Like much of the Jewish culinary canon, modern Jewish pastries were influenced by the world around them. The familiar cookies we see now in Jewish-style delicatessens were, in many cases, riffs on the desserts of various immigrant groups comingling with Jews in America. Soon after settling in New York, Jewish bakers started "kosherizing" their neighbors' most in-demand items, altering them to fit Jewish tastes and religious needs. Here are the stories behind some of the most beloved, nostalgia-tinged deli-style cookies.
The black-and-white--a spongy pastry frosted with black fondant on one half and white fondant on the other--isn't really a cookie. It's a drop cake. In adherence to the Jewish baking edict of "waste not, want not," Jewish bakers made the pastries out of leftover cake batter mixed with flour. Marcy Goldman, author of A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking, assumes the cookie is a Western creation, as its decorative approach wasn't evident in European baking at the time, nor was the use of icing. The cookie may have originated at Glaser's Bake Shop, a bakery on First Avenue in Manhattan, which has been baking black-and-whites since it first opened in 1902. Another theory: The cookie descended from a similar pastry called "half-moons," which were invented in a bakery in Utica, New York at the turn of the 20th century.
Today, these iconic edibles continue to be Jewish staples at bakeries, delis, weddings and bar mitzvahs and have even assumed new shapes and forms. Manhattan's The Donut Pub makes a custard-filled doughnut version, and Le Gourmet on the Upper East Side offers a miniature version of the mainstay, cut in the shape of a heart.
They've also become a cultural touchstone. In the 77th episode of Seinfeld, entitled "The Dinner Party," Jerry delivers some incisive commentary on race relations: "If people would only look to the [black-and-white] cookie, all our problems would be solved!" Indeed, the black-and-white cookie has been heralded as an emblem of coexistence, a melding of opposites, the Western version of yin and yang. It was even christened the "unity cookie" by Barack Obama when he ordered one at a Florida kosher deli on the campaign trail in 2008.
But the black-and-white can be divisive, too. Over the past century, New Yorkers have argued over how best to bite into the treat. Some eat all of the black side and then all of...