Rainbow cookies conjure memories of ‘family, love and joy’

Rainbow cookies, a holiday tradition, made by Caroline Lee.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Rainbow cookies, a holiday tradition, made by Caroline Lee.

What do rainbow cookies mean to the Lee family? “To me, they represent family, love and joy,” writes my niece Erica from Pittsburgh.

So, no small thing.

Clipped from a magazine and glued into my mother’s scrapbook cookbook decades ago, the original recipe is wrinkled and yellowed. It was called “Neapolitan Cookies,” but my mom renamed it when she entered it into one of her first cooking contests in Taste of Home Magazine in 1992 and won the grand prize for Favorite Recipe, first time trying. Mom never let truth get in the way of a good quote. “Husband Bob is a great help,” she offered up in the interview for the article. “He even does the dishes!” That had us kids cracking up — all he ever made was ice — but we were proud of her.

Those rainbow cookies launched Mom’s career writing contest-winning recipes. She collected prizes that took her to Chicago, New York City and Florida. A shameless self-promoter and quote machine, food editors loved her.

“From Mary Ann Lee, Marco Island [Florida],” wrote Doris Reynolds of the Naples Daily News in her “Let’s Talk Food” column as she quotes Mom, “I am sending along a recipe for Codfish Cakes that has been a favorite in our family since it was published in the New York Daily News in 1987.”

She could read the room: While living in Florida, she referenced “several newspapers up north.”

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Rainbow cookies started it all, and further recipes propelled her to celebrity, with newspaper interviews, live television cooking demonstrations (she was a natural), recipes in too many cookbooks to mention and twice, appearances in the crown jewel of cooking contests, the Pillsbury Bake-Off, where she placed as a finalist and was interviewed by the late master of ceremonies, Alex Trebek.

Every Christmas season brought a new batch of rainbow cookies, which for us came to represent her accomplishments. We loved their almond flavor, dense, moist cake and combination of jam and dark chocolate.

Even after we all flew the nest, Mom mailed the cookies out.

“I remember when Manya would mail them to us, and we would divide them up and hide them all over the house so no one else would steal them,” writes another niece, Stephanie, from New York City. “We would put them in baggies with everyone’s name on them,” added her sister, Caitlin, from Los Angeles. My brother Bob remembers his kids hiding them in various parts of the refrigerator with “warning labels not to touch” on each bag.

“When they were away at college it was mandatory to send their quota from the package that came in the Priority Mail box, packed in plastic wrap and foil, always perfectly cut and stacked,” he added.

My sister JoAnn mastered them quickly. I lagged behind, until I got my first stand mixer. The grandchildren have taken rainbow cookies and run with them. Ann Marie, my niece in Ballston Spa, says this: “I did the thing Grandma hated and changed the colors. For a baby shower for a girl, I made the layers light pink, dark pink and purple. And one year for St. Patrick’s day I changed red to orange.”

She’s used white chocolate on top and she’s filled them with Nutella. Her brother Joe in Baltimore, who makes them on Christmas Eve as part of their family’s tradition, said, “I usually top them with red, green and white nonpareils just to be festive.”

My sister-in-law Michele in Raleigh made a birthday cake out of the recipe for her son Jonathan, at his request. “I used one recipe per layer,” she said, “It was a very dense cake but tasty!” Ann Marie found a recipe online for a rainbow cake and made one for her father, using three 8-by-8-inch layers.

Family members have all come up with their own methods to weigh down the layers overnight: Stephanie used “grad-school textbooks and some printer paper” for her latest batch. Joe’s in-laws own The Judge’s Bench pub, a beloved downtown institution in Ellicott City near Baltimore. “I use large cans of bulk foods from the bar’s kitchen downstairs,” wrote Joe. I remember Mom using 28-ounce cans of crushed tomatoes, while my brother Ed remembers she resorted to thick telephone books.

The cookies take two days to make, the first to bake and assemble the layers, the second to top with chocolate and slice.

“Cutting is an art form,” says Ed. “Cut a row, wipe the blade clean and cut again.” Stephanie agrees: “I lost quite a few in the cutting process due to broken chocolate, but I wasn’t mad because I snacked on them.”

Ed loves the scraps trimmed from the edges, and remembers sneaking in and grabbing them before my perfectionist mom threw them away.

“They were discards or crap in her opinion,” he said. At some point Mom expanded the recipe, increasing the ingredients to make thicker layers, so there are two rainbow cookie recipes floating around. The original calls for four eggs; in the larger recipe she boosted them to six to make a slightly larger cookie. Having a bit more dough makes it much easier to spread out in a 13-by-19-inch pan. The four-egg recipe is given here.

Our family uses both. “I have always used the six-egg version of the recipe,” said Michele in Raleigh. Caitlin uses the “Taste of Home Ultimate Cookie Collection” cookbook (2006) by Taste of Home Books with the four-egg version, “as it features Manya’s recipe!”

“The joy on my kids’ faces when they opened a package of Manya’s rainbow cookies,” reminisced my other sister-in-law, Michele in Cleveland. “It always made me smile.”

Rainbow Cookies

Ingredients

  • 1 package (8 oz.) almond paste
  • 1 cup butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 4 eggs, separated, at room temperature
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 6-8 drops red food color
  • 6-8 drops green food color
  • 1/4 cup red raspberry jam, seedless
  • 1/4 cup apricot preserves, strained through sieve
  • 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate pieces
  • 1 tbsp. butter

Steps

1. Preheat oven to 350. Grease bottoms of three 13-by-9-by-2-inch baking pans or sheets.
Line pans with waxed paper; grease waxed paper.

2. Break up almond paste into small pieces in a large mixing bowl using a fork or your hands.

Add butter, sugar and egg yolks. With electric mixer at medium speed, beat mixture until light, fluffy and smooth.

Beat in flour until well combined.
3. In another mixing bowl, beat egg whites until soft peaks form when beater is slowly raised.

Fold egg white into almond-butter mixture, stirring until thoroughly blended.

4. Separate dough into three batches. Add 6 to 8 drops red food color to one, mixing until color is even. Add 6–8 drops green color to another. Leave one plain.

5. Turn each batch into a prepared pan, spreading evenly.

6. Bake each layer 10 to 12 minutes, or just until edges are golden brown. Invert onto wire racks; remove pans and wax paper, turn layers right side up. Let cool completely.

7. Spread raspberry jam evenly over green layer and top with the yellow layer. Spread apricot preserves over the yellow layer and top with the pink layer.

8. Slide onto a baking sheet, cover with plastic. Set flat pan or cutting board over layers, weigh it down with cans or books. Refrigerate overnight to compress layers.

9. The next day, melt chocolate and 1 tbsp. butter in microwave. Spread melted chocolate over top of cake. Let chocolate set. Trim edges with a sharp knife. Slice while at room temperature, crosswise into thin (1/2-inch-wide) strips; cut each strip into four or five pieces.

Makes about 8 dozen, depending on how you slice them.

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