Saying good-bye to Pittsburgh’s beloved thumbprint cookie

On November 17, 2015 by admin

Pittsburghers are passionate about their cookies. So when Macy’s announced last month that the Arcade Bakery would be closing along with its Tic Toc Room on July 31, a kind of panic ensued. 

What’s a holiday, or for that matter, any day of the month or week, without the bakery’s signature thumbprint cookies?

Piled with a 2-inch-high swirl of icing, the super-sweet butter cookies have been a guilty pleasure for Downtown office workers and others for decades. The thought of life without them was, for some, unimaginable.

“We really need u to save arcade bakery,” a fan tweeted to Mayor Peduto and Macy’s.

“Just realized that Macy’s downtown closing means Arcade Bakery is closing too and I AM DEVASTATED BY THIS,” wailed another.

Even professional cooks were anxious.

“Okay, who can get me a copy of the Macy’s thumbprint cookie? I’ll make you some if you get me the real recipe,” Big Burrito executive chef Bill Fuller tweeted on July 21. He added, ”@gtmckay this means you!“

Game on!

Here in the PG food section, we routinely play sleuth for readers who want, but can’t find, favorite recipes; for a cookie as famous and with as much pedigree as the Arcade Thumbprint, tracking down the list of ingredients ought to be a snap. I was wrong.

It was not in the PG archives. While plenty of readers had written to Kitchen Mailbox guru Arlene Burnett over the years in search of THE RECIPE, she’d never secured it. But that’s why there’s Google, right?

Sure enough, a quick search turned up a recipe and yummy-looking picture from some unnamed cookbook. ”Adapted from Macy’s Arcade Bakery and Cafe, Pittsburg“ read the head notes. The misspelling of my city should have been the first clue that Mr. Fuller would not be satisfied.

”Nope,“ he replied. ”I found that, too. It is ‘adapted from,’ has no mention of fillings, and completely ignores the icing factor.“

But surely a recipe had been preserved for posterity at the Macy’s headquarters in New York? The PR team was happy to look for it, and sent the request first to its bakery people and, when that search came up empty, to their archivists. Eight days later, they, too, delivered bad news. No dice on the thumbprint recipe.

Undeterred, I turned next to the folks at the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District, which maintains more than 250 years of the region’s history in its exhibits and archives. Perhaps they could find it in an old Kaufmann’s — the department store before it was Macy’s — or regional cookbook.

Struck out there, too.

“Our archivists searched around our Kaufmann’s files and found a few cookbooks and other records, but none contained the recipe for the thumbprint cookies,” Ned Shano, the history center’s director of communications, wrote in an email. “Evidently, they kept the recipe pretty quiet!”

After learning of my dilemma, a colleague mentioned that she lived around the corner from a former Arcade bakery worker in Morningside — and he would be more than happy to talk to me.

Now 83 and retired for 20 years, Charles Rini spent some two decades working the overnight shift at the bakery, first as a mixer then as a breadmaker in charge of sweet rolls, Danish and treats made with puff pastry.

“I never saw daylight,” he recalled. “We had to have everything ready to go by 6 a.m.”

Of course, he knew all about the thumbprints, and even though he’d never actually been responsible for  baking them — the “ladies” were in charge of cookies — he was pretty sure he’d written down the recipe in one of his notebooks. He just needed some time to look. I crossed my fingers.

Less than 10 minutes later, Mr. Rini called to say he’d found the recipe, and I scribbled it down in my notebook.

But just to be sure, I decided to try to nab one of the cookies on the Arcade’s last day of existence to taste-test his recipe.

At 8:30 last Friday morning, I joined the line already snaking out the door at the bakery, only to discover the last of the thumbprints — 15 trays of 80 — had sold out shortly after the bakery opened at 7 a.m. The recipe, along with the cookies, seemed lost to history.

Or maybe not. According to one of the bakery ladies, Kevin Ulrich, chief thumbprint baker for the past 34 years, was in the kitchen. I headed back to find him pulling yet one more tray of thumbprints from the oven.

