Rainbow coloring has become a visual assault on perfectly delicious, albeit stubbornly beige, foods with the rise of social media bait eating, accosting everything from waffles to pasta. They rarely taste as loud as they look on Instagram. That same flash over substance applies to a more historic multi-hued food, too: the rainbow cookie. Born before social media, Food Network, or even television, rainbow cookies have long been more attractive than certifiably good — often a menagerie of industrialized chocolate, overly sweet jam, and way too much artificial almond flavor.
But recently, a fresh crop of New York chefs is remaking the iconic rainbow cookie with more deference to craft than nostalgia. Almond paste and jam gets made in-house, and higher end chocolate comes into play. Less traditional ingredients such as caramel appear, and experimental cooking methods go into them, too. For some chefs, it’s a way to renew dignity in a classic immigrant food — and to make a product they actually want to eat and serve.
“With any immigrant cuisine, there are always going to be people who like dishes based on memories of their grandparents and parents. But that’s not good enough,” says Paige Lipari, owner of Archestratus, a culinary bookstore and cafe in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. “Commercial baking is not nourishing, and we don’t have to do it the way it’s ‘always’ been done.”
Rainbow cookies are an entirely Italian-American invention that hit bakery cases around the early 1900s. Essential ingredients include almond paste, butter, flour, sugar, eggs, green and red food coloring, jam (raspberry or apricot), and chocolate. It’s a format that took flavors of home (i.e., almond cakes and cookies) and reconfigured them into a colorful layered confection that celebrated heritage with the bold hues of the Italian flag.
Since then, they’ve become a beloved staple of Italian-American bakeries, Long Island baby showers, and holiday cookie plates.
Eater talked to several tristate area chefs digging into their heritage to celebrate the cookie and attempting to restore the reputation of one of the original rainbow foods.
Lipari grew up on Long Island and in Brooklyn, and her Sicilian-American grandparents owned a latticini freschi in Bushwick that specialized in housemade ricotta and mozzarella, along with imported Italian pantry items. Steeped in Sicilian-American food traditions, Lipari traveled to Sicily to study its cuisine before opening Archestratus.
For years, Lipari has given out rainbow cookies and other treats to friends during the holidays, and she had long been tweaking a new-school recipe. “I was always excited to see them in the bakery case, but they never tasted as good as they could have,” she says.
Her rainbow cookies at Archestratus have an almost fudgy density, and Lipari sells them as hefty bars rather than bite-sized cookies. Each layer, deeply saturated in Sicilian jewel tones, has a distinct flavor. She adds lemon zest to the yellow layer, fresh raspberries to the red, and chopped pistachios to the green. “I tried to up the acidity, tartness, and nuttiness that gets flattened by almond extract,” she says. Lipari also uses premium ingredients: Plugra butter, homemade almond paste, Bonne Maman jam, 72 percent Guittard chocolate, and Maldon sea salt.
“I’m not obsessed with getting Sicilian food perfectly correct. The cookies I make don’t exist in Sicily. They exist within me as a Sicilian American,” says Lipari, whose rainbow cookies are so popular that she will start selling them wholesale this summer.
The success of Vic’s rainbow cookies was born out of a back of house blunder. Chef Hillary Sterling wanted to make a composed dessert for Easter with a rainbow cookie at the center of the plate, but right before her team opened the doors for Easter brunch, she discovered her cooks had arranged and glazed the layers horizontally instead of vertically. “I was freaking out. What are these cookies? Why are they backwards?” she says.
Sterling’s vision of the composed dessert was dashed, and she handed the cookies out for free. Diners loved them, though, and from that day forward, the misoriented rainbow cookies have lived on at Vic’s as a favorite of regulars. One family even comes before Shabbat dinner every week to pick up 25 of them, Sterling says.
“People come back just for the rainbow cookies,” she says.
Vic’s cookies are perhaps the most heretical of the new school rainbow cookies. Orientation aside, Sterling uses almond flour instead of paste and leaves out the jam entirely, choosing instead to soak each layer in almond simple syrup before pressing them with a sheet tray topped with a quarter wheel of Pecorino. (The cheese doesn’t add flavor but happens to be the only thing heavy enough in her kitchen to compress the layers). The batter also has a subtle tang from cream cheese — an intuitive addition and improvement from the chef, who’s Jewish and grew up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.
Vic’s moves through about 100 rainbow cookies a day as part of their biscotti plate, and some diners are brazen enough to ask for the platter sans biscotti. “The poor biscotti are completely overshadowed,” she says.
Leonelli Focacceria e Pasticceria
Of the “modern” rainbow cookies in New York, the version at Leonelli Focacceria e Pasticceria is most reminiscent of the original. The bakery is one of chef Jonathan Benno’s several projects at the Evelyn hotel, an addition to a restaurant and the fine-dining critically acclaimed Benno.
Much of the restaurant’s menu pulls from Benno’s and the director of operations Antonio Begonja’s nostalgia, something that pastry chef Lindsey Bittner wanted to recreate, she says.
“When we talked about Leonelli, it was always Roman inspired, but if you open an Italian bakery in New York, you also need New York classics,” she says. “The tricolore was always going to be a part of the repertoire.”
Bittner wanted to make a lightly sweet rainbow cookie that would look and taste as natural as possible. The food coloring is dialed back to soft pastels. She makes the raspberry jam in house and uses Valrhona chocolate and a hefty portion of California almond paste, but no almond extract. “We use more almond paste than butter, and that helps with the moisture. When you use almond extract, you know right away. I wanted the almond flavor to come exclusively from the paste,” she says.
Baked by the Ocean
Pastry chef Cat Schimenti grew up on Long Island before cooking in fine-dining restaurants on the East and West Coast — among them Balthazar, Gramercy Tavern, Craft, and Michael Mina. She opened Baked by the Ocean in Long Beach last year, and her pastry case is filled with a cheeky crew of pastries, including Notorious B.I.G. cookies, YSL-stenciled brownies, Gucci lemon bars, and a bombastic rainbow bar. They were red, white, and blue in May, and for June, her rainbow bar has transitioned to a summer sunset palette. Color-coordinated sprinkles top each batch.
“I don’t even remember where I was working, but years ago, I made an Italian almond cake and thought, ‘This is a rainbow cookie … but real, says Schimenti, who stashed the idea away for years until she opened Baked by the Ocean and could make a rainbow cookie that met her standards.
The chocolate is thicker and more prominent in Schimenti’s bars, and the seeds in the raspberry jam add a subtle crunch. She uses French almond paste (about 30 pounds of it a week), along with all the traditional ingredients. It’s an expensive and labor-intensive cookie. She cuts each by hand. Still, Schimenti worried that the neighborhood would revolt at the $4.50 price tag.
Her fears have not materialized, and she sells 200 rainbow bars every Saturday. She also offers boxes of smaller rainbow cookies for parties, makes custom rainbow cakes, and plants hunks of rainbow bar trim into the center of giant chocolate chip cookies.
“I wanted to do desserts here that I did in restaurants but that are accessible to the neighborhood, in a fun environment, and definitely not stuck up,” she says.
Samantha Zola also grew up on Long Island, and while living in Miami, she discovered that few (if any) people outside the tristate area had ever heard of rainbow cookies. She began making the cookies for friends and family and started an Instagram account to share the rainbow. The likes rolled in, and Zola discovered an untapped market for selling rainbow cookies to non-New Yorkers.
“Instagram has made my business. I don’t know where we would be today without it,” says Zola, whose sales from Zola Bakes are 100 percent online, largely through Goldbelly.
Now back on Long Island, Zola and one other employee bake around the clock, six days a week to fill orders. She dyes her cookies in actual rainbow hues, drips crunchy Guittard chocolate on top, and adds a signature sprinkle flourish. In addition to raspberry and apricot jam, she spreads Nutella, hot fudge, and caramel between layers. She also sells bigger rainbow cakes to local customers in New York City and on Long Island.
“Growing up, I always loved rainbow cookies, but never liked the way they tasted,” she says. “Instead of a dry deli rainbow cookie, I decided to reinvent them and make them my own.”
This June, Zola will expand from the online realm, at least briefly, with a pop-up in the Dream Hotel and a partnership with Honeygrow, a national health-focused restaurant chain. “It’s my mission for everyone to taste and experience the rainbow cookie,” she says.
Caroline Hatchett is a New York City-based food and drinks writer, who also happens to host the world’s only casserole lifestyle podcast.