The History of the Half Moon / Black and White Cookie

19 Feb
2013
Posted in: Food, New York
By    1 Comment

I grew up eating Half Moon cookies. But I had never had a NYC-style Half Moon cookie (OK, OK: a Black and White cookie) until last weekend. NYC is so good at so many things: bagels, pizza, overwhelming crowds of people. How could it get the Black and White cookie so wrong?

I had to do a little research. I discovered that there’s surprisingly little information out there about Half Moon cookies. There are many recipes, but few details about the origin of this cookie and how and why it diverged into two totally different species. Wikipedia says:

There is some confusion as to the origin of the black-and-white cookie and the sometimes synonymous name Half-Moon. The name Half-Moon is common in Upstate New York and New England. In New York City, however, one will find only Black and Whites. While the two names are often used interchangeably, there may actually be considerable differences between the two, most notably in the textures of the base and the icing.

Half-Moons originated in Utica, NY at the famous Hemstrought’s Bakery in the early part of the 20th century. The original Hemstrought’s bakery closed their doors a few years ago. When the bakery closed, the family sold the name to a local commercial bakery for the supermarket production of half moons, while the actual recipe remained with the bakery staff who opened their own bakery, Gingerbread Bake Shop, on Oneida St. in New Hartford, NY.

Controversy! Intrigue! Cookies!

Since nothing of the sort exists, I’ve decided to create a definitive guide to the Half Moon cookie.

Upstate NY/New England-Style:

Name: Half Moon cookie (usually), Black and White cookie (sometimes)

Cookie base: Vanilla cake or chocolate cake (though a chocolate cake cookie can make the whole thing a bit too rich).

Frosting: Buttercream for the white frosting, chocolate-y fudge for the black frosting. Both should be fluffy and applied rather thickly. One frosting should always be slightly taller than the other frosting. The chocolate frosting should be SO RICH that you have to take bites of the vanilla frosting for relief.

Favorite places to buy: my old elementary school cafeteria, bakeries in Boston’s North End (Mike’s Pastry with all the tourists or Bova’s Bakery for a slightly less touristy experience). I will soon be trying Holland Farms and Hemstrought’s Bakery in Utica and Gingerbread Bake Shop in New Hartford.

To bake: the “original” bakery shared their recipe with Saveur, but I’d sub the margarine for butter.

Bova's Bakery in the North End.

Bova’s Bakery in the North End.

Bova's Half Moons.

Bova’s Half Moons.

Half Moons at Mike's Pastry.

Half Moons at Mike’s Pastry.

I once bought three Half Moons from Bova’s Bakery on a business trip to Boston. One was eaten instantly. I had planned to take two home (one for me, one for Paul), but my flight was cancelled and I got stuck in the airport hotel for a night. I ate a cookie for dinner (along with a half-bottle of sparkling wine and a pint of Haagen-Dazs from room service, best business expense ever), and carefully zipped the final cookie into the outer pocket of my checked suitcase.

Have you ever seen how the baggage handlers treat those suitcases? It’s like they wanted to take all their pent-up rage out on my final cookie. That poor cookie was smashed into oblivion in the outer pocket of my suitcase. Its fragile plastic container did nothing to help. The cookie was mashed into the fabric of my luggage — little crumbles of cake and frosting that had turned into a delicious, light brown paste. It was not a dignified ending for the cookie.

 

New York City-Style:

Name: Black and White cookie.

Cookie base: A slightly lemon-flavored cake.

Frosting: Fondant-based. Thin, smooth, shiny, and glossy. A little waxy. No strong flavors of vanilla or chocolate. The frosting sometimes wraps around the edges of the cookie.

Favorite places to buy: Full disclosure: I don’t like these. But NYC people seem to think the best of the best come from Glaser’s Bake Shop on the Upper East Side (I notice that Glaser’s at least gets the frosting right). People also seem to like the cookies from The Donut Pub and from William Greenberg Desserts (and OPRAH LIKES THESE! OH MY GOD!!!!! OPRAH!!!!!!!!!!! Oh wait, that’s not Oprah, that’s Gayle). There’s even a guy who has selflessly dedicated his life to eating and reviewing Black and White cookies.

To bake: The New York Times has the definitive recipe, along with everything you’ve ever wanted to know about Black and White Seinfeld references. A Cook Grows in Brooklyn has a modern photo-essay recipe that looks pretty.

 

A Half Moon cookie should ALWAYS be:

  • Bought in a bakery.
  • Soft and luscious.
  • Wrapped in cling wrap. That cake base gets stale fast.
  • Frosted on the bottom of cookie, not the top.

A Half Moon cookie should NEVER be:

  • Hard.
  • Frosted with a substance that can’t be dented.
  • Crunchy.
  • Bought in a grocery store.
  • Shrink-wrapped/hermetically sealed.

Not in Upstate NY, NYC, or New England? Not to fear, you can order a dozen online…for $45!

Just in case I haven’t yet given you enough motivation to try a Half Moon, here are two scary pictures of me eating Half Moon cookies:

Wow, that's scary.

Wow, that’s scary.

This one should be accompanied by some insane laughter.

This one should be accompanied by some insane laughter.

Where did you find your favorite Half Moon cookie? Do you prefer the Upstate or the NYC-style? Leave a note in the comments.

  • Marie

    Molly O’Neill’s “New York Cookbook” re-creates the Zabar’s recipe, which many people consider the gold standard of NYC-style black and white cookies. But this is such a childhood thing — I’ve been in “half moon” country way longer than I was in black and white territory, but even the North End’s finest specimens seem slightly wrong to me. If you’re inclined to do more research, I’d suggest taste-testing that involves old-school neighborhood bakeries (German-Jewish, Irish, or Italian) beyond Manhattan. You know, for science!