Vintage Pinwheel Cookies
These pinwheel cookies are make-ahead friendly.
Makes55 (3 1/2-inch) cookies
When thinking about a cookie that defines the 1930s, it has to be an icebox cookie, like these swirly pinwheels. The 1930s were a contradictory time. The entire decade was overshadowed by the Great Depression, caused by the Crash of 1929. Although numerous advancements were made in social programs under Roosevelt’s New Deal, economically the nation did not exit the Great Depression until the U.S. entrance into the Second World War in December of 1941. Although the Depression caused real hunger and scarcity in some parts of the nation, others were more insulated from the negative effects. The rise in popularity of Hollywood and the film industry meant that glamorous movie stars wearing slinky evening wear and waltzing around swanky hotel ballrooms were as representative of the decade as migrant workers escaping the Dust Bowl.
In the face of a severe economic depression, nostalgia for the “good ol’ days” returned. The radicalism of the 1920s began to soften as traditional gender roles took over once again. Hemlines lowered, social mores tightened up, and the kindly, fresh-faced young mother took center stage in food advertising. An interest in old-fashioned foods returned and the Food Writer’s Project of the WPA attempted to catalog disappearing regional cuisines. Although it was never finished and never published, the project marked the desire to capture disappearing traditions in a time of extraordinary technological and social change.
Christmas celebrations in the 1930s reflected both this nostalgia and the economic restrictions of the times. Homemade gifts, family celebrations, and home cooking were the focus for most families. Hollywood movies often provided an escape from the realities of daily life, and the popularity of child stars like Shirley Temple meant that families could see movies together.
While the Crash of 1929 was caused largely by stock market speculation, plenty of ordinary Americans found themselves trying to pay off all the new appliances they had bought on credit in the 1920s. Radios, electric refrigerators, electric stoves, and dozens of other household appliances became increasingly commonplace, whether their owners could afford them or not. With the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, electricity was no longer limited to large cities — everyone had affordable access.
Electric refrigeration in particular had a huge impact on American households. Although the trend had started in the 1920s, by the 1930s refrigerators were more affordable and accessible than ever before, and dozens of cookbooks teaching people how to “cook with cold” appeared. Icebox desserts — usually involving whipped cream, pudding, and store-bought cookies — were increasingly popular, as was homemade ice cream, gelatin-based desserts, like coffee jelly and Bavarian cream, and chilled salads. The appearance and fashion of foods was just as important as it had been in the 1920s, but cost played an even more important role.
Icebox cookies were an important development around this time. Named for the predecessor of the refrigerator, they really took off with the rising popularity of the refrigerator as a common household appliance. A dense dough designed to be chilled and then sliced before baking, icebox cookies maintained their elegant shape while saving the baker time and effort. The design also reduced waste, as the slices left no scraps that had to be re-rolled and cut again. Period recipes even discuss how just a few cookies could be sliced off the log and baked fresh for visitors, reducing waste even further and stretching what may have been limited baking supplies.
Although it was invented earlier, the pinwheel icebox cookie was everywhere in the 1930s. Recipes pop up in numerous cookbooks from the period. The recipes start with a simple sugar cookie dough, then add cocoa powder to half of the dough for the chocolate layer. After rolling each dough flat, they’re stacked on top of one another, then tightly rolled to create the signature swirl. The graphic design of the pinwheel in bold black and white was also representative of the bold, stylized, simplified lines of Art Deco, the 1930s style that took over everything from architecture and train design to clothing.
This recipe is from the 1931 edition of Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes. Developed in 1926 by the USDA Bureau of Home Economics, “Aunt Sammy” was a fictional character designed to engage rural housewives via radio. Her Radio Recipes were published multiple times in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Modern Twist
For a modern take on Old-School Pinwheel Cookies, check out the Black Cocoa and Peppermint Pinwheels.
Our Three Most-Loved Cookie-Baking Tools
Before you preheat the oven, gear up with these cookie-making essentials.
- The Sheet Pan Every Kitchn Editor Owns: This sturdy, won’t-ever-warp pan is great for cranking out a ton of picture-perfect sweets. Bonus: It comes in great colors, which makes baking even more fun.
- Our Tried-and-Tested Favorite Cooling Rack: We love these racks for their criss-cross design, which adds stability, makes sure your precious treats won’t slip though, and prevents the rack from wobbling or warping.
- The Little Spatula That Every Baker Needs: This thin-but-sturdy spatula is great for gently loosening your cookies from the pan and transferring them to the cooling rack. It’s particularly handy for moving small or delicate treats.
These pinwheel cookies are make-ahead friendly.
Prep time 50 minutes
Cook time 30 minutes
Makes55 (3 1/2-inch) cookies
- 8 tablespoons
(1 stick) unsalted butter
- 2 cups
all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
- 2 teaspoons
- 1/2 teaspoon
- 1 cup
- 2 tablespoons
- 1 1/2 teaspoons
square unsweetened chocolate (1 ounce)
Place 1 stick unsalted butter in the bowl of a stand mixer (or large bowl if using an electric hand mixer). Let sit at room temperature until softened. Meanwhile, place 2 cups all-purpose flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, and 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt in a medium bowl and whisk to combine.
Add 1 cup granulated sugar to the butter. Beat on medium speed with the paddle attachment until lightened in color and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add 1 large egg and 2 tablespoons milk and beat on medium speed until combined, about 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Add the flour mixture (reserve the bowl) and 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract and beat on the lowest speed until just combined, about 30 seconds. Transfer half of the dough (about 12 ounces) back to the now-empty flour bowl.
Place 1 square unsweetened chocolate in a small microwave-safe bowl and microwave until melted. Scrape into the remaining dough in the stand mixer. Beat on the lowest speed until just combined, about 40 seconds.
Transfer half of the chocolate dough (about 6 1/2 ounces) onto a lightly floured work surface. Roll into an 8x5-inch rectangle (about 1/4-inch thick) with a long side closer to you. Transfer half of the white dough onto the chocolate layer and pat into an even layer; smooth the surface of the dough. Starting at the long side closest to you, roll the dough up tightly into a log.
Repeat rolling and forming the remaