September 18, 2019

My Journey to an Icon of the N.Y. Dessert Scene

The Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Frank Sinatra, the Rockettes, Broadway, Times Square, hot dogs, the Yankees, bagels and a New York slice — no list of old New York is complete without the black-and-white cookie. The sweet treat is thought to have been brought over by German Jews at the turn of the century and can be found in every corner store, bodega, bakery and deli in the city. Along with New York-style cheesecake, the black-and-white is perhaps the city’s most famous dessert and rose to national attention in a “Seinfeld” episode when Jerry declared it a symbol of racial equality.

I’ve never much been a fan of the cake-like cookie, probably because my “salt tooth” is dominant but also because I’d never eaten one from William Greenberg Desserts, widely considered New York’s top spot to eat the ubiquitous treat. Walking into the kosher establishment, a store that’s been around since the 1940s and sits on a prime spot on Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side, this past week, I finally understood why the cookie is such an icon of the New York dessert scene. Greenberg’s is a tiny wonderland of Jewish confections — rugalach, schnecken (a yeasted dough with pecans, raisins and cinnamon), cookies and fruit tarts — piled high and crammed onto every available surface. It’s hard to believe that such a small space could hold such a huge legacy. 

Like many old-school businesses, Greenberg’s started as a family affair — when Greenberg’s favorite aunt, Gertrude, taught him how to bake. She passed down her recipes to him and after almost 50 years in the business, he passed along the bakery to his son Seth. Seth Greenberg, who owned the bakery for only a few years, sold it to investors in 1995. During that time, Carol Becker, Greenberg’s current owner, was baking challah in her small New York apartment and selling the loaves to her neighbors. Becker, a lifetime New Yorker who worked in her family spirits business, got her love of baking from watching her Romanian grandmother Betty prepare Jewish pastries in her home kitchen. 

“Here I was, baking challah — which I wasn’t supposed to be doing — in my tiny apartment and the smell would waft down the hallway. That’s how I got more customers,” she told me as we sat in a sunny spot at the front of the bakery on an unseasonably warm February day. “I always loved baking. I loved watching my grandmother as she rolled cookies and pastries, and I associated the smell and warmth of baking with her.”

“It’s hard to believe that such a small space could hold such a huge legacy.”

Becker said she had no formal training but was spurred on by increasing demands for her challah, and later, biscotti and other cookies for a growing customer base. Her kitchen was too small to accommodate the demand, and Becker’s friends heard that there was an opportunity to buy what was considered the best bakery on the Upper East Side. Becker said she didn’t hesitate. By that time, she was hooked on the bakery business and, after a lengthy and frustrating negotiation with investors, she bought the business in 2008. 

“It’s humbling and frightening to buy a business with such a big legacy and reputation, and it’s a lot of responsibility,” Becker said. Sure enough, as I was observing what people ordered, I saw a line of customers who seemed as if they’d been patronizing the store for decades. One older man walked in and asked the women behind the counter to give him what his wife always orders — two dozen in a box to go. He couldn’t remember what his wife had told him to buy. He asked for rugelach but was quickly corrected by a young woman waiting on him. “Your wife likes the schnecken, sir,” she said to him with a smile. 

Although taking over a business that entices residents to line up around the block on Jewish holidays was overwhelming to her, Becker continued to expand the business, opening a branch of Greenberg’s in the food court of an equally iconic location — the Plaza Hotel. Although Greenberg’s is known for its wedding cakes — five-tier creations with all the flamboyance you would expect from a famous institution — it’s also renowned for the tins of pecan brownies featured in an episode of AMC’s “Mad Men.” Yet, more than the chocolate babkas (for which it’s won awards), shortbread cookies and chocolate-dipped pretzels, more than famous pound cakes, challah and hamentashen, it’s the black-and-white cookie that remains Greenberg’s top seller. 

The perfect texture of the base — not quite cake and not quite cookie but a vanilla-scented something in between — Greenberg’s black-and-white is clearly made with love. Unlike the often stale and overly sweet imposters that abound in the city, Greenberg’s cookies, available in different sizes and even colors (a green-and-white version for St. Patrick’s Day and a heart-shaped version for Valentine’s Day), have better flavor, better texture and superior frosting to even their closest competitors. Even though she isn’t a Greenberg, Becker has kept the motto of the company alive. This spring she plans to open another branch of the brand in the new Hudson Yards Food Hall, a billion-dollar project many years in the making, featuring some of the world’s most famous chefs “food concepts.” 

While stories in the city of people whose passions for their art in one form or another abound, it’s inspiring to think that the hand-written recipes of an aunt passed down on index cards almost 75 years ago combined with the love of a grandmother’s kitchen can result in an empire.

I asked Becker for the recipe for Greenberg’s famous black-and-white cookie but she is bound by tradition to keep it a secret. Here is my recipe, the one I use in my bakery, one that I’ve tinkered with over the years. It’s a reasonable facsimile, a copycat, but not quite the real thing. For that, I’m afraid, you’ll need to make the trek to the big city.


For the cookie:
1 3/4 cups cake flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons softened butter
1/4 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/4 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract

For the white icing:
1 teaspoon coconut oil
1 teaspoon corn syrup
1/4 cup whole milk
1 1/ 2 – 2 cups powdered sugar (confectioners)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

For the chocolate icing:
1/2 cup Baker’s no sugar added dark chocolate, chopped

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Whisk together dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt.)

In a separate bowl, combine softened butter and sugar, then beat until light and fluffy. Add egg and extracts and then half the flour mixture. Mix 30 seconds to combine and then add in the buttermilk.

Mix another 30 seconds and then add remaining flour mixture. Mix another 30 seconds to combine. Batter should be slightly thicker than pancake batter.

Transfer to piping bag and pipe batter onto parchment-lined baking sheet in 2-inch diameter round shapes. Leave 1 inch between cookies. There should be 12 rounds. Lightly tap tray on counter to flatten out cookies. Bake for 12-15 minutes (cookies should be only slightly brown on the bottom and have no color on top).

Transfer cookies to cooling rack and put in freezer to cool completely before icing.

For icing: Heat the coconut oil, corn syrup and milk in a small saucepan. Add powdered sugar until the mixture is thick, and cook until glossy. Place half the white icing in a separate bowl. Melt chocolate in microwave for 1 minute and mix with half the other half of the white icing, stirring to combine.

When cookies are cool, turn them over. Using a small offset spatula, ice half of each cookie with white icing first and then repeat icing the other half with the chocolate icing.

Makes 12 small or 6 larger cookies. 

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.