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Are Black-and-White Cookies the Next Jewish Food to Go Mainstream?

June 16, 2022 | by Emily Paster

Either way, they are certainly having a moment.

2022 might turn out to be the year of the Black and White Cookie. While this beloved New York City bakery treat has been around for over 100 years, all of a sudden, the black and white seems to be everywhere. Let’s “look to the cookie” and review the events of the year so far.

First, in early February, ice cream giant Häagen-Dazs announced the launch of the City Sweets collection, a line of ice cream flavors and snack bars inspired by iconic city street foods. Picture a crunchy churro or a soft pretzel reimagined as an ice cream flavor and you get the idea. But the flavor in the City Sweets collection that seemed to raise the most eyebrows was Black and White Cookie ice cream, which mixed a vanilla ice cream base with ripples of fudgy chocolate frosting and soft, cakey cookie pieces. Initially, released only in Häagen-Dazs stores, the collection is now available in grocery stores nationwide for your enjoyment - or disapproval.

Also in February, to celebrate the premiere of season 4 of the popular (and very Jewish) Amazon Prime show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” New York’s own Plaza Hotel introduced a special afternoon tea menu at its famous Palm Court restaurant. The Midge Menu included afternoon tea-style treats inspired by some of the foods featured in the show, including a pastrami tea sandwich, a beet-infused deviled egg, and a special French macaron version of a black and white cookie.

In case you don’t remember where the Plaza got the inspiration for this menu, you may want to rewatch season 2, episode 8 of the show when Midge takes her pregnant, Gentile friend Imogene to a Jewish deli. When Imogene panics at all of the unfamiliar foods on the menu, Midge orders what may be the best Jewish deli meal of all time: “hot pastrami Reuben on rye, chicken in a pot, potato knish, matzah ball soup, cheese Danish, a lime rickey and a couple of black and whites for dessert.” Alas, while Jewish delis are timeless, the Plaza only offered the Midge Menu through March 13 of this year.

Fast-forward to April 2022. More than 20 years after “Seinfeld” went off the air, Seinfeld food trucks began touring the country. Designed to promote TV stations airing “Seinfeld” reruns, the food trucks gave away snacks that hilariously appeared in episodes of the fabled 90’s sitcom, including Junior Mints, Drake’s coffee cake and, of course, Jerry’s favorite cookie, the black and white. (No soup, big salads, or babka apparently.) After launching on April 22 in New York, the truck also stopped in Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and San Francisco where fans lined up for the free snacks and photo ops.

You likely remember why the Seinfeld food truck included a black-and-white cookie on its rather short menu. It is an homage to an episode from the fifth season of the show, “The Dinner Party.” In that episode, Jerry and Elaine stop at a bakery to pick up a chocolate babka to bring to a dinner party. (It’s hard to overstate how much “Seinfeld” did to raise the profile of Jewish baked goods.) While waiting to exchange the “lesser” cinnamon babka that they ended up with - due to the presence of a hair - Jerry munches a black and white cookie and waxes philosophical: “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!”

One Seinfeld super-fan who braved a chilly drizzle and strong winds in Chicago to stand in a long line for the Seinfeld food truck on May 1 was Stephen Coppola. His goal: to try his first-ever black-and-white cookie. “I don’t even know if I have had one before, but I love “Seinfeld” and I know it’s a big thing on the show. So I figured I had to get a black-and-white cookie while I’m here,” explained Coppola. When asked what he thinks the cookie will taste like, Coppola replied, “I have no idea. Hopefully it tastes good, but I assume it will. Mixing chocolate and vanilla together can’t go wrong.”

Chocolate and vanilla together - although they are not actually mixed, as we will discuss more later - is, in fact, the hallmark of the black and white cookie. Known in some circles as half moon cookies, the origin of the black and white cookie is a bit murky. Glaser’s Bake Shop on the Upper East Side, which was founded by immigrants from Bavaria, claimed to have invented the black and white cookie. (Sadly, Glaser’s closed its doors in 2018 after 116 years.) The other claimant for that title - although it uses the half moon moniker - is Hemstrought’s Bakery in Utica, New York. Hemstrought’s version seems to be a different confection altogether; for one thing, the cookie is chocolate.

Whichever story you believe, it seems clear that the black and white did not start out as a Jewish food. Eventually, however, the cookie became strongly associated with Jewish bakeries in and around New York City. As Melissa Clark writes in The 100 Most Jewish Foods, “Black-and-whites have been entrenched part of the very robust Jewish cookie scene in New York City for a century.” The association with New York in particular is undeniable. Bake from Scratch magazine’s May/June 2022 issue names the black and white cookie as the signature dessert of the state of New York, like Key lime pie is to Florida or pecan pie is to Georgia.

Not only is the origin of the black and white cookie a matter of dispute, what makes for a good B&W is hotly debated as well. Beth Corman Lee, the author of The Essential Jewish Baking Cookbook, points out that “like most iconic foods, there are strong opinions about what makes the “perfect” B&W cookie. Is it the cake-like texture? The two-tone frosting? The hint of lemon or almond? Or is it the memories attached to each bite?”

To make matters worse, black and whites aren’t even really cookies at all. Technically, they are a drop cake. Indeed, the method used to make the, uh, dessert, is much closer to how you make a cake batter than a cookie dough and the texture of the final product is soft and cake-like with a fine crumb. So calling it a cookie is just a lie?

With all of this debate and controversy surrounding the black and white cake cookie, should we still consider it an edible symbol of racial harmony as Jerry Seinfeld claimed? Even President Obama once referred to black and white cookies as “unity cookies” when campaigning in south Florida in 2008. (South Florida, of course, being New York’s sixth borough.)

Lee explains that when she was researching her book, “there was widespread agreement that the Black and White Cookie is an essential baked good in Jewish food lore. However, the cookie’s origin, ingredient list, and visual reflection of American racial ‘unity' might leave room for disagreement and discussion.” In fact, the case for the B&W cookie as representing any kind of unity is more than a little flawed. Writing in Tablet, African-American Orthodox rabbi MaNishtana (a pseudonym) points out that the black and white parts of the cookie remain forever divided. “That’s not a racial harmony cookie. That’s a Jim Crow cookie,” argues MaNishtana. Ouch.

But ultimately, the black and white cookie - yes, we are sticking with “cookie” - doesn’t need to be a symbol or a metaphor to justify its popularity. A B&W is a dessert and a delicious one at that. According to Lee, “B&W cookies hit all the fine points of a perfect treat – a nostalgic vibe, a cookie that’s also a mini cake and two kinds of frosting creating perfect, two-flavor bites.” Indeed, even MaNishtana admits to loving the cookie’s taste. Thanks to Jerry Seinfeld, Mrs. Maisel and Häagen-Dasz, the black and white cookie is expanding beyond its Jewish and New York-centric past and reaching new, appreciative audiences. And it only took 120 years!

Make your own Black & White Cookies with my recipe here.

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