Growing up, trips to Los Angeles were a big treat. We only went a few times a year, and always for a specific reason like seeing a play or shopping in the Garment District. But no matter what brought us to LA, we ended our day the same way: with a trip to Canters Deli. Sometimes we ate dinner there, indulging in comfort foods like corned beef and matzo balls. Sometimes we just made a pit stop to pick up dessert. Either way, I always made sure to leave with one of Canter’s giant black and white cookies in my hands.
We all had our own favorite treat in the Canters bakery. Mine was that scrumptious cookie, a cakey base with two types of frosting. My brother’s was the chocolate rugula, my mom’s the chocolate-dipped cookies, my dad’s the hamentaschen. I was always happy to take a bite of my family’s picks, but I never wavered from my own ritual of getting a black and white. If you’re from the East Coast you may not understand my laser focus on getting one of those cookies, as they’re pretty popular pastries in your neck of the woods. But black and whites just aren’t that common on the West Coast, and trips to Canters were one of my only ways to get them. For me, black and whites will forever be intertwined with road trips, LA adventures, and shared family nostalgia. Canters is part of my family’s memory fabric, just like any other ritual we grew together. Even today, as I bite into a black and white (and as Seinfeld notes, you have to get a bit of black and white at the same time), I think back to all of the fun we had picking our pastries out of Canters’ beautiful displays.
We all have foods like that, don’t we? Foods that transport us to happy times, to shared memories, to family love. Maybe it’s the lasagna your mom made every Saturday, or the tacos you only got with your grandpa because your grandma thought the restaurant was too unsanitary. Perhaps it’s the diner you visited on vacation in Florida every summer, or the sandwich shop you’d go to twice a week with your high school classmates. Food isn’t just physical sustenance: sometimes it’s very tightly woven into our nostalgia and emotion.
These days, I rarely make it to LA, and even more infrequently to Canter’s. Oddly enough, my black and white habits have shifted somewhat to the East Coast. Whenever I travel East, I make it a point to snap up whatever black and whites I encounter. Sadly, I’m often disappointed- bad icing, stale cookies, weird flavoring. I probably should have expected disappointment when I bought one at a New Jersey roadside bagel shop earlier this year but hey, you just never know!
To fill the West Coast cookie void, I recently made my own batch. I’d attempted black and whites a few years ago and didn’t like how they turned out, but this time I was really happy with the recipe I used. I then took the cookies to a picnic, where they were declared delicious by the masses. So if you want to try your hand at them, I highly recommend using this recipe from Brown Eyed Baker. Lemon extract and cake flour seem to be key ingredients here, and the recipe is pretty simple. I did have some issues getting the chocolate frosting spread on before it thickened up – guess I’ll have to keep making the cookies until I get it right!
I got curious about black and whites as I wrote this, and browsed the Internet a bit to learn more about how they became so ubiquitous with Jewish delis. There’s a good article at Eater NY, if you’re interested. And just because: check out this guy’s black and white review site. He stopped his reviews a while ago, but it’s still worth a browse and a laugh!