"The thing about eating the black-and-white cookie," Jerry Seinfeld tells Elaine in a now-classic Seinfeld episode speech, "is you want to get some black and some white in each bite. Nothing mixes better than vanilla and chocolate, and yet somehow racial harmony eludes us. If people would only look to the cookie, all our problems would be solved."
Few desserts can provoke philosophical discussion, be identified with a single city, and taste really good all at the same time. It seems unlikely that race relations were on the mind of the bakers at Hemstrought's in Utica, NY, who brought over the cookies — they called, and still call, them half-moons — from their native Germany at the turn of the 20th century. I rather doubt the Upper East Side artisans baking black-and-whites day after day for the last hundred years thought along those lines, either. But they were concerned with making cookies so distinctive that they are known just by their colors: black-and-whites.
My own love for the black-and-white cookie came late. I've lived in New York so long that it was easy to take the cookie's inescapable frequency for granted. There it is in the local bagel shop. There's one for sale at the Grand Central Station market. Artisanal black-and-whites? Sure, but not exactly high priority.
The black-and-white's having a moment, so much so that they have ice cream sandwich and donut versions now. But the cookie's greatest strength is its endurance, its robust texture and flavors, and its sheer evocation of the best of city life.
I used Robert Sietsema's ultimate black-and-white investigation for Eater as my guide to the best of the best in the five boroughs, and then went across the country looking for more excellent black-and-whites.
New York City
Glaser's is the rightful reigning Manhattan cookie monarch. The 113-year-old bakery's black-and-whites, especially fresh out of the oven, melted in my mouth with delirious satisfaction, the confection of the two-toned icing all shivery goodness counteracted by the flaky texture of the cookie.
William Greenberg Dessert is a superior second place. The icing feels a little more streamlined, but extra props, the day I visited, for a lemon-zest-accented blue fondant icing paired with the traditional white. (I missed my shot at the red velvet, but I take it on faith that it is excellent.)
In Brooklyn, my local (and favorite) black-and-white purveyor is Joyce Bakeshop. Their cookies come in one size — plenty large — and they believe in cake icing instead of fondant. I approve of this belief. I dream a lot about the first bite into moist, flavorful icing down into the rich vanilla cookie. Joyce also changes the icing colors; Halloween brought black and orange; earlier in the fall it was black and sky blue.
I'm afraid Beantown just didn't quite make the grade. One bakery I tried, nameless to protect the guilty, produced a cookie so revolting that I trashed it after two bites, the second confirming my initial disgust. The black-and-white at Zaftig's was much better, though the fondant icing was overdone, the bond between both cookie halves too tight.
L.A. has a bad black-and-white rep but that's likely due to the snobbishness of New Yorker transplants. I chomped quite happily at the one — sold as a half-moon — over at the Beverlywood Bakery, which also happens to be the oldest bakery in Los Angeles, 69 years young. Maybe their strudels are better. But they got the icing right, the cookie right, so no complaints here.
Cookies were a little hard to find, but I lucked out with Do-Rite Donuts' limited edition black-and-white donuts. (They ended their run on November 5; other donuts can be had at their East Randolph and Erie Avenue locations.) Do-Rite's version is topped by fresh vanilla bean and Valrhona chocolate frosting, chocolate filling bursting out of a no-hole brioche base. Francis Brennan, the pastry chef co-owner with partner Jeff Mahin, told me they wanted to add "something extra" to the traditional cookie. Based on how quickly the confection eroded my determination to stick to a single mouth-watering bite, I'd say they did.