The rainbow cookie is an emblem of my childhood, a three-color extravaganza of almond paste, raspberry jam and chocolate. Technically, it’s a cake — if you didn’t cut it into squares, you could serve it as such — but for me it will always be the cookie my mother bought for me at Jewish bakeries on special occasions. That it was originally an Italian cookie called the Tricolore, in honor of the Italian flag (red, white and green), speaks to its versatility in terms of identity.
Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo serve rainbow cookies at their Italian American cafe, Jon & Vinny’s. “Anytime I see one, I order it,” Dotolo says, adding that it’s his favorite cookie. Shook, seemingly on the same page, adds: “It features my favorite flavors: chocolate, raspberry and almond.”
Nicole Rucker of Fat & Flour, on the other hand, says the rainbow cookie “doesn’t have a hold on my heart like other cookies do. I actually think of [them] as an East Coast thing.”
Nonetheless, when Rucker hosted my 40th birthday party at her since-closed restaurant Fiona a couple of years ago, and I enlisted her to make rainbow cookies for dessert, hers were extraordinary. “We used grapefruit marmalade, which paired well with the chocolate layer,” she says. “It’s like any nostalgic treat — if you give it an update with quality ingredients. it changes the whole thing.”
As an enthusiastic home baker, I’m constantly making cookies and cakes, but I’ve never attempted the rainbow cookie. Maybe it’s because, knowing how much I love them, I’m afraid I might eat the whole tray. More likely, it’s because I’ve never really had a reason to make them. They’re too nostalgic to serve at a dinner party and too messy to hand out at a social gathering. Up until now, I’ve reserved my rainbow cookie experiences for trips home to visit my family in Florida, where my mom gets them from Way Beyond Bagels in Boca Raton; for meals at Jon and Vinny’s, if I’m lucky enough to get a reservation; and for trips to New England.
Three years ago, on a trip to Provincetown, Mass., I saw rainbow cookies take on a whole new identity — for gay pride. At the Canteen on Commercial Street, a glass case in the front featured mile-high rainbow cookies that went beyond the traditional red, white and green layers. This version had orange, yellow, blue and purple layers in addition to the red and green. And they’re offered again this year.
“I grew up eating them at the Jewish bakeries in metro Detroit,” co-owner Rob Anderson says. “For us at the Canteen, being a queer-owned restaurant in a very LGBTQ-centric town, it made sense for us to use the foundation of a traditional cookie and expand it to resemble the full-blown rainbow.”
My husband and I missed our trip to Provincetown last year because of the pandemic, but the memory of those Canteen cookies gave me a reason to make them myself — finally — as a way to celebrate Pride.
My take on these cookies uses tips from all of my rainbow cookie mentors. Shook and Dotolo told me to “make sure you have a very flat sheet tray when you’re making them,” to ensure even layers. From Rucker, I riffed on the idea of using grapefruit marmalade (I used orange, which is also bitter but more readily available) and shellacking only the top with chocolate, making them easier to handle. And from Anderson, I decided to play with the colors, sticking to the three-layer model but shaking things up with red, orange and yellow to capture the first three colors of the Pride flag.
Rainbow cookies are the perfect metaphor, not just for Pride but also for anyone who celebrates their own identity. Take it from a cookie that’s really a cake, that’s Italian but also Jewish: Being yourself, despite what the world tells you to be, is the most delicious thing of all.
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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.