Growing up in an Italian-American family on Long Island, I came to equate Christmas with my grandma Mary’s rainbow cookies—those ubiquitous almond-flavored confections, layers of red-, white-, and green-colored cakes held together by jam and blanketed with semi-sweet chocolate. After Christmas dinner was done, my cousins would scatter from the table to toss a football or play Super Nintendo, but I stayed behind, lingering in my seat to wait for the first colorful tray of cookies to come out of the kitchen, heralding the onset of dessert. Grandma made plenty of other cookies—pignolis, Florentines, linzers—but rainbows were the best of all, and I had a system for eating them: First I’d scrape off the chocolate with my front teeth, then I’d pull it apart, starting off with the raspberry-jam-topped green layer, followed by the apricot-jam-topped white layer, and finally the red.
For Grandma, baking was an opportunity to exercise her perfectionism, and rainbow cookies were ideal geometrical outlets. She smoothed each cake layer into the same exact thickness with an offset spatula, slicked the cooled cakes evenly with jam, and once they were all stacked, she poured the melted chocolate over the tops and bottoms so it spread into an even, shiny shell. The finished slab of cookies went into the fridge with a heavy baking pan and phone books on top to compress the layers to just the right height. When it came time to serve them, she took a sharp knife to cut the cookies into rectangles of exactly ½ by 1½ inches, dipping the knife in warm water as she went along to keep the edges clean.
Each batch took hours to make, start to finish—not to mention the few days Grandma let them “age” in the fridge, allowing the jam to permeate into the almond-scented layers—and come Christmas we devoured platters of them in minutes. Still, we never cleared her out: Grandma always kept extra rainbow cookies on reserve, sending each of her five children home with an equally portioned waxed paper parcel that she would weigh to the gram on her kitchen scale.
About a decade ago, Grandma Mary had to recalibrate the science of her rainbow cookie recipe when, after my mother died, she moved to Long Island to help my father take care of my brother John and me. That Christmas, our faulty oven burned the edges of her first batch of cake layers. But she soldiered on, refusing to forfeit the one thing that would make Christmas seem normal for us again. For the next round, she stationed me next to the oven door so I could watch closely, making sure the layers didn’t brown. Later that night, using my teeth to scrape the chocolate off a finished rainbow cookie, I realized how much work Grandma put into those cookies, the pride she took in getting them just right—and how, despite the tremendous loss we were facing that year, they held us all together.