December 19, 2011

Tri-color cookies - the twelve hour project

This is it.  You could say I saved the best for last.  This is the recipe I've been most excited and apprehensive about making this holiday season.  The truffles and toffee were great items I made for the first time this year but I've been working my way towards this:  tri-color cookies.  I always called them tri-color or rainbow cookies but they're also known as seven-layer cookies, Venetian cookies, and maybe by other names too.
When I eat these, I think they might just be my very favorite cookies.  But I think calling them "cookies" is a bit of a misnomer and doesn't quite give them their proper respect, if you will.  To me, they're more like petite fours, or mini cakes.  These Italian goodies have been a long favorite of mine.  I think I first tried them many years ago when I was an intern somewhere and picked one up from a dessert platter after a made me go wow!  (It seems all my memories involve food in some way). 
Not only are they nice to look at, they are a combination of some of my favorite flavors, almond and chocolate.  Essentially, we have 3 layers of cake made from a base of almond paste (which I adore), fused together by thin spreads of apricot preserve, and topped with coatings of bittersweet chocolate.  It is so delicious.

But look at it.  The prospect of making these was daunting.  There are a lot of layers and steps to mess up!  But you never know and never learn unless you try, and it was time to try.  I call this the twelve-hour project because from start to finish, it takes roughly that much time to get the finished product into your mouth.  A lot of it is waiting (chilling in the fridge) but you still need to devote a good 3 hours or so on your feet.  And if you're like me and only have one 13 by 9 inch pan, you need to bake the layers one at a time and prep the pans after each use.
The best place I know of to get these tri-color cookies is Ferrera Bakery in NYC's Little Italy; they are just about perfect there.  You can see their cookies below and they taste just divine.  I know we'd all prefer not to use food coloring but if there's ever a time to use it, it's here.
Tri-color cookies from Ferrera Bakery in Little Italy (NYC)
So how do the homemade ones stake up against the ones from Ferrera?  To tell you the truth, when I finally had the layers chilling in the fridge, I thought they would turn out too dense, too dry, and just not worth all the effort.  (Did I mention it takes roughly 12-hours to make and put these together?)  But miraculously, I was wrong!  These are amazing!  The layers didn't come out as even or quite as thick as the ones from Ferrera but the taste is spot on. 

If you like these cookies, this is the recipe to use.  My family and I love these; the little one is a big fan and we let him taste first.  His verdict was "they're really good" and "they taste like the ones from the bakery".  Time to jump for joy!!  It really is fantastic, in both texture and taste.  There's plenty of almond flavor from the moist cake layers and a nice chocolate crunch from the top and bottom layers of dark chocolate.  The apricot filling gives it just that bit of tartness that balances everything out.  So to summarize, the effort was not wasted but vastly rewarded.  I see myself making these at Christmas and when I just can't resist the hankering for them.  I better stock up on almond paste.
Well...this kitchen elf is signing off for a bit.  I have lots of presents to wrap and I'm off to enjoy the holiday break with my family.  I've made quite a few old and new recipes this month and I expect to stay busy in the kitchen in the coming days, whipping up one or two favorites.  When Christmas comes, I'll be ready to sit still and savor the moment. 

I wish you all a very happy holiday! 

Update: I love these cookies so much, I experimented and turned them into mini cupcakes.  Take a look at tri-color cookie cupcake bites - they are faster to make!

When you're facing a project that involves this much time commitment, it's important to go to a trusted source for the recipe.  I found this from Smitten Kitchen, who traces the recipe back to Gourmet. 

* Please see the recipe at the end of the post or refer to this or the original but I summarize the steps with pictures here...

With something like this, it's just better to prep in advance and one of the things to prep is the baking pan.  You need three 13 by 9 inch baking pans.  If you're like me and only have one, you bake each layer individually (they bake very quickly), wiping/cleaning the pan after each use before it goes in again.  Start by buttering the pan and lining it with parchment paper, leaving about a 2-inch overhang on each side for easy removal.  Then butter the parchment paper.  Since you need to do this three times, have 3 pre-cut parchment sheets ready.

I'm staring with my favorite almond paste.  You need 8-ounces for this recipe (slightly less than this container).  I could just inhale the smell all day.
Beat 4 egg whites until stiff peaks, then add 1/4 cup of sugar until stiff and slightly glossy.  Set this aside for later when it gets folded into the batter to lighten things up. 
I'm happy I recently invested in an extra bowl for the stand mixer since it comes in handy at times like these.  Switch to the paddle attachment and beat the almond paste together with 3/4 cup of sugar for about 3 minutes until well blended.  If you don't have another bowl for the mixer, transfer the whites to a bowl and use the same one for the almond paste.  Then add 2 1/2 sticks of room temperature butter and beat another 3 minutes or until fluffy and pale.
Add 4 egg yolks and a teaspoon of almond extract and beat another 2 minutes to combine. 
On low speed, gradually add dry ingredients (2 cups flour and 1/2 teaspoon of salt) until just combined.  Finally, fold half the whipped egg whites in the batter to first lighten things up.  Then gently fold in the remaining whites.  You want to get the whites fully incorporated without working it excessively and deflating the mixture, keeping in mind you'll do more mixing later when you add the food coloring.  The batter is quite thick and heavy.
Divide the batter as evenly as you can into 3 bowls.  Stir 25 drops of red food coloring into one and 25 drops of green in another, leaving the last as it is.

Time to bake.  I'm so grateful that I had my oven repaired recently with a new ignitor installed.  I'd been having problems where the oven wasn't heating properly and it made cooking and baking very difficult (I ended up over-cooking things to compensate for the temperature being too low).  Now I'm all set to go.

There's not much batter for each layer, and the layers are intended to be thin.  You'll need a small offset spatula to spread the mixture out as evenly as you can across the baking pan. 
These bake very quickly and it's important to undercook the layers.  They should be done in 7-10 minutes at 350 degrees; check early since mine were ready at 7 minutes.  They will look barely done but a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean.  Clean the pan after baking each layer by just wiping it down with a paper towel and re-greasing and lining the pan.
After the layers are cooled, it's time to assemble them.  Heat and strain a jar of apricot preserve. 
Cool slightly and spread thin even layers of the preserve on top of the green and white layers to sandwich the 3 layers together. 
You may have a little preserve leftover since you want to use enough to give it a nice even coating, not so much that it'll ooze out when you stack them or cut them later.
Cover the layers with plastic wrap and weigh it with another baking sheet.  Chill for at least 8 hours.  It's a long time to wait, I know!
Eight or so hours later, take the layers out of the fridge and bring to room temperature.  Then, it's time to add the bittersweet chocolate.  I choose a 70% dark chocolate and I think it goes very well here.  You can melt the chocolate over a double boiler or in the microwave.  I've been following the Ina Garten way of melting/tempering chocolate lately.  You finely chop the chocolate, heat 75% of it in the microwave in 20 second increments until just melted, then add the remaining chopped chocolate and stir together.
I learned a couple of things.  First, be prepared to work rather quickly, particularly for the second coat of chocolate when the layers are colder.  And unlike the apricot filling, you want to spread rather thick layers of chocolate to get that distinctive crack of chocolate when you bite into them.
After applying the first layer of chocolate, chill it for 15 minutes or so until set and then cover the top with wax paper and invert onto another baking sheet to coat the other side.
Chill the final product for about 30 minutes or until firm. 

Now to slice these into cookies, I'm told that freezing them helps tremendously.  But I found that with a good heavy-duty serrated knife, you can slice them at this point after they're chilled quite successfully.  Use a hot knife by running it under hot tap water and drying thoroughly.  First score the top of the chocolate so that it just melts the chocolate.  Then clean the knife under hot water again, wiping clean and dry, before slicing all the way through.  Keep cleaning the knife after every cut and doing this.  I sliced it lengthwise into 5 strips before cutting crosswise.  At this point, you can freeze any number of the strips and save it for a later date.
Slicing them the way I have yields approximately 80 cookies!  That's the good news about this recipe.  But the thing is, they are really delicious and you and your family and friends will have no problems chowing them down.

