
Caterer Frankel says the almond cookies have remained a hit among Jews because they are so “perfectly, wonderfully pareve.” She says that the almond paste base makes the cookie satisfying, even without milk or margarine. “There are a lot of cookies that should really never be made pareve…but the almond cookie isn’t one of them,” says Frankel.
Mandelbrot, that twice-baked, oblong Jewish pastry, defies culinary convention. Like biscotti, its brother from an Italian mother, mandelbrot straddles the line between cookie and biscuit, its texture mealy and crunchy, its flavor earthy and sweet. Literally translated from German or Yiddish as “almond bread,” mandelbrot, or mandel bread, is baked in an almond-studded loaf and then cut into thin slices. Unlike biscotti, however, mandelbrot is soft and supple enough to be enjoyed on its own, no espresso-dunking required.
Although mandelbrot’s origin is unknown, Joan Nathan speculates in her book Jewish Cooking in America that the large Jewish population in the Piedmont region of Italy may have brought biscotti to Eastern Europe, where vegetable oil made its way into the recipe. Mandelbrot’s dryness made it durable, which appealed to Jewish sailors and merchants at sea. It also attracted Shabbat hostesses who needed snacks that could stay fresh through Saturday night.
In America, bakers revised the recipe for 20th-century palates. Penny Eisenberg, author of Amazing Passover Desserts: New, Easier, and Quicker Recipes, says that American Jews dusted cinnamon and sugar onto the dessert and glammed it up with fancy fillings: pecans, pistachios, walnuts, chocolate, dried fruit, chocolate chips, and even lavender and Earl Grey tea. Over the years, the cookie has become a traditional Tu B’Shevat sweet, its almond paste base symbolizing the almond trees of Israel, the first trees to bloom in the region.
Mandelbrot’s recent revival hasn’t helped the cookie escape its stodgier past, however. As Lenore Skenazy, author of Who’s the Blonde That Married What’s-His-Name?: The Ultimate Tip-of-the-Tongue Test for Everything You Know You Know—But Can’t Remember Right Now, wrote in The Jewish Daily Forward, “Biscotti are the world’s coolest cookies, the supermodels of sweets: tall, thin, Italian, expensive…Mandel bread is something your grandma brings over in a tin lined with paper towels.” But on some days, that might be exactly the kind of dessert you need.