rainbow cookies, u-s-a style.

Sunday was the 3rd Annual new music bake sale – an odd, eccentric event that could only have been conceived of and enthusiastically supported by the likes of New York’s “new music” scene. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to attend, as it coincided with the NYC premiere of POPM at Moviehouse. But, given that Clara makes her living from this scene, we felt compelled to send a baked contribution in our stead.


With all our recent thinking about early food memories, we’ve had rainbow cookies on the mind. Also known as seven layer cookies, they’re one of our favorite Italian-American bakery offerings. Colorful bites of apricot almond nostalgia that make us think of summer evening carnivals and spumoni ice cream cones. Good ones are hard to come by, though we’re spoiled – lucky to live down the street from Fortunato Brothers, and their perfect squares of Italian pride.

We needed an excuse to make them, and the bake sale was just that. Clara works for New Music USA? (Please ignore the worst organization name ever.) Rainbow cookies come in three colors? The point of the bake sale is to make an organizational impression on folks stopping by the table?

Ci presentiamo…

Rainbow Cookies USA for the New Music Bake Sale.

(Yes, Italian-Americans everywhere are gesticulating angrily in their graves. And yes, we realize the red is decidedly pink and suspiciously fluorescent. Still, the blue is fun!)

As usual, the recipes are as numerous as the approaches. We made these from Smitten Kitchen‘s adaptation of a recipe printed in Gourmet (although we’re curious about the simple syrup and almond flour in Spago pastry chef Sherry Yard’s version from her cookbook Desserts by the Yard ). From Deb, we picked up a few tips. First, don’t stack cooled cakes, no matter how much you need the extra counter space, because the greased parchment will leave a greasy residue on your layers, and the chocolate won’t stick later.

Second, too much jam between layers makes them difficult to cut  later – divide the jam in half after you’ve strained it, and err on the side of less. Three, these beauties are easier to cut when cold. She means frozen, but our cookies were denser (see below), so cold from the fridge was sufficient. In any case, she’s right. We didn’t even bother cutting them fresh. Too many textures to make one kind of knife work. (However, definitely bring them back to room temperature before eating, as too cold and they lose their moist,  fluffy deliciousness.)

And here’s a fourth tip, or more of an observation, from our own try. We don’t have a stand mixer in Brooklyn. As a result, the first step of beating the almond paste with sugar ended up being more of a knead-together-with-our-hands thing, as our less powerful hand mixer was, essentially, useless. To counter the power issue, we doubled or tripled the times Deb notes for beating ingredients in subsequent steps. Still, we ended up with a denser dough, and didn’t have enough to fill three 13×9 inch baking sheets. Not all was lost, though – we were able to spread the colors out into roughly 11×8 inch rectangles, and baked them as instructed. (This step could have really benefited from an offset spatula. It’s made the long kitchen-needs list.) Eh, voilà!

Ma dai! As the Bolognese would say. Buonissimi!

Sunday was a reluctant parting. We kept half for ourselves.

rainbow cookies.

Makes about 5 dozen

4 large eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
1 (8-oz) can almond paste – tubes of almond paste tend to be drier, so use canned if you can find it
2 1/2 sticks (1 1/4 cups) unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1/2 teaspoon salt
red food coloring
blue food coloring – or green, if you’re going traditional Italo-Americano!
1 (12-oz) jar apricot preserves, heated and strained
7 oz fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened), chopped

1. Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 13- by 9-inch baking pan and line bottom with wax paper or parchment, leaving a 2-inch overhang on 2 ends, then butter paper.

2. Beat together the almond paste and 3/4 cup sugar until well blended, about 3 minutes. Add butter and beat until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add yolks and almond extract and beat until combined well, about 2 minutes. Reduce speed to low, then add flour and salt and mix until just combined.

3. In a second mixing bowl, beat whites at medium-high speed until they just hold stiff peaks. Add 1/4 cup sugar a little at a time, beating at high speed until whites hold stiff, slightly glossy peaks.

4. Fold half of egg white mixture into almond mixture to lighten, then fold in remaining whites gently but thoroughly.

5. Divide batter among 3 bowls (it pays to be precise in this step!) Stir red food coloring into one and blue (or green, if you’re going traditional Italian-style!) into another, leaving the third batch plain. Set white batter aside. Chill blue batter, covered.

6. Pour red batter into prepared pan and spread evenly. It takes time and patience to get your layers even, but it’s worth it. Layers will be about 1/4 inch thick.

7. Bake red layer 8 to 10 minutes, until just set. (It is important to undercook. They’ll look like they’re not done, but a tester does come out clean.)

8. Using paper overhang, transfer layer to a rack to cool, about 15 minutes. Clean pan, then line with parchment or wax paper and butter paper in same manner as above. Bake white layer in prepared pan until just set. As white layer bakes, bring blue batter to room temperature. Transfer white layer to a rack. (Or, if you have multiple pans, you can bake two layers in one go.)

9. Prepare pan as above, then bake blue layer in same manner as before. Transfer to a rack to cool.

10. When all layers are cool, invert blue onto a parchment or wax-paper-lined large baking sheet. Discard paper from layer, and spread with half of preserves. Invert white on top of blue layer, discarding paper, and spread with remaining preserves. Invert red layer on top of white layer and discard paper.

11. Cover with plastic wrap and weight with a large baking pan. Chill in the fridge. Deb says 8 hours; Sherry Spago says 2. We went with 4, and it seemed fine.


12. Remove weight and plastic wrap.Trim edges of assembled layers with a long serrated knife.

13. Melt chocolate in a bain-marie, stirring until smooth. Remove from heat. Keep chocolate over water.

14. Quickly spread half of chocolate in a thin layer on top of cake. Chill, uncovered, in the freezer, until chocolate is firm, about 15 minutes. Cover with another sheet of wax paper and place another baking sheet on top, then invert cake onto sheet and remove paper. Quickly spread with remaining chocolate. Chill until firm, about 30 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap and stick back in the fridge until firm enough to cut.


15. Remove cake from the fridge, and cut lengthwise into 4 strips (or more, make them the size you remember!). Cut strips crosswise into 3/4-inch-wide cookies.

These will keep, layered between sheets of wax paper or parchment, in an airtight container at room temperature for 2 weeks, Frozen they’ll keep even longer.


6 thoughts on “rainbow cookies, u-s-a style.

  1. I made these cookies that Smitten Kitchen featured, as well. The tips that you presented here were so helpful to me, too. These are fabulous cookies. They met (or maybe even exceeded) my expectations from my childhood memory of them. That rarely happens! Love your color choice!

  2. You don’t know how much I love these! They always take me back to childhood in Bensonhurst. I once made the version from the Baked cookbook that was good, but usually I’ll pony up the money and buy them from Boston’s North End. Gets kinda pricey, though…

    1. If you’re going to buy them, the north end’s the place. Grew up ’round there and Little Italy here in NYC just isn’t the same. Do you have a favorite spot? Still, they’re not too hard to make, and a recipe makes a lot of them!

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