italian tricolor [rainbow] cookies.

italian tricolor / rainbow cookies.

Okay, so Tricolor / Rainbow cookies – you knew these had to show up this week, right? It’s the quintessential Italian-American bakery treat: those colors aren’t supposed to denote christmas, people, those colors are to celebrate the Italian flag. And they look a little tricky to make, so obviously…here I am, like a moth to a flame. And I brought charts.

italian tricolor [rainbow] cookies.

Spoiler alert, these may be my favorites of the bunch, although I couldn’t say it’s because they were fun to figure out or because they’re spectacular; chances are it’s 50/50. Let me be clear: I adore these cookies. I adore their almond flavor because it’s prominent yet doesn’t beat you over the head. I am tickled by the way it’s truly half cookie, half pound cake, and all perfectly textured: not sticky, but not dry. I admire their showy gorgeousness, because it’s not really a finicky sort of cookie, nor is it particularly difficult to throw together, but once you do? You’ll swear you hear the hallelujah chorus off somewhere in the distance. These cookies, regardless of what they’re supposed to represent, will make you feel like it’s a holiday.

I’m not going to spend a ton of time on describing these, because we have work to do. You should make these: this I know. And you shouldn’t be scared, but you should approach these with the reverence and patience they deserve. If you need further persuasion, I’ll tell you that these are hands-down the best tricolors I have had (and I have HAD some incredible tricolors); a perfect storm of flavor, crumb, and ease of use. Still nervous? I’ll give you some tips on how to succeed. School = in session.

italian tricolor [rainbow] cookies.

Tips for Tricolor [ Rainbow ] cookies:

Plan your attack – I saw several obstacles during my initial research; ones I was going to have to find workarounds to or else this project was over before it began. I’m going into those as sub-points in a minute, but for now, just remember that when you make these, a lot goes on in a small amount of time, and you need to be ready for it. Ready means making sure you have enough bowls, enough spatulas, enough time, enough cooling racks, and enough counterspace to make this work. If you don’t, think through that and figure out ways to make it work for you in your own kitchen.

italian tricolor [rainbow] cookies.

Let’s talk about pans and parchment – who the heck has three identical 9×13 pans? I don’t, and I wasn’t about to buy two extra pans for one cookie. Solution: 1 pan. Think about it: there’s zero chemical reaction in this recipe – no baking soda, no baking powder, no nothing – which means that the dough isn’t going to degrade or change if it sits for a little bit. You can bake one pan at a time (they bake off quickly), allow it to cool enough to remove the finished cookie layer, and proceed with the next layers. My second biggest issue: how on EARTH to flip thin swaths of bendable cookie dough onto a cooling rack without breaking it. Let’s think this through. If you’re baking a cake, that cake bakes up to almost the top (if not the very top) of the pan, right? So when you carefully flip it out, it’s at least an inch thick and very close to where it will land…maybe a 1/2-inch away from the cooling rack, at most. These layers, by comparison, are 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick – very thin – and have further to fall to land safely on the cooling rack. Flipping these out made zero sense; the risk was too great. Solution: parchment handles. The cookies have some flexibility, so it still requires care, but you can gently lift each layer and control the movement, which means no broken or cracked layers for you. I could go on and on here, and there are other issues you may think of (how to butter a warm pan successfully, how to keep the parchment from moving around when spreading the dough, etc) but I’ll cover all of that in the recipe itself. I HAVE DONE THE HOMEWORK, I SWEAR.

I think this goes without saying, but achieving optimal doneness is important for flavor, texture, and utility. Check in on these cookies at regular intervals as you bake these, and don’t overdo them. What you’re looking for is for the edges to be getting light brown: not the top, not the bottom, but just the edges: that’s the tell that they’re done to perfection, with no uncooked parts but no dry parts either. What you may also see is bubbles: deep bubbles that form from the bottom and raise the entire layer. This is okay: it happens when the cookie is almost there, and it happened to all 3 of my layers.

italian tricolor [rainbow] cookies.