And this really is cake rather than cookie but I've never seen anyone serve or eat it that way.  

It does make a lot of sense to slice them small into "cookies" so a person can pick it up and pop it into her mouth.  The difference in textures (the hard chocolate coatings versus the soft cake in the center) makes digging into it with a fork a difficult thing because some of the chocolate will likely crack right off and away from the cake.  So pre-slicing them into manageable little bites is a very smart choice and you end up with this bounty of beautiful cookies. 
If you're a fan of these cookies and want to make them at home, I highly recommend this recipe. 


Tri-color Cookies (aka Rainbow or Seven-Layer Cookies)
Featured on Smitten Kitchen, who traces it to Gourmet

- Yields roughly 80 cookies -

(Please plan ahead since this is roughly a "twelve-hour" project, including the chilling time.)

4 large eggs, separated and at room temperature
1 cup sugar
8 ounces almond paste
2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature (and more for buttering pan)
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
25 drops green food coloring
25 drops red food coloring
1 (12-ounce) jar apricot preserve, heated and strained
7 ounces high-quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped (I use Scharffen Berger 70% bittersweet chocolate)

Baking the cake layers:

Prep a 13 by 9 inch baking pan by buttering it and lining with a piece of parchment paper, leaving about a 2-inch overhang on two sides (have 3 of these parchment sheets ready).  Then butter paper.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees and position the rack in the middle position.

Beat egg whites in mixer fitted with the whisk attachment at medium-high until they just hold stiff peaks.  Slowing add 1/4 cup of the sugar, whisking on high until slightly glossy and stiff.  Transfer to another bowl.

Switching to a paddle attachment, beat the almond paste and remaining 3/4 cup of sugar together for about 3 minutes until well blended.  Add butter and beat until pale and fluffy, another 3 minutes or so.  Add yolks and almond extract, beating until combined, about 2 minutes.  Reduce speed to low and gradually add flour and salt until just combined.

Fold half of the whites into the mixture to lighten, then gently fold in the remaining whites thoroughly. 

Divide the batter as equally as possible into 3 bowls.  Stir green food coloring into one and red into another, leaving the third plain.  Set plain batter aside and chill the red batter, covered. 

Spread green batter into the prepared pan, using a small offset spatula to spread evenly.  The layer will be quite thin, roughly 1/4 inch.  Bake for 7-10 minutes.  It is important to undercook the layers so check early.  They will look barely done but a tester comes out clean.

Remove the green layer using the parchment overhang and transfer to a rack to cool.  Wipe the pan clean and re-butter and line the pan again.  Spread the plain layer and bake as above.  While the plain layer bakes, take the red batter out of the refrigerator.  When the plain layer is done, repeat as before and bake the red batter.

When all layers are cool (do not stack them on top of one another with their parchment paper attached), invert the green onto a parchment or wax paper lined baking sheet and remove the baking parchment.  Spread strained apricot preserve over the top, using enough to give it an even coat.  Invert plain layer on top of green, discarding the baking paper.  Spread an even layer of preserve on top (you might have a little preserve leftover; I love the taste of the preserve here but don't over do it to prevent it from oozing out when cutting).  Invert red layer on top and discard its baking paper.  Cover the assembled layers with plastic wrap and weigh with another large baking pan on top.  Chill at least 8 hours.

Adding the chocolate coatings:

Remove the weight and plastic wrap and bring layers to room temperature.

Melt chocolate in a heatproof bowl set on top of a pan of simmering water (or carefully in the microwave).  You can melt half the chocolate at a time for each layer, or melt all the chocolate at once, keeping it over hot water while the first side chills.

