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Friday, December 19, 2008

Cookie Lovers and Homesick New Yorkers Rejoice: Venetian (Rainbow) Cookies

You can spot a homesick New Yorker from a mile away. No matter where they live, when they refer to going to "the city" they mean a flight to Manhattan, not a trip to the nearest metro center. Mentioning the words "bagel" or "deli" provokes at least a 15 minute diatribe about how those things don't really exist outside of New York. But recently I was introduced to one of New York's better kept food secrets: Rainbow cookies. These are fantastic, festive, indulgent bars of almond paste, redolent with butter, layered with raspberry jam and semisweet chocolate. They are the luxurious smattering together of all things good and holiday.



My sister-in-law (a Brooklynite) commissioned a baker to make her wedding cake modeled on Rainbow cookies (fyi: the best wedding cake I've ever tasted). My mother-in-law (a transplanted New Yorker now living in North Carolina) now makes these every year for Christmas, so I tried making them by myself this year. They are definitely a slightly fussy and expensive cookie to make. But I found myself sort of charmed by this characteristic. These cookies aren't the easy going girl next door. They are more like the classy, head-turning, high-maintenance Hollywood starlet. They hog the center of attention at any decent cookie exchange.



Remember how I said they were redolent with butter? I wasn't kidding. There is nothing skinny about these tasty treats. And in some recipes I will tinker here and there to improve the nutritional content, but here I'm putting my foot down. These are a nearly hedonistic indulgence. So go ahead and indulge in small quantities. Go tasty or go home folks.

When I put these out at a holiday gathering at our place, the homesick New Yorkers were immediately obvious, because they were the ones who started gasping and drooling at first sight. My friend M. sputtered, "You...you, you have...those are rainbow cookies!" And soon all the non-New Yorkers in the room had also been converted to the tasty indulgence of Rainbow cookies (also known as Venetian cookies).


Recipes for these treats vary surprisingly little across the internet. So I am presenting here the modal approach.


Venetian (Rainbow) Cookies

Traditional cookie recipe (also featured in Gourmet December 1999)

7-8 oz. marzipan paste or almond paste
1 cup sugar
3 sticks unsalted butter, softened
4 large eggs, separated
1 teaspoon almond extract (could add 1/4 tsp more)
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour (sift before measuring)
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 different colors of food coloring
12-oz jar raspberry jam (preferably seedless)
6 ounces semisweet or dark chocolate chips


Cooks notes: Do not make this dough ahead of baking. It will not keep well. Only prepare this dough when you are able to bake it immediately. You can, however, delay the rest of the assembly after you have baked the dough.

Also, for reasons I cannot explain, these cookies are best three days after assembling them. Just trust me on this one.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare the baking pans: Find three equally sized metal 13 X 9" pans, preferably with edges that are not sloping. Grease each pan well with butter. Cut a piece of waxed paper to fit the long sides of the pan perfectly, and to extend several inches over the short sides of the pan (you will use these to help you lift the baked dough out to cool). Line bottom of each with wax paper and grease the paper. (Note: if you try to be clever and skip the initial greasing, the waxed paper will slide all over the place and produce odd wrinkles in the dough as it bakes, making it more likely to crack when you remove it).

Make the dough:Crumble the almond paste into small pieces between your fingers and process with sugar in food processor until no lumps remain. Do not rush this step, or you will find the subsequent formation of the dough more difficult. Transfer to a large mixer bowl and add butter. Beat with an electric mixer until fluffy. This may take some effort and patience, and is greatly helped if you have fresher almond paste or marzipan. Next add yolks and almond extract and beat well. Beat in flour and salt on low.

In a separate bowl with cleaned beaters (no fat residue, which inhibits volume in egg whites), beat egg whites until they just hold stiff peaks. Next you are going to fold the batter and whipped egg whites together. You are trying to retain as much volume from the fluffy egg whites as possible, but the almond paste dough is quite heavy and, if you haven't beaten sufficiently, fairly stiff. Do the best you can and resist the urge to feel defeated. At one point I was more or less mashing the dough into the egg whites and they still turned out just fine. A good approach is to start by combining one third of the egg whites into the batter to lighten it a bit (it will still be stiff) and then fold in remaining whites until thoroughly combined.

