It’s a dark and chilly December evening. You’re on your way to an Italian-American Christmas party, radio tuned to the station that plays Christmas music all month long.
You’ve spent the morning in line at the deli, stocking up on cold cuts, cheeses, panettone and torrone. You’ve picked up an extra panettone for your host as a small “thank you” for their hospitality.
You walk into your host’s home to a crowd of mingling guests carrying festive paper plates. There’s a nativity scene, brightly colored Christmas lights, and a poinsettia arrangement near the house Virgin Mary statue. You smell food and wine in the air as you look for your host to present them with one of the 15 panettoni they will be receiving tonight.
If it’s Christmas Eve, you’ll be surrounded by fish. Any other night and you’re more likely to see meatballs, chicken or veal cutlets, and trays of manicotti, ziti or lasagne. On the off chance that you see arancine on the table, you drop everything to eat one. You know they won’t be there for long.
As you continue exploring, you come across a spread of cookies. Somebody’s family member will likely have made pizzelle. That same person might also have made a sticky mound of struffoli sprinkled with red, green and white nonpareils. Next to those you see an assortment of cookies from the bakery. There are butter cookies topped with shiny maraschino cherries, green leaf cookies with chocolate in the middle, and an unmistakable pile of green, white and pink almond cookies, stacked in layers like the Italian flag. You take two to start, but you know you’ll circle back for more. These cookies are too unique and festive to pass up, especially at Christmas time.
I’m going out on a limb here, hoping that you’ll forego the bakery and make these cookies at home. They require patience, a good deal of counter space, and a solid day or two to make. I started making them three or four years ago out of nostalgia and necessity—after my Italian/Italian-American friends and relatives and I had scattered among different cities and states.
It took a few tries for me to get the hang of these babies, mostly because I didn’t have full faith in the recipe I was using. I’ve since adapted it in hopes that you’ll have greater success and nail the recipe on your first try.
If you’re a little unsure about baking these cookies yourself, I suggest asking yourself the following questions. If you can answer “yes” to one of them, I invite you to scroll down and bake with me!
- You LOVE these cookies and want to eat them as frequently as you can
- You’re an adventurous baker who loves to try new recipes (answer “yes” if this applies to an immediate family member, roommate or partner)
- You don’t live near an Italian bakery
- Food coloring kind of freaks you out and you’d like to “tone down” those bright red and green colors
- You’re attending a Christmas party and want to contribute something other than panettone
- You want to ship special Christmas cookies to your friends and family
Assuming you’re still with me, here’s the rundown. The cookies have a texture that is moist and cakey. Their main flavoring comes from almond paste, which to me, tastes a lot like maraschino cherries. Between each layer is a coating of apricot jam, whose sweetness is offset by a thin shell of bittersweet chocolate.
You can see from the photo above that the batter is on the thicker side. The key is to be patient when spreading it out as the parchment below shifts around. Once it’s spread as evenly as humanly possible, the layers go into the oven. Luckily, the heat smooths them out a bit.
The layers are cooled, sandwiched together with apricot jam, then weighed down in the refrigerator to laminate and set. My best advice is to let them set overnight so they are firm and easier to handle for glazing and cutting.
The laminated cookie layers are trimmed, then covered in a sea of warm melted chocolate. Once the chocolate has hardened, it’s time to cut the cookies. A sharp carving knife and a damp towel for wiping between cuts are your best friends, here.
There’s a chance you’ll be covered in chocolate by the time you’re done cutting, but that’s not exactly a bad thing. Luckily, the cookies of your labor will keep in the refrigerator for at LEAST a week, so you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy them. If you’re like me and have loved ones scattered all over, you can stack the cookies between layers of wax paper, write a little note, and ship them. Who knows, the people you’ve sent them to might show up at your home one chilly December evening, panettone in hand.
Italian-American Rainbow Cookies
Methods and Proportions Adapted From:
Rainbow Cookies—From Food Network, Courtesy of Lidia Bastianich
makes 48 cookies
12 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips
12 ounces smooth apricot jam
2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter at room temperature, plus more for the jelly roll pans
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the jelly roll pans
8 ounces canned almond paste, broken into small chunks
1 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs, separated
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
red and green food coloring
canola oil spray
(3) 9″ x 12″-inch jelly roll pans (I bought mine here)
steel cooling rack
Bake the Cookie Layers
- Arrange oven racks on the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Butter the bottoms and sides of the jelly roll pans. Coat each pan with a light dusting of flour and place a small rectangle of parchment paper on each pan.
- In a large bowl combine the flour and salt. Whisk until incorporated and set aside.
- In the bowl of an electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the almond paste and 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons of the sugar on medium speed until the mixture is in fine crumbles. Add the butter about a tablespoon at a time until fully incorporated. Add the egg yolks one at a time, and continue to beat until they are each incorporated. The batter will be pale and fluffy.
- Add half of the dry mixture into the mixer and beat on low speed until just combined. Repeat for the second half of the dry mixture.
- In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with either a whisk or hand mixer (or as I like to do, holding a metal bowl steady under the electric stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment). When the egg whites begin to foam, slowly add the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar and beat until you get firm peaks.
- Using a rubber spatula, fold one-third of the beaten egg whites into the almond paste batter. The batter will be rather stiff, so be patient. Once incorporated, fold the remaining two-thirds of the egg whites into the batter. The batter will be tacky and a bit thick.
- Divide the batter evenly into 3 bowls. Add 8-10 drops of red food coloring into one bowl, 8-10 drops of green food coloring into another bowl, and leave the last bowl as-is. Using separate utensils for each color, fold the food coloring into the batters until uniform.
- Scoop the batters into each of the prepared jelly roll pans. Using the back of a spoon or an offset spatula, gently distribute the batter as evenly as possible. The parchment will slide around a bit, but the batter will yield!
- Smooth out the tops of the batter by dipping an offset spatula in water and spreading it over the top. The water will keep the batter from sticking.
- Bake the cookie layers for 8-10 minutes, switching the position of the upper and lower pans after about 5 minutes. The layers are ready when the edges begin to develop the slightest golden color.
- Remove the pans from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely.
Laminate the Cookie Layers
- Spread half of the jam over the green cookie layer, leaving a scant 1/4″ border all around. The jam will rush to the edges once the layers are stacked.
- Carefully invert the white cookie layer onto a cooling rack. Remove the parchment paper, then carefully invert once more over the green layer. You may want to use a large offset spatula to assist.
- Spread the remaining half of the jam over the white cookie layer, leaving a scant 1/4″ border all around.
- Carefully invert the pink cookie layer onto a cooling rack. Remove the parchment paper, then carefully transfer (no inverting, this time*) onto the white layer. You may want to use a large offset spatula to assist.
- Cover the stacked layers in plastic wrap, place one of the jelly roll pans on top (preferably after washing it), and weigh it down with heavy cans or jars. Transfer to the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.
*Assembling the layers in this way puts the “clean” faces of the pink and green layers on the outside, and the messier faces in the middle.
Finish & Cut the Laminated Cookies
- Fill a heat-proof bowl with the chocolate chips and place over a medium saucepan filled with an inch or two of water. Bring the water to a simmer and allow the chocolate to melt, stirring occasionally.
- Meanwhile, Remove the cans, pan and plastic wrap from the laminated cookie assembly.
- Carefully invert the pan onto a large cutting board. Remove the parchment paper from the green layer and trim the edges of the cookie so they’re even and square.
- Spray a steel cooling rack with canola oil spray and place it over a rimmed baking sheet. Carefully transfer the cookie to the cooling rack, green side up.
- When the chocolate has melted, pour it over the cookie. Use an offset spatula to smooth the chocolate over the top and edges of the cookie. The warmer the chocolate, the more easily it will spread.
- Allow the chocolate to cool and harden. When the chocolate is still the tiniest bit tacky (too tacky and you’ll leave fingerprints), transfer the cookie to a cutting board and begin cutting.
- Using the sharpest knife you have, carefully cut the cookie in half (you should have (2) 9″ x 6″ rectangles now). Cut each of the smaller rectangles crosswise into 8 strips. Then, cut each of the 8 strips into 3 rectangles. For cleaner cuts, wipe the knife with a damp towel between cuts. You should have 48 cookies.
- Store the cookies in an airtight container at room temperature (1-2 days) or in the refrigerator (1 week or more).