Melt the jelly…but not too much – I’m sure you know this, but there’s a huge difference between melted raspberry preserves and flaming hot raspberry lava; one is workable, one is not. Don’t heat your jelly so much that it becomes molten, because that’s just going to piss off your cookie layers and make things really runny. Melt your jelly slowly, stirring vigorously, just until the point that it’s smooth, no further, then let it sit and settle for a minute or two before you begin to assemble the layers.

And speaking of assembly – This part? Crucial to the cookie’s stability and survival, so take your time and work smart. Remember those bubbles I talked about earlier? They make the cookies have very slight hills and valleys; nothing to worry about, but your jelly will want to settle into pools near those valleys, which seems innocuous until this happens:

italian tricolor [rainbow] cookies.

So embarrassing.

Pay attention when you brush the raspberry jelly onto each layer, and if you see pooling, fix it. Use the spatula to thin out those parts, then attack it post-spread by pressing the layers together, putting weight on the entire surface area gently but firmly until any excess jelly squeezes out the sides. For this method, I’d suggest beginning in the center and working your way out to the perimeter. What you see here is the only time I had this happen, in what seemed like hundreds of cookie slices.

italian tricolor [rainbow] cookies.

That chocolate part looks daunting, but it isn’t. I’ll say here that spreading a gravity-defying vertical layer of chocolate on these sounded like a nightmare come to life; I can’t even frost a cake correctly, much less make a thin layer of hot chocolate look polished, but as you can see above…I managed. And if I can do it, you can do it. It’s really not tricky: first you’ll spread a thin layer on the top, only thinking about that part of things. Next, drizzle a thin river of chocolate on each side, very close to the edge. Use your offset spatula to nudge it over the sides, and as it falls, use the spatula to spread in an equally even and thin chocolate layer. Your cookies will be slightly cold due to a short stint in the fridge to set the layers, so the chocolate will firm up relatively quickly; not so quickly that it’s hard to do, but quick enough to where you don’t have to worry about chocolate running off the sides in a rush.

italian tricolor [rainbow] cookies.

After another chill, you’re ready to slice: also scary sometimes because chocolate can crack. Not so with these: it’s just a thin layer which settles nicely into the cakey insides, so slicing them is pretty easy. To keep the knife gunk from getting on the cookies as you slice them, keep a damp towel nearby to wipe off the blade as you go, which will make for a clean slice with minimal crumbs cluttering your chocolate or muddling your layers. These slice like a dense pound cake; be firm but go slowly and find your rhythm with it. Slice them as thick as you like, but a Twix-sixed thickness will get you about 16 bars per log; you have 6 logs (as you can see above), which gives you a generous 96 individual bars. That’s a lot of bars, which makes them great for gift-giving.

Is that detailed enough for you? You have zero reasons not to make these: I had always assumed they would be tricky, but with a few smart moves, they’re not hard at all, and the sheer number of bars you get makes holiday treats festive and completely simple. By the way: these (and all the other cookies I’ve done so far this week) freeze brilliantly – I would say that they almost improve in the freezer – so you can make them days or weeks ahead of schedule and be golden for the holidays. I’ve been taking some out a little at a time and assembling wee gift boxes for dear friends:

italian tricolor [rainbow] cookies.

See? No feverish baking the night before. Those wee little button-sized sprinkle cookies you see in this box are actually a cookie which resulted from a dumb mistake, and have turned into everyone’s favorites this year. Those are up next: appropriately, as they’re a perfect last-minute “You’re so thoughtful! How cute are those!” cookie.

Tutorial and parts of the technique are all my own, obviously, but the recipe comes from a really fantastic one from Saveur, found here. I was drawn to it because of how they used almond pastry cream, which gives them a dense, rich texture and doesn’t dry them out. I liked the less in-your-faceness of the almond pastry cream versus almond paste, also; their recipe works on all levels, and hopefully my little how-tos give you reason to dive right in, because I think you’ll love them as much as I do.

