In my career, I have worked with some of the very best bakers in the world, starting in Chocolatier (now Pastry Professional) Magazine, and up through such cookbooks as THE BAKER'S DOZEN COOKBOOK, Rose Levy Beranbaum's CHRISTMAS COOKIES, FROM MY HANDS TO YOURS (with Sarabeth Levine), and THE MODEL BAKERY COOKBOOK. I know cookies. So, when I come across a recipe that makes my mouth water, you can be sure it is a winner. I've just finished baking my Christmas cookies, and I'd like to post some of my favorites. Actually, I have so many special recipes to make them all, so I have had to put them in rotation. One that always makes the list is Italian Rainbow Cookies, one that I learned a long time ago. Outside of its sensational almond flavor and moist texture, these bars keep for a week or so. I usually get about 54 cookies, because they are rich and you don't want them to be too big.
Also known as Neapolitans, Venetians, Seven-Layer Cookies
Makes about 54 cookies
Red, green, and yellow strips of almond cake, topped with chocolate, these cookies are a staple at Italian-American bakeries, even though they are not sold in Italy itself. They aren’t difficult to make at home and you will get a lot of gorgeous cookies out of a single batch. You will need three 9 X 12-inch identical pans. I use three heavy-gauge aluminum “quarter sheet pans,” available at kitchenware shops such as Sur La Table. These smallish baking sheets come in handy for a huge variety of kitchen chores beyond these cookies, but supermarket-style, disposable aluminum foil pans work of the same size work perfectly well, too.
Softened butter and flour for the pans
One 8-ounce can or 7-ounce tube of almond paste (see Note), coarsely chopped
1 cup sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 large eggs, separated
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
Green, red, and yellow food coloring (for stronger colors, use paste or gel)
One 12-ounce jar apricot or raspberry preserves (1 cup)
1/4 cup heavy cream
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1. Position racks in the center and top third of the oven and preheat to 350°F. Lightly butter three 9 X 12-inch (either high-gauge aluminum quarter-sheet or disposable aluminum foil) shallow baking pans. Line the bottoms of the pans with parchment or waxed paper. Dust the insides of the pans with flour, then tap out the excess.
2. Process the almond paste and sugar together in a food processor fitted with the metal chopping blade until the almond paste is completely pulverized, about 1 minutes. Set the mixture aside. Beat the butter in a large bowl with an electric mixer on high speed until it is creamy, about 1 minute. Gradually beat in the almond paste mixture, and continue beating, scraping down the bowl as needed, until the batter is light in color and texture, about 2 minutes. One at a time, beat in the yolks, beating well after each addition, then the almond extract. Gradually beat in the flour with the salt.
3. Using clean beaters, whip the egg whites in a medium bowl until soft peaks form. Stir about one-fourth of the beaten whites into the almond paste mixture to lighten it, then fold in the remaining whites.
4. Divide the batter into thirds, placing one portion in each of three bowls. <If you have a kitchen scale, use it! Nothing beats scaling the batter to get perfectly even layers. Weigh the batter, and divide it by 3. I usually have 1100 g of batter, yielding 366 g of batter for each color. To save washing bowls, I put one-third in a clean bowl, one-third in the egg white bowl, and leave one-third in the mixing bowl.> Using food coloring paste, tint one portion of batter red, and spread it evenly in a one of the prepared baking pans (an offset metal spatula does the best job). Tint the next portion green, and spread in another pan. Tint the final portion yellow, keeping in mind that as the batter is already yellow, using just enough to heighten the color, and spread in the last pan.
5. Bake until the cakes are firm when pressed in the centers with a finger and the edges are very lightly browned, about 12 minutes. (The layers will be about 1/4-inch high.) Transfer the cakes in their pans to wire cake racks and let cool for 5 minutes. Invert the cakes onto the racks and remove the paper. Cool completely.
6. Bring the preserves and 2 tablespoons of water to a boil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring often, until the mixture is slightly thickened, about 2 minutes. Rub through a wire strainer set over a bowl, discarding the solids in the strainer.
7. Place the yellow layer, smooth bottom side up, on a cutting board or an overturned quarter-sheet baking pan. Spread with half of the preserves. Place the red layer, smooth bottom side up, on the yellow layer, and spread with the remaining preserves. Add the green layer, smooth bottom side up. Place another cutting board or baking pan on top to weight the stacked cake layers. Let stand until the preserves are set, at least 2 hours. (Sometimes, I’ll cover the stacked layers with plastic wrap and let them stand for a full day. This comes in handy during the busy holiday baking season when you might want to make cookies in stages.)
8. Bring the heavy cream to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium heat. Remove from the heat. Add the chocolate and let stand until the chocolate softens, about 3 minutes. Whisk until the mixture is smooth and the chocolate is melted.
9. Using a sharp thin knife, trim the edges from the stacked cake layers to make a rectangle with smooth edges. The trimmings are the baker’s treat! Transfer the stacked cake layers to a wire cake rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. Pour the chocolate mixture over the top of the stacked cake layers. Spread evenly with a metal cake spatula. Let stand until the chocolate is cooled at set, about 2 hours (or refrigerate for 1 hour.)
10. Slide the pastry onto a work surface. Using a sharp thin knife, cut horizontally into 6 strips, then vertically into 9 equal pieces per strip to make 54 rectangles. Separate the cookies. (The cookies can be stored in an airtight container, separated by sheets of waxed paper, for up to 5 days.)
Note: Almond paste, made from ground almonds and sugar, is available canned or in foil-wrapped tubes at most supermarkets and at specialty food shops. I have a slight preference for the canned paste, which is often moister than the tubes. While there is a 1-ounce difference in the package weights, the discrepancy doesn’t make any difference. Do not confuse almond paste with marzipan, which is prepared with ground almonds and corn syrup. Marzipan has a softer consistency and sweeter flavor that is more appropriate for making candies than baking.