Back when he started work in the mid-1980s, thumbprints only came in chocolate and vanilla instead of the more than 40 varieties with cheesecake and s’mores bottoms that Pittsburghers learned to love over the years. He says, “It just went crazy,” with the bakery selling at least 700 of the cookies each day, and sometimes as many as 1,400.  “They were a phenomenon.”

(For the record, the Arcade’s thumbprints didn’t actually have the hallmark dent in the middle of the cookie. The icing was piled high on a flat surface.)

When I asked if he’d be willing to share the recipe, Mr. Ulrich kindly declined. “There is no recipe,” he said. “It’s all in my head.”

But I have one from Mr. Rini, I insisted, so surely you must have one, too. (When he heard it contained brown sugar, he laughed and shook his head, No.)

Even if he wrote the ingredients down and I carefully followed the recipe, he said, they wouldn’t taste the same.

“What your grandmother made, your mom can’t. And what your mom makes, you can’t,“ Mr. Ulrich told me.

”It’s true,“ said Cheryl Livolsi, the worker who’d led me back to the kitchen. ”Someone else made them when he was on vacation, and I spit it out after one bite!“

“It’s basically impossible,” Mr. Ulrich agreed. “A true baker doesn’t have a recipe.“

He was willing, however, to share with me one last cookie. It was delicious.

”It really makes me feel good when I hear that people love my cookies,“ he told me as I headed for the door.

So sorry, Mr. Fuller. Looks like we’re not going to be able to offer an exact recipe for the Arcade Bakery’s famous thumbprint cookies. But maybe you and our readers can start your own tradition with thumbprint cookie recipes.

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-2263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Thumbprint Cookies

This recipe from an unnamed cookbook I found on the Web is “adapted” from Macy’s Arcade Bakery and Cafe. 

1⅓ cups granulated sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 cups solid vegetable shortening, at room temperature

1½ cups butter, at room temperature

1 large egg

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/8 teaspoon pure rum extract

8¼ cups cake flour

Decorating sugar in various colors, rainbow sprinkles, and/or finely chopped nuts

Position rack in center and in upper third of oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Have ready 2 ungreased baking sheets.

In stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, combine granulated sugar, salt, shortening and butter and beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add egg and vanilla and rum extracts, and beat until incorporated. On low speed, add flour and mix just until dough comes together. (If it doesn’t look like all of the flour will fit into the bowl of the mixer, scoop the butter-shortening mixture out into a large bowl and, using a rubber spatula, gently fold in the flour just until combined.

Put decorating sugars, sprinkles and/or nuts in separate bowls. To shape each cookie, scoop up a heaping tablespoon of dough, or use a 1-ounce scoop, and roll between your palms into a ball. As balls are shaped, roll them in the decorating sugar, sprinkles or nuts, coating them evenly on all sides, and place them on baking sheet spacing them 2 inches apart. Using your thumb, make a shallow indentation in the center of each cookie.

Bake cookies, switching the pans between the racks and rotating them 180 degrees about halfway through the baking time, until a light golden brown, 18 to 20 minutes. Remove from oven, transfer cookies to rack, and let cool completely. Cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days.

Makes 5 dozen cookies.

Thumbprint Cookies

Charles Rini, 83,  who was a baker at Arcade Bakery for more than 20 years before retiring in 1994, wrote this cookie recipe down in a notebook years ago, even though bread and danish were his specialty. “The ladies made the cookies,” he says.

PG tested

1/2 cup shortening (not margarine)

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 egg, divided

1 cup finely chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Mix all of the ingredients together except the egg white and the walnuts. Cream mixture for 5 minutes.

Beat egg white in bowl and set aside with nuts.

Roll dough into 1-inch balls. Roll dough balls in nuts then press in the middle with your thumb.

Place flattened balls on cookie sheet and bake until golden brown, about 8 minutes. Remove from oven, transfer cookies to rack and let cool.

When cool, top with icing.

Makes 2 dozen.

— Charles Rini, Morningside

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