Italian Tricolor [Rainbow] Cookies

  • 1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for pan
  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for pan
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 12.5 ounce can Solo almond pastry filling
  • 4 large eggs
  • 15 drops green liquid food coloring
  • 15 drops red liquid food coloring
  • 1 12-ounce jar seedless raspberry preserves
  • 12 ounces 60% chocolate (or a good semi-sweet, whatever you like)

May the Charts be with you.

Make the layers:

Preheat oven to 350°. Portion out 3 sheets of parchment paper for one 13 x 9 baking pan (I use a metal 13 x 9 lipped baking sheet) so the parchment has “handles” which extend over the 13″ sides, long enough to grip. Grease bottom and sides of pan, lay in parchment and press to hold, then grease and flour parchment bottom and sides, tapping out any excess flour.

In the bowl of a stand mixer on high speed, beat butter and sugar in a bowl until pale and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Add pastry filling; beat until smooth. Scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add flour; beat until just combined. Evenly divide batter into 3 bowls. Add green food coloring to one bowl, red food coloring to the second bowl, and leave the third bowl plain; fold colorings into batters using a spatula, making sure coloring is evenly disbursed (harder than you think). Using an offset spatula, spread the first batter (you pick which color) into the prepared baking pan and cover the remaining bowls with a kitchen towel while they wait. Bake until just beginning to brown on the edges, about 10 to 12 minutes, checking at the 8-minute mark; you will also see the cakes begin to pull away slightly from the sides of the pan, which is a good indication that they’re done.

Remove pan from oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes in the pan. When cake has cooled slightly, carefully take hold of the parchment handles and firmly lift your cake upward out of the pan, maintaining enough tension in the parchment to keep the cake from sagging or bending too much. Transfer the cake, parchment and all, to a cooling rack and allow to cool completely.

When your hot pan has cooled down enough (give it a few minutes after you unearth the cake; you’re looking for touchable and warmish, but if you want to wait until completely cool, that’s fine), lay another sheet of parchment inside (there should be enough butter in there to hold it if you press) and do another grease/flour routine on it, tapping out any excess flour. Spread your next portion of batter into the bottom of the pan, and repeat baking process until all layers are baked and completely cooled.

Stack the layers:

Melt raspberry preserves in a microwave safe bowl on high using 15-second bursts in your microwave, stirring after each burst, until jelly is just warm enough to be completely smooth. If you go too hot with it, allow it to cool to warm before you proceed.

Take the green cake layer and pour 1/3 of the preserves in the middle: use an offset spatula to spread gently and evenly out to the edges, adding more jam in small spoonfuls as you go (you’ll need maybe a few more teaspoons, but don’t overload the cake layer.) Stack your white/plain layer on the green, repeat process with another 1/3 (plus more as needed) of the preserves, and top with red layer. Gently press down from center to sides on the stacked cakes to squeeze out excess preserves; don’t push so hard you smoosh your layers, but a little even pressure is good here. Place in refrigerator, covered with plastic wrap, for 1 to 2 hours.

Spread the chocolate:

Definitely use my guide for both the chocolate pour/spread and the cutting/serving above: it’s going to give you a good visual of what I’ll explain here, and sometimes that works better than actual words to describe a process.

Melt chocolate in a double boiler set over a pan of just simmering water, being careful to not let the bottom of the double boiler touch the water, stirring frequently, until completely melted and smooth. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly; you do not want to spread molten chocolate vertically, people.

Begin by trimming the perimeter just enough to even it out to smooth block. Create 6 equal “logs” from the cake block and transfer the logs to a big sheet of waxed paper or parchment paper on a sheet pan (you have to transfer these to the fridge, so you need a stable surface), allowing for a few inches of space between each log. Using an offset spatula, spread a very thin layer (see photos of the finished cookies above) on the top of each log.

Now for the fun part: working on one log at a time, pour a thin river of chocolate along the edges of each log. Use the offset spatula to gently push the chocolate over the edge, catching it and spreading it along the sides as you go, until each side is completely covered with a thin layer of chocolate. Move on and repeat the process with remaining logs of cookie.

Place logs in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes or so to firm up the chocolate. Remove logs, one at a time, from the refrigerator and use a very thin, sharp knife to slice into 1/2 inch bars, as shown above. Keep a damp towel nearby to wipe the knife as you go, cleaning it from debris as needed (and it will be needed frequently for clean, crumb-free cookies.)

