HI. My most recent baking project was to make black-and-white cookies! Everyone in my family likes them, but none of us can agree on a good place to get them. The only real consensus regarding exactly what makes these cookies good is “not stale,” and not-stale versions of these cookies are surprisingly difficult to find.
Just like all the other foods people vaguely mention to me, I threw myself into perfecting black-and-white cookies with a single-minded focus. Despite loving them for my whole life, I only recently found out that they are considered to be New York-specific. After evaluating a lifetime’s worth of black-and-white cookie experiences and reading roughly one million articles on them, I realized that no one agrees on what makes the best black-and-white cookie, what the best recipe is, or where they actually originated. I also found that if you ask people for their thoughts on black-and-white cookies, they start telling you their philosophies on vanilla versus chocolate and refuse to answer any other questions.
A friend of mine apparently eats three-quarters of the vanilla half, then half the chocolate, then finishes the vanilla, then ends with chocolate. My mom only eats the vanilla half and leaves the chocolate halves in various locations around the kitchen. My older brother’s story about how he eats black-and-white cookies would take me several paragraphs to explain to you. I’ve opted not to analyze anyone’s personality based off this question.
After a series of trial-and-error batches and many late-night forays into food science, I’ve created an ideal black-and-white cookie recipe that I am pleased to share with you.
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup butter (1 stick), softened to room temperature
⅔ cup buttermilk
½ teaspoon vanilla
2 cups flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
4 cups powdered sugar
¼-½ cups boiling water
1 teaspoon light corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½-½ cups cocoa powder
For these I like a softer, cake-like cookie with very little toughness. The vanilla icing should harden into a crunchy texture, and the chocolate should be thicker but not overbearing. Lemon zest in the cookie is KEY, or at least lemon extract.
Because I used baking soda and buttermilk as rising agents (and for moisture), these cookies baked well at a lower temperature. I also used less flour than other recipes I was seeing, since the main complaint I hear about black-and-white cookies is that they’re too dry. I bumped up the sugar so they’d be a little softer, but kept a relatively high flour-to-egg ratio for structure.
Part 1: Pre-Baking
Take your butter out to soften to room temperature! I planned to make these cookies WEEKS in advance and I still forgot to take out the friggin’ butter. I’ve seen a huge increase in quality when my butter was at room temperature, softened for about an hour.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Since this recipe only uses baking soda (which activates immediately) as a rising agent, preheat your oven so you don’t have any unnecessary lag time between finishing the dough and baking.
Part 2: Cookies!
1. Cream butter and sugar first. I use a stand mixer and start at a low speed before moving it up to medium speed. Let it go for a few minutes until the mixture is fluffy and light, and at least mostly cohesive. You can also use a hand mixer or a wooden spoon. (If mixing by hand, it is even more important to soften your butter.)
2. Add eggs! Mix in between adding each egg.
3. Combine your remaining dry ingredients — flour, baking soda, and salt — in a separate bowl. Not to be wildly boring, but I usually just mix dry ingredients using two forks, which is easy, semi-sifts, and gets the job done. Weird confession: I don’t usually feel like getting the whole box of salt out of the pantry so I just take a table shaker of salt and kind of guess how much should be there. Everything always turns out great!
4. Zest your lemon into the dry mixture. Zest two lemons if you want! Zest one and a half lemons if you want to know what I kind of wish I had done! Alternatively, add in a quarter teaspoon of lemon extract. Mix in thoroughly, breaking up the lemon zest clumps. Clumps happen. You can put the sad-looking zested lemons back in the fridge in a Ziploc since the juice inside is still totally fine.
5. Mix the vanilla and buttermilk together. Be sure to shake the buttermilk thoroughly before pouring, holding it tightly closed so you don’t get buttermilk all over yourself and the floor. (My beautiful model dog, Cassie, was very intrigued by the many things I spilled all over the floor while I made these.)
6. If you are using a stand mixer, turn on the lowest speed; otherwise just mix by hand. Pour in some of your dry mixture. Mix until combined. Pour in some of your buttermilk/vanilla mixture. Mix, etc. Alternate until all ingredients are added and dough is fully mixed.
7. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Using two spoons or a melon scooper, evenly space cookies on sheets. My favorites were made with a tablespoon-sized melon scooper, but traditionally black-and-white cookies are pretty huge (up to a quarter-cup of dough). These spread out a lot so don’t overcrowd the sheet; leave at least a few inches between each cookie. It’s not the worst thing in the world if they bake into each other, but it will ruin the shape and be embarrassing in your Instagram photos.
8. Bake for roughly 15-18 minutes until the bottoms of the cookies are lightly browned. Take out of the oven to cool, transferring to a cooling rack.
Part 3: Icing
Over the course of making and icing my many experimental batches I watched the “Wet Hot American Summer” miniseries to connect with my New York Jewish roots. (I rewatched it a few times after that because I loved it deeply.)
Icing black-and-white cookies is not very difficult, but you do have to be patient and pay attention to icing consistency. You are making two different types of icing, obviously, so split your icing ingredients in half before starting each batch.
To make vanilla icing: Mix powdered sugar with boiling water, vanilla, and light corn syrup. Add powdered sugar or water depending on the consistency you like. You want it to be spreadable and easy to mix, but still thick. You can test out the frosting on your worst-shaped cookie — it should dry smooth and opaque.
To make chocolate icing: Mix powdered sugar with boiling water, vanilla, and light corn syrup again. This time, add cocoa powder. You want a glossier, slightly thinner texture than the vanilla icing. I made this just mixing with a regular spoon in a bowl and found I had to stir vigorously to create a smooth texture. (During this final batch I spent roughly five minutes adding tiny amounts of powdered sugar and boiling water to get just the right consistency. You do not need to do this. My friend and photographer Jackie at first said she admired my self-control when I added only tiny amounts at a time, but very quickly decided I was actually being annoying and should just hurry up already.)
NOTE: During the icing process, you will have to continuously stir the two bowls, as they will start to harden over. They will become smooth again easily with no long-term texture issues if you stir periodically. If you notice that the icing is too dry, add about a tablespoon of water and mix thoroughly.
2. Frost half of each with vanilla icing. As you frost, your earlier ones will dry slightly, making it easier to cleanly add the chocolate. (I used a frosting brush for this, but a spoon would probably work as well.)
3. Finish frosting the other half with chocolate. I always start icing with chocolate from the inside half (touching the vanilla), otherwise it is very hard to get a nice neat line in the center. Put the chocolate icing on thicker than seems necessary. It’s not an overly rich frosting, so a thick layer isn’t overwhelming.
4. Leave cookies so the icing can harden, at least 10 minutes.
Now you’re done! Eat, share, gather opinions and compliments. Even though black-and-white cookies are simple to make, people are always impressed if you glaze anything. You get a lot of “wow, you made these?” and “these look perfect!” and “you’re an amazing baker!” when you hand them out. Soak up these comments.
These keep for almost a week in Tupperware, layered with wax paper so they don’t smudge or get stuck to each other. I don’t know what black-and-white cookie availability is like outside of New York and every single person I know is too set in their ways to give me an objective idea, but I hope you enjoy these, wherever you are! If you try this recipe, let me know how it goes!
Photos by Jackie Friedman.