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Black-and-White, Eaten All Over

New York's favorite cookie has found a home in Los Angeles.

April 17, 2002|RICK NAHMIAS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is a cookie with its own cult. Called a black-and-white, it's a 6-inch-wide, cake-like cookie iced with equal amounts of thick chocolate and vanilla frosting.

New York bakeries, delis and grocery stores sell loads of them. In Southern California they're harder to find, but that only seems to make them sweeter. When a bakery sells black-and-whites, expatriate New Yorkers flock in, just like at Dodger Stadium when the Mets are in town.

Mickey Jacobs, the 82-year-old owner of J&T Bread Bin in the Farmers Market, pumps out 15 dozen black-and-whites a day. The Beverlywood Bakery has its own followers. And actor Henry Winkler has been known to place orders for 14-inch custom birthday versions of the cookie at Bea's Bakery in Tarzana. One employee at West Hollywood's Dialogue Cafe insists that there are Hollywood agents who buy them a dozen at a time and freeze them to keep clients such as actor Paul Reubens in constant supply.

A Santa Monica couple, professional organizer Ruth Kennison and magazine writer David Hochman, carried their adoration even further. Kennison, who was introduced to them as "half-moon cookies" as a child in Boston, and Hochman, who discovered them as an adult in New York's Grand Central Station, served them at their wedding. Together, they're now united in their ongoing search for the ultimate cookie.

What is it about the black-and-white?

No one seems to know where they came from. Jacobs claims the cookie was invented by the kitchen of Austrian Emperor Franz Josef in 1867. Perhaps. One baker at the Beverlywood claimed to know of its origin but grumbled, "I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you."

There isn't even a single standard recipe. The most frequently printed one comes from New York icon Zabar's, but some black-and-white aficionados find it wanting. It seems that a common problem with black-and-whites is dryness. An impartial taste test of a few Southern California black-and-whites was won by Bea's Bakery. Bea's cookie was incredibly moist, just a hint drier than a pound cake, and generously swathed in thick icing. (It is made from a recipe from Cleveland.)

Part of the appeal of the black-and-white is the graphic division between chocolate and vanilla frosting. To some fans, the pleasure is deciding where to take the first bite--a grave philosophical quandary. Some simply divide the cookie in half and take alternate bites from each side. Some munch straight down the center, then sandwich the two halves together to ensure an equal mix of chocolate and vanilla in the last bite.

A writer named Gavin on the foodie Web site Chowhound.com says he and his sister break the cookie in half perpendicular to the dividing line, so each person has half the white and half the black. Together, they then decide where to bite first, making sure each balances the other's choice with yin-yang precision.

"The key to eating a black-and-white cookie, Elaine, is you want to get some black and some white in each bite," Jerry Seinfeld once philosophized on his sitcom. "Nothing mixes better than vanilla and chocolate. And yet, still, somehow racial harmony eludes us. If people would only look to the cookie, all our problems would be solved."

As with any item that develops a following, the black-and-white has its detractors. "Sawdust cakes" is one nickname. And there is the prospect of commercialism. Black-and-white lovers resort to cellophane-wrapped versions only in emergencies (cellophane throws off the cookie's moisture balance). And under no circumstances should one entertain the thought of eating a cellophane-wrapped black-and-white that has a commercial label.

In fact, Hochman expressed anxiety that interest in the black-and-white could result in its crossing over to trendiness. He admitted worrying that his treasured cookie could become a mass-market item, going the way of the Krispy Kreme doughnut, diluting its multilayered symbolism.

Nothing ruins a cult item like popularity.

Bea's Bakery, 18450 Clark St., Tarzana. (818) 344-0100.

Beverlywood Bakery, 9128 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 278-0122.

Dialogue Cafe, 8766 Holloway Drive, West Hollywood. (310) 289-1630.

J&T Bread Bin, Farmers Market, W. 3rd Street and N. Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles. (323) 936-0785.

Nahmias is a screenwriter.

*

Zabar's Black-and-White Cookies

Active Work Time: 45 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Adapted from "New York Cookbook" by Molly O'Neill (Workman, 1992).

COOKIES

Nonstick cooking spray

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1 3/4 cups granulated sugar

4 eggs, room temperature

1 cup milk, room temperature

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon lemon extract

2 1/2 cups cake flour

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Coat 2 baking sheets with nonstick spray and set aside.

Beat together the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl until fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each. Add the milk and vanilla and lemon extracts and mix until smooth.

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