These store so, so well, friends: I would suggest, however, that if you’re making these to go directly in the freezer (for gifting at a later date), store them in whole logs versus cutting them: it’s just easier and allows for a nice, fresh cut once you’re ready for them. As always, store in an airtight container no matter where you store them, although I’d keep sliced cookies in the refrigerator, as I think their flavor improves as they sit.

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  • Reply Wendy December 21, 2014 at 10:12 am

    Flag cookies or Christmas cookies, these are beautiful cookies! Amazing, as always, Shannon! I can count on you to answer my questions before I even think to ask them. Your detailed descriptions and charts bring both smiles and security. Due to complete Tricolor Cookie baking ignorance on my part, I still have one question before I tackle this. Do you have any wise words for how to lift the colored layers from the cooling rack without cracking when ready to create the stack? Wishing you and your family a joyous Christmas and a peace filled New Year!

    • Reply shannon January 3, 2015 at 7:11 am

      Thank you, Wendy! I do try and answer the questions: mostly, i’m just answering my own questions and writing them down for everyone to see, and i had a lot of notes on these. These just look intimidating to make, i think, right? I can see them scaring even seasoned bakers away, and they really shouldn’t: they’re not as hard as i thought, but they require care and attention for sure. Wise words re colored layers: honestly, these things cool and become pretty sturdy. I don’t want to say “rubbery” b/c that’s sort of a word with negative connotations, but there’s a flexibility to them that allows for some generous bend (if you didn’t overcook them, i imagine.) If you work carefully, you simply peel the parchment off the layer with one hand while stabilizing the layer with the other hand: basically you’re holding the layer up and peeling down, if that helps. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, but the give in these really is there, and will work in your favor as you peel. they’re a surprisingly stable cookie, and i think that’s due to the almond pastry cream in them. happy holidays to you and your family as well!

  • Reply Willow @ Will Cook For Friends December 22, 2014 at 10:01 am

    I love all the charts! Honestly, I tend to shy away from things with layers of different colors, but these sound too good to pass up. Almond and raspberry and I? We go way back. Cover than in chocolate, and I’m won. Those little multi-cookie gift boxes are such a great idea for the holidays, too! I wish I were that on top of things this year, but no way, no how (seriously, you’re lucky if your gift is even wrapped, coming from me). One of these days I’ll get better at preparing for the holidays, and when I do? COOKIES.

    • Reply shannon January 3, 2015 at 7:06 am

      I love making the charts! And i felt in this case that they’d be really practical, especially for the visual learners. I had to read through and really strategize how to get these right, because if you start a step and don’t know what you’re doing, you’re done: that would be a shame considering these cookies take some extra effort to make. And i think it’s no secret that i will search for reasons to make charts: that much all of you know. 🙂
      that being said, i should say that i wasn’t prepared for the holidays this year. maybe more prepared in past years with some things, but really? not really. i got cards out and managed to do a few posts prior to christmas week, but that’s the sum total of my organization. here’s to 2015 being a little more organized and a little less crazy (for both of us!) 🙂

  • Reply movita beaucoup December 23, 2014 at 7:02 am

    THE CHARTS! I’ve never loved you more.

    • Reply shannon January 3, 2015 at 7:00 am

      Then you’re really going to love me in 2015, because i’m planning to do ALL THE CHARTS. My charts are your adorable ballerinas.

  • Reply elizabeth December 26, 2014 at 11:30 am

    You are a beast in the kitchen in the best possible way. The charts! The meticulousness! The gorgious cookies! I don’t know if I could pull this off myself, but I tip my imaginary hat to your massive baking prowess.

    • Reply shannon January 3, 2015 at 6:58 am

      You calling me a beast in the kitchen is one of my favorite things ever, and also a high compliment considering your amazing skills in the kitchen on the cooking side of the spectrum. If we got together, we could rule the world.

