What's the best Christmas cookie recipe?

A few winters ago, in a moment of whimsy, I changed the color of my family's rainbow cookies. Instead of the traditional red, white, and green layers found in Italian bakery cases everywhere, I made two batches: one layered red-white-red and one green-white-green. The colors really popped that year, owing to my mother-in-law's excellent suggestion to replace my usual food coloring with Americolor gel paste. I nestled the cookies into their usual snowflake-covered tins and packed them amidst all the other holiday cookies in preparation for the ten-hour drive east. 

Confronted with the double batch of their favorite holiday cookies, my parents and siblings were...displeased. Their coup included carefully deconstructing their cookies and reassembling them in green-white-red layers I'd made for the last two decades, and which my grandmother had made for many decades before that. 

So imagine the response I received last year when I made Bon Appetit's recipe for Ombre cookies. The 1-star review average, coupled with the comments on the feature article, suggest my family members are not the only cookie purists out there: 

"I know rainbow cookies. These are no rainbow cookies."

"...a classic cookie never changes its stripes."

"...I beg to disagree. THESE are not rainbow cookies."

For the uninitiated: rainbow cookies (venetians, as my family calls them) feature three layers of cake flavored with almond paste, adhered with apricot or raspberry jam. Except those raspberry adherents are insane. That my next door neighbor and I stayed best friends all those years despite the revelation that she used raspberry--raspberry!--jam in hers is a testament to her character. The colors of the layers traditionally have nothing to do with the flavor, which is perhaps why people were so angered by Bon Appetit's sacrilege of matcha powder and raspberry powder. 

As I prepared my mise en place for this year's traditional red-white-green version, I realized that while the cookies may look the same, the recipe has changed every year, influenced by my loved ones. There's my grandmother, of course, whose recipe and cookie tin collection have inspired my own. There's my mom, whose carefully-stocked larder I've emulated so that I can bake whenever the mood strikes. There's my dad, who gave me the spatula attachment to upgrade my stand mixer as well as the hammer I use to tap the mixer's hinge pin back in place. There's my other grandmother, who gifted me said stand mixer that I can't bear to replace. There are my siblings, to whom I send an in-process picture of venetians every year. There's my sister-in-law, who encouraged me to start baking in metric, and my husband, who bought the kitchen scale to force that issue. There's my mother-in-law, both for the gel paste that elevates these cookies in whatever color I make them, and for the cezve that makes melting the chocolate so much easier. 

This recipe always breaks from tradition, because each year I fold in some new lesson from my family. This isn't a recipe. It's a patchwork quilt.

Venetian cookies.

Venetian cookies.




1.5 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
325g sugar
300g almond paste, crumbled
30g vegetable oil
1/2 tsp salt
6 large eggs, room temperature
1 tsp almond extract
375g all purpose flour
12 oz jar apricot preserves
5 oz. semi sweet chocolate (chips or bars -- either will do)

Venetian layers ready for baking.

Venetian layers ready for baking.


Cake layers with strained apricot preserves.

Cake layers with strained apricot preserves.

A cezve makes for easy melting and pouring.

A cezve makes for easy melting and pouring.

Calorie-free side pieces.

Calorie-free side pieces.

  1. Preheat oven to 350.

  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine butter, sugar, almond paste, and oil. (Reserve the butter wrappers for Step 3.) Beat on high speed for 5 minutes, or until mixture is light and fluffy.

  3. While the butter mixture beats, prepare three 13x9 baking pans. Using the butter wrappers, grease the pans. Then line each pan with wax paper or parchment paper. 

  4. With the mixer on high, add eggs one at a time, then beat for 5 minutes, or until mixture is light yellow in color and fluffy. Add almond extract. Reduce speed to low and gradually add salt and flour. Mix just until combined. 

  5. Divide batter evenly among the mixer and two bowls, about 500 grams in each. Add food coloring to each bowl to produce whichever colors you desire (use red, uncolored, and green for the traditionalists, but use your imagination for more flexible audiences). Pour the contents of each bowl into its own prepared baking pan, and use an icing spatula to spread the dough into even layers. 

  6. Bake until centers spring back when pressed, about 15 minutes. A basic rule of thumb: watch the lightest colored layer. When it begins to brown, the cakes are done. Cool pans thoroughly, at least two hours, to prevent sticking. 

  7. Heat apricot preserves on the stove and strain out large pieces of fruit. (Save the strained bits, which taste delicious on scones or baked into rugelach.)

  8. Cover a cutting board or other steady surface with aluminum foil, then wax paper. This makes an easy surface to work on later when you're ready to cut the finished cakes. Then flip over whichever color layer you want to be on the bottom of the cake onto the foil-covered board. Spread half of the preserves over the bottom layer to edges. Slide next layer on top of bottom layer. (Flexible cutting sheets will make this easier). Spread remaining half of strained preserves on top. Slide final layer onto cake.

  9. Cover top of cake with wax paper, then whole cake with plastic wrap. Weigh down with heavy cookbooks and refrigerate overnight. 

  10. Melt the chocolate in a double boiler or a cezve and pour over top of cake. Allow to dry for approximately 1 hour. The cookies will cut much more easily if the chocolate is not completely hardened, so try not to wait too long. 

  11. Cut the cake into 1" squares. It is easiest to cut one long strip off of each side of the cake and then save those outer bits for snacking. Cut the remaining "clean" cake into 10 strips width-wise and then cut each strip into 8 pieces. The chocolate will cut more easily if you turn each strip of cake on its side first. 

Yield: approximately 80 pieces, 80 calories per piece. The side pieces, of course, are the baker's portion, and are calorie-free. 

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