Trim edges of assembled layers with a long serrated knife.  Quickly spread half of the chocolate as evenly as possible over the top.  Chill, uncovered, about 15 minutes until set.  Then cover with a sheet of wax paper and place another baking sheet over the top to invert the cake.  Quickly spread with remaining half of the chocolate.  Chill until firm, about 30 minutes.

Slicing the cookies:

Using a sturdy serrated knife will make the job of slicing much easier.  Given the different textures of the hard chocolate versus moist cake, it can be tricky to slice these cookies.  One option is to freeze and slice frozen.  The other is to take the chilled and assembled layers and using a hot serrated knife (run under hot tap water and drying thoroughly), lightly score the chocolate layer first.  Then clean the knife under hot water and dry again, and slice all the way through.  Keep cleaning and drying the hot knife after each insert/cut.   

I slice the layers into 5 strips lengthwise about 1 1/2 inches wide and then cut crosswise roughly 3/4 inch wide. 


Store cookies in an airtight container at room temperature between layers of wax paper for up to 2 weeks.  You can also store the cookies in the refrigerator and bring it up to room temperature before serving.

These cookies also freeze well and keep longer that way.  Wrap and freeze after slicing into strips lengthwise.  Thaw cookies in the refrigerator (12 hours if you have the time) and slice into cookies.


  1. These look and sound amazing! I love anything with almond paste, these are going on the to do list (when I have a long weekend)!!

    1. Hi Robyn - my family and I love these so much, it's ridiculous! I am also a fan of practically anything with almond paste. Hope you try it (when you have time); I'm sure you'll love it. As I mention, I also made them into mini cupcake bites, if you're interested...Thanks!

  2. These are beautiful! I"ve had a few 12-hour kitchen projects myself, so I appreciate your hard work :)

    1. Thanks so much, Lori! Credit goes to Deb at Smitten Kitchen for breaking down this recipe and making it do-able. I feel indebted to her for this alone. We LOVE these "cookies"! : )

  3. Amazing!!! Making these cookies for a second time. Made them for the holidays and they were so good I'm making them again just because the hubby and kids asked.

    1. Thank you and so happy to hear that! This is one of our very all-time favorites. I make it a few times a year and every single time, we can't get enough and it's just amazing (as you said!). So happy it worked out well for you and sounds like your family feels the way we do. Happy baking!

  4. Here are a couple things I discovered by following a video tutorial for these incredible cookies on YouTube as made by an Italian Nonna:
    1)Foil pans from the dollar store in 13 x 9 inch size work perfectly and all three cakes can be baked at once. I baked mine 2 layers on the top rack dead center of the oven and the third just below it. When the top layers were done, I moved the third to the top rack and baked 2 minutes more. Perfect!
    2) I used the suggestion in the video to simply press firmly on all the cake layers once assembled. I used the bottom of a baking pan to add some heft, and was applying the melted chocolate within minutes of assembly. The finished cookies had the same texture as bakery cookies and held together fine.
    I share these tips because they helped me take the plunge, so to speak, and finally try making these awesome cookies at home. My own picky grandchild said they were just as good as the ones her Papa brings her from Brooklyn - that's quite a compliment in my book!
    Maybe these simple ideas will help someone who is as intimidated as I was by the process - either way they are easy to make and absolutely delicious. Thank you for the recipe, the beautiful photos and detailed explanation of your own experience. Have a blessed, Merry Christmas!

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience and tips. I'm so glad yours turned out so well. I made my batch this holiday and they were the usual highlight for my family. One thing I realize is that as intimidating as the recipe might seem at first, it's actually quite forgiving and turns out great every time. I've heard other people suggest using the foil pans. I think I will have to try that next time...great time saver!

      Happy New Year!

  5. This recipe is real good, haven't had moist cookies like this with other recipes. However the layers are really thin when spread and using 1.5x the recipe makes them come out so much better

  6. I had trouble finding almond paste here - just marzipan so I googled a recipe and made my own - 5 minutes in the food processor and dirt cheap. The recipe uses 1 cup almond flour, 1/2 to 1 tsp. almond extract and 1 egg white.that’s it!



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