Divide the dough into thirds (about 1 1/2 cups each). Now you will color the different layers of dough. If you want a festive Christmas look, use green food coloring for one layer, red for another, and leave the third white. If making for Hanukkah, they could easily be colored blue and white or blue and yellow.

Spread each dough into one of the prepared pans. Use a spatula to be sure the dough spreads evenly, but the dough will be very thin. Bake layers in middle of oven (I did two together and then the third alone in the oven) until just set and beginning to turn golden along edges, 7 to 10 minutes total. Pry with a knife gently along the edges to loosen. While still hot, invert a wire cooling rack over the pan and invert layer onto rack. If the layer does not separate easily, pull gently on the wax paper wings.

Peel off wax paper and cool completely.

To assemble: Using one of the cooled metal 9 x 13 pans, or another shallow baking pan, line with wax paper and slide whichever color is your bottom layer into it. Top with half of jam, spreading evenly. Carefully situate your desired middle layer on top of the jam, taking care to make sure the edges match up evenly. Spread remaining jam evenly over this middle layer and carefully top with your final layer. Depending on the degree to which your pan edges sloped, you may want to trim the edges.

Cover with plastic wrap and weight with a large cutting board or baking pan (I found two cake mix boxes and a cutting board worked well). Standard approaches recommend that you chill at least 3 hours, but I found 1.5-2 hours on my cold Chicago fire escape worked wonderfully.

Once the bars are cooled, begin preparing chocolate. Melt chocolate in a double boiler or a metal bowl set over a pan of gently simmering water, whisking often. Remove weight and plastic wrap and spread chocolate evenly over top--but not sides--of your top layer. Let stand at room temperature until firm but not completely set, about 1 hour. I found that allowing the chocolate to completely cool made it quite firm, which made it more likely to crack while cutting it. If you can catch the chocolate when it is firm enough not to run or goop up your knife, but not yet fully set, that would be the time to cut. If it fully sets, don't worry. Just score the top of the chocolate with a sharp knife to provide "breaking lines" in the chocolate before trying to cut. Then cut from each side towards the middle (the chocolate is more likely to crack as you cut towards the outside, rather than towards the middle).

The classic presentation is to cut into small diamonds, making 12 rows crosswise and 12 diagonal rows. That will also give you, of course, a bunch of leftover triangles on the outside. To minimize waste, I opted to cut into long thin rectangles instead.

10 comments:

Darius T. Williams said...

I could never do something like this - but this looks amazing! AMAZING!

Sarah said...

I'm a New Yorker who LOOOOOVES rainbow cookies. There's a bakery in my neighborhood that makes a cake based on them also! It's the go-to birthday cake in my family.

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Kevin said...

Those bars look really good. Nice colours.

Happy new year!

Stephanie said...

how funny! i JUST blogged about these cookies myself. I am a transplanted New Yorker to Florida, along with my boyfriend and his whole family. Here, you can't find any decent rainbow cookies, so every Christmas, when everyone gets together, I make these beauties. There are new fights every year: someone snook away while the presents were being opened to steal a bite, or someone cut off a whole row to make it look like they didn't have any... all in good fun. Something happens in ex-New Yorkers brains when they see these cookies. I love the colors you use in yours, beautiful!!!! What was the wedding cake modeled after these cookies like?? I'm so intrigues!!

Del Schnell said...

I love the look of those Venetian cookies, but I must tell you:

I am NOT a homesick New Yorker,

I am a New Yorker who is sick of home -- LOL.

Deb Mele said...

Very pretty! I am used to seeing more traditional colors of red and yellow, but your bars are certainly eye catching!

Ann said...

Ugh. I made this cookie this year, but I dropped one of the layers on the floor right as I was assembling the layers. I ended up just cutting another layer in half and attempting to make it that way, but it wasn't the same. It's good though, real good.

Vicki (Houston) said...

These are AWESOME! I just baked some yesterday - very time consuming and diffcult since I don't bake often - but worth every bite. Rainbow Cookies seem to have some addictive quality... Thanks for posting this recipe!

Chris said...

The first time I made these was for my husband, who grew up on Long Island. I just made these for my cookie exchange. My recipe was almost identical, except it called for a 12 ounce jar of apricot preserves. I found that processing the preserves in the food processor before straining them (called for in my recipe) made the preserves spread really easily. A pizza cutter made the slicing a snap.

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