I’m obsessed with these cookies.
They’re the one cookie I want from the display at our local Italian American bakery. We are working class Italian immigrants. Bakeries are a luxury to begin with and I’m a chubby child. This Sunday, for a reason I don’t remember, I get to chose one thing and my sister another. But she wants us to share and cookies are a waste of our time. So I turn to the case of custardy pastries instead.
But they linger in my mind. They look like cake, but colorful, vibrant, covered in chocolate and not sickly sweet American frosting. They’re nothing like the licorice-tasting dry cookies my parents favor. I am five and my sweet tooth is just coming in.
Later, I save up and buy two for a dollar. (Their expense makes them even more desirable.) And they are delicious, or at least I believe they are before I really taste them. The sweetness hits me first, then a lingering bitterness from almonds when I had hoped for pistachio. The chocolate is weak and chalky and oh, how I hate raspberry jam. Mostly, they are beautiful. I’m convinced that I love them but they never taste like my dreams,
Now, as an adult, I sample three things at a new Italian American bakery. The cannoli tells me if the bakery understands texture. The sfogliatelle tells me if the bakery can handle subtlety. And the seven layer cookies tells me if there’s a real baker in the back. It’s a showy cookie that requires a deft hand and patience.
To me, they’re rainbow or flag cookies, but I’m going to stick with seven layers for this post. In most bakeries, they look like this (this is only six layers):
If they’re good, they’re moist and almondy, with a thin layer of fruity jam between the cake, topped with a snappy dark chocolate. Mostly, they’re not good. More bitter extract than almond paste. The cake is crumbly with the off taste of margarine. Candy melts are used instead of chocolate. Corners cut and hope dashed. And rarely fresh. Air is a real enemy of these fragile delights.
I’ve had a few good ones. Here, in the Bronx, at Arthur Avenue, there are bakeries that do a decent job. But, mostly, I’m eating hope and color. A cookie that’s tradition even if it hasn’t earned it in taste. Cheap nostalgia.
I have recipes. All involve thing layers of cake leavened with egg whites. This is way out of my comfort zone. Changing bowls and whipping things into peaks induces anxiety. I tried making them a few years ago and crashed. One of the cake layers didn’t make it. The chocolate crackled. They weren’t even mediocre bakery good.
This year, one of my goals has been to make the things that scare me. And these cookies came to mind. Could I make them taste as good as they looked?
So, to the internet machine for research and planning. Did I have enough cooling racks? Why did both sides of the parchment have to be buttered? Should I try to make pistachio paste? I measured my pans and realized that I’d failed before because I’d used the WRONG SIZE.
I also decided to go green ombre because the traditional cookies read too much like Christmas in my heart and I wanted something that looked like March.
They weren’t easy, but the process was straightforward. I made a few mistakes. A layer cracked in a few places. The apricot jam was too gloppy. And I didn’t add any sugar to the egg whites and I over beat them. But the final cookies were impressive.
Worth it. Worth perfecting. I’ll make them again. For you, maybe. Please give me a reason to make them again.
(Okay, I gobbled a lot of these. I love them and they are a danger to me. Please let me make them for you.)
FYI: I used the Smitten Kitchen recipe. I’ll post with hints and trials/tribulations later.