  • Reply Amrita December 27, 2014 at 6:14 am

    omg girl, I had these for the first time on a whim at Piccione (I had always wondered about it) and they were so much more delicious than I expected! I don’t even like fruit and chocolate combos but this whole thing was addictive and amazing. Thanks for the recipe and esp that awesome picture tutorial, I’m excited to try these at home 🙂 Happy Holidays!

    • Reply shannon January 3, 2015 at 6:56 am

      I totally agree in terms of their deliciousness! I never knew they were as magical as they actually are, and they just get better over time: “addictive” is a perfect word for them. Happy holidays to you too, Amrita, and thank you for the kind words. 🙂

  • Reply Brianne December 27, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    I have always wanted to make these! You are just crushing my to-make list lately, and making it super approachable 🙂

    • Reply shannon January 3, 2015 at 6:55 am

      I’m just super proud that i’m crushing your to-do list, Brianne. 🙂 thank you – i think i’ve been terrified of some of these for so long now i almost psyched myself out of making them…almost. but curiosity prevailed, and i’m hoping i can dispel some of the fear for others too. out of the bunch, these are my favorite, and SO worth making (and also entirely freezable for a really long time). if you make them, your reward will be not only the knowledge that you did it, but also that you can eat 1 a night for basically a month.

  • Reply natalie @ wee eats December 28, 2014 at 5:35 pm

    I’ve never had a tricolor cookie, mostly because I never knew what they tasted like so I was never interested. Generally I’m all about the chocolate and these always seemed meh to me, but YOUR DESCRIPTION HAS PROVEN ME SO WRONG. First off, cookie = good. Pound cake = better. So a cookie-pound-cake hybrid ARE YOU KIDDING ME WHAT HAVE I BEEN WAITING FOR?
    also, your cookie boxes this year turned out incredibly adorable – i must move closer so that i can receive them in the future 🙂

    • Reply shannon January 3, 2015 at 7:22 am

      I would say here that I really struggled through making all those charts, but it would be a lie: making charts is my favorite thing, and probably i picked these cookies in part b/c i knew i could work charts into the post.
      you may be getting a box of baked goods for an upcoming holiday: you never know, do you? Although i will say that all of these cookies work super well together and freeze DELIGHTFULLY so i totally won holiday spur-of-the-moment food-gifting this year. This may become my yearly cookie box standard.

  • Reply Ashley January 5, 2015 at 11:17 am

    So I’m finally catching up on reading blogs (oops), but, lady. THIS POST!!!! The diagrams are AWESOME, your research and perfectly phrased advice are so helpful and inspirational, and you seriously kick recipe butt! Also, tricolor cookies are so tasty and I bet your version here are even tastier than any random bakery version I’ve tried before. Shannon for the win.

  • Reply Sue November 14, 2015 at 11:47 am

    Just a couple of tips that may help-I bought four 1/8 sheet pans from Amazon and used them to bake the cakes. Your recipe is about double of mine so 1/2 of the batter would be just right for four pans. I made four layers-red, green, yellow and white. I sprayed each pan lightly with pan spray and lined each with parchment paper cut to fit the bottom. After they baked & cooled slightly I ran a large, wide spatula under the parchment and cake layer and carefully removed it from the pan to a cooling rack. This worked really well and nothing broke! Remove the parchment before filling and stacking with jam.
    After freezing the layers with the jam spread between them (about 30 minutes is good), and cutting into 3 logs lengthwise, place the logs on a sheet of parchment or waxed paper on a sheet pan and use a pastry brush to “paint on” the thin layer of melted chocolate. If you work quickly the log of cake will stay frozen enough to flip the log from side to side until all four sides are covered with the chocolate. When the chocolate is hardened, which should happen fast because the cake is frozen, you can slice into desired sized pieces.
    This technique has worked very well for me.

  • Reply cavatappi with chèvre, arugula + walnuts. – A Periodic Table January 5, 2018 at 9:46 am

    […] horrid: sure, cookies happened, and sometimes at inappropriate times (although I maintain that almond cookies sandwiched with raspberry jam are just an alternative version of granola), but mostly, I ate nice things. I made a spectacular […]

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