Citizens, there is nothing on this Earth that makes the Nabob of NYC – YOUR TFD! – prouder than to say He grew up in Brooklyn in the late 60’s and early 70’s! As a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, I speak very quickly, my accent (while virtually gone) betrays my birthplace and I share an unholy love with all other true citizens of the greatest city on Earth for the iconic black and white cookies found throughout the boroughs!
Sadly, it’s getting harder and harder to find a true black and white as made in the old way – so today, I will teach you to make your own with some grown-up flavor complexity not found in the original! Too often now, it’s just sweet on sweet on sweet – I prefer a harmonious blend of vanilla, almond and lemon in the cookie and that is barely seen today, sadly. Add in a hint of liqueur and rum to complement the two different icings plus a more diverse liquid sugar choice and you’ve got one HELL of a good recipe. 🙂
A black-and-white cookie, half-and-half cookie, or half-moon cookie is a round cookie iced or frosted on one half with vanilla and on the other with chocolate. In the German language they are called ‘Amerikaner’. Black and white cookies are beloved by NYC Jews of all persuasions and it is considered a hallmark Jewish recipe to this very day.
There are regional differences: strictly, a black-and-white cookie is flat, has fondant icing on a shortbread base, and is common in New York City, while a half-moon cookie is slightly dome-shaped, has frosting on a cake base, and is common in Central New York. Often one side is frosted higher than the other. Black-and-white cookies may also be found with frosting instead of fondant.
The origin of the black-and-white cookie in New York City is commonly traced to Glaser’s Bake Shop in Yorkville, founded in 1902 by Bavarian immigrants. The black-and-white cookie was among the original recipes used by the bakery. Sadly, Glaser’s shut its doors in 2018 as noted in this article.
Half-moon cookies, however, can be traced to Hemstrought’s Bakery in Utica, New York, around 1925. The relationship between the two origins is murky; it is likely that both recipes share a common German root, although the origin and name of Amerikaner in Germany is also unclear.
Purported explanations include a corruption of the word Ammoniumhydrogencarbonat (ammonium bicarbonate, a leavening agent), or that the cookie was (re)introduced to Germany by American GIs in the 1950s. German Amerikaner are often frosted entirely with vanilla. In the former East Germany, due to anti-American sentiment, the name Ammonplätzchen (Ammonia cookies) was used.
As eruditely explained in an article from ny.eater.com:
No pastry — except perhaps the cheesecake — is more closely associated with New York City than the black-and-white cookie. This flattened dome of fine-textured cake, with a coating of chocolate and vanilla fondant bisected in the middle to keep the flavors apart, is really not a cookie, but a “drop cake,” as William Grimes points out in a 1998 New York Times article.
Many believe it was descended from a cookie popular for over a century in upstate New York called the “half moon.” This baked good has a cookie-shaped base of chocolate cake (vanilla is a common variation) with a fluffy layer of actual frosting on top, with the same chocolate and vanilla demarcation as the black and white, but with a thicker layer of chocolate frosting. Wikipedia and other suspect sources contend it was invented in Utica by Hemstrought’s Bakery early in the 20th century, but the archaic form of the cookie and the iconography suggest the half moon is much older.
The word “cookie” itself comes from the Dutch word “koekje,” which is pronounced nearly the same as its English equivalent. It simply means “little cake,” suggesting that early cookies brought to this country by Dutch settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries were often just miniature cakes. Other cookie examples that date from that time include gingerbread men and macaroons, neither of which conform to the idea of the modern cookie. Thus our own black and white, rather than being inspired by something from Utica, may date to the city’s own colonial days, when this type of cake-cookie was sold to shoppers as a pick-me-up in baked-good stalls of open-air markets.
The transformation of the cake-cookie by the application of fondant rather than frosting simply makes it more modern and streamlined, and capable of being broadly distributed without smearing the frosting. Yet the image of the half moon remains — a medieval symbol representing the midpoint of the lunar cycle — as a modern reminder of New York City’s remote northern-European past. The moon also symbolizes Diana and the Virgin Mary, both paragons of sexual purity. Never give the black-and-white cookie to another person hoping to get laid!
Also countering the idea that Utica’s half moon inspired our own black and white is the example found at Glaser’s Bake Shop in Manhattan’s Yorkville neighborhood, also mentioned in the Grimes piece. The black-and-white cookie was apparently among the original recipes that Bavarian immigrants John and Justine Glaser used when they opened the bakery in 1902, according to grandson Herb Glaser, making their black and white at least as old as Hemstrought’s half moon.
But the moon symbolology of both cookies was blown out of the water by Seinfeld in a 1994 episode entitled “The Dinner Party.” Set in a bakery, it shows Jerry remaking the pastry as an anti-racist icon: “Look, Elaine, the black-and-white cookie. I love the black and white — two races of flavor living side by side in harmony,” remotely echoing the Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney duet, “Ebony and Ivory.” Jerry later instructs her how to properly eat one: “See, the key to eating the black-and-white cookie, Elaine, is that you want to get some black and some white in each bite…yet somehow racial harmony eludes us. If people would only look to the cookie, all our problems would be solved!”
Also in reference to racial harmony, Barack Obama dubbed them ‘Unity Cookies’ when visiting a deli in Hollywood, Florida in 2008.
Citizens, a black and white isn’t a particularly difficult thing to make – but it must be made properly! First, it’s imperative that the chocolate icing on the cookie be as dark as possible – not brown, not burnt umber, not sepia. DARK AS NIGHT! So, to make sure that is achieved, I add some black cocoa to the icing, which can be purchased here. I also call for a more complexly-flavored sweetener than just light corn syrup – I like to use a 50/50 blend with sorghum syrup, which you can buy here. Lastly, a whisper of dark rum adds its own flavorful touch – it should barely be noticeable.
For the vanilla icing, I add a bit of almond-flavored Frangelico liqueur to complement the cookie – the cookie itself has flavors of almond extract, lemon zest and a secret ingredient proposed by an author at Food and Wine magazine – vanilla pudding mix! It adds flavor and an incredibly tender texture to the cookie that I find irresistable – so my black and white’s are a hybrid between NYC and Utica styles. I also like to use duck eggs in the dough as they are richer, but chicken eggs work just fine if you so prefer – I do not.
Citizens, enjoying this cookie is a sign that you are truly a New Yorker in spirit – please do give them a try and know the unmatched savor of my version! 🙂
Battle on – the Generalissimo