(New York Jewish Week) — As for Jewish desserts in New York, perhaps the most ubiquitous is the black and white cookie, that soft, sweet, glazed treat found in bakeries and bagel shops across the city.
Black and white cookies, sometimes called crescent cookies, are understood by most as a Jewish dessert. Seinfeld once dedicated an episode to praising them. “You know, Elaine, the key to eating a black and white cookie is that you want to get some black and some white in every bite,” says Jerry. “Nothing goes better than vanilla and chocolate. And yet somehow racial harmony eludes us. If people just looked at the cookie, all our problems would be solved.”
But now, as a testament to New Yorkers’ innovation — or possibly the old adage, “Everything old is new” — bakeries across the city are turning to this tried-and-true classic. Today, black and white cookies come in a myriad of colors and flavors: yellow and blue to support Ukraine, red to celebrate Valentine’s Day, brown and yellow to meld banana, chocolate and hazelnut.
The latter is one of six new flavor combinations at Zaro’s Family Bakery, where brothers and fourth-generation owners, Brian, Michael and Scott Zaro, have fully embraced new versions of the two-tone classic. Earlier this month, the bakery unveiled its new black-and-white cookie color and flavor combinations, including orange and white (cream cheese frosted carrot cake), green and black (mint chip), as well as an M&M-topped cookie, a streusel-filled one Birthday cake flavor and a cookie cream flavor.
“We’ve been baking the black and white cookie for 95 years,” Brian Zaro, who has worked full-time for his family’s business since 2006, told New York Jewish Week. “My brother Scott had a vision to create an iconic product that meets innovation.”
The black and white is one of the signature offerings from Zaro’s, known for opening stores in New York’s major transit hubs, including Grand Central Terminal, Penn Station and LaGuardia Airport. The bakery’s website boasts that it sells over 90,000 black and white cookies annually, and this season’s new flavors complement Zaro’s black and white chocolate chips they’ve been offering for several years, Brian said. (Black and white on the outside, with chocolate chips baked into the batter.)
Of course, these creative interpretations beg an obvious question: How far can a bakery move from chocolate and vanilla before black and white are no longer black and white?
“That’s a fair point,” admits Brian Zaro. “But for now, yes, it’s a black and white. That could change; We always try to be as open-minded as possible.”
Shannon Sarna, author of Modern Jewish Baker and editor of our partner site The Nosher, agrees. “I’m not a purist,” she said. “I don’t think they have to be black and white to be a true black and white cookie.”
For Sarna, the aromas and the technique are the most important for the integrity of a black and white wine. “A good black and white cookie is going to have a little taste of vanilla or orange or lemon zest that might be in the batter,” she said. “It must have a good quality glaze. It won’t just taste like sugar. It’s going to have a little bit of chocolate flavor and it’s going to have a bit of that white, more vanilla flavor.”
For some, the doughy cookie, with its signature two-tone frosting, is only as good as the sense of nostalgia it conveys. As the New York Times wrote in 1998, “The black-and-whites of today, of course, cannot be compared to the black-and-whites of yesteryear, just as no mayor will ever be as good at LaGuardia, and no team as popular as the Dodgers.” Sarna , who grew up in New York, calls black and white “my childhood cookies.”
Black and white as we know it is said to have been popularized by the Upper East Side’s Glaser’s Bake Shop, founded in 1902 by John Herbert Glaser. Glaser is said to have brought the black and white recipe with him when he immigrated to the United States from Bavaria.
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Owner Herb Glaser, who ran the third-generation bakery with his brother until its permanent closure in 2018, can’t confirm this — but at 70, he says they’ve been a feature of the bakery since he was a child.
Although he now lives “in the country”, Glaser knows the new black and white trends. “Some of the companies make them a little too outrageous,” he said. “They’re not really black and white anymore.”
Still, Glaser said his bakery occasionally made the cookies in different colors — for graduations, schools, and especially orange and blue when the Mets were in the 1986 World Series. “I’m a traditionalist, but I understand,” adds Glaser. “It’s a marketing thing and that’s fine. It’s a way to stay in business.”
“I think there’s a kind of New York pride attached to it as ‘the New York cookie,’ and it happens to be a really good cookie,” said Noah Aris, the baker and owner of The Cardamom Man, which sells his baked goods online and at street markets. Aris is baking black and white with blue and gold frosting as a humanitarian aid fundraiser in Ukraine. In addition to the lemon zest in the batter, Aris has added lavender, which leaves the batter speckled with purple dots.
The different colors “help me start a conversation, to talk about what I’m about as a bakery and to raise money for Ukraine,” he said. “Then you listen [the customers’] Story about her experiences with blacks and whites. It is fun.”
In some bakeries, innovation starts with the dough. Last Christmas, Breads Bakery launched black and white buns made with a laminated, croissant-like base instead of the classic doughy, cake-like texture.
“When I first bit into this, it was very clear to me that we’ve taken this biscuit to a new level and given it the treatment it deserves,” said Breads owner Gadi Peleg. “I think we’ve done enough to wink at the cookie’s nostalgic nature – there’s enough to kind of reconnect you with the memories you might have associated with a black and white cookie.” But it’s just different enough to bring it into a more modern New York, the New York of today.”
At Kossar’s Bagels & Bialys – which now has three branches across the city and another is on the way – customers will find traditional black-and-white versions alongside all-chocolate or all-vanilla frosted versions, as well as multicolored and M&M toppings versions.
“Some only like chocolate, some only like vanilla. We’re using that as inspiration to move forward,” said General Manager Sharon Bain. “People love the fact that we’re doing something with black and white. We cater to everyone.”
Kossar’s will glaze the cookies green for St. Patrick’s Day or red for Valentine’s Day, but the restart is only skin deep. According to Bain, “Black and white refers to the chocolate and vanilla flavors of the frosting, not the color.”
For Brian Zaro, too, the flavor and color innovations are all about customer satisfaction, and this year the new black and white varieties are also available at Zaro’s outpost in Bryant Park Winter Village. “This is new for us,” said Zaro. “But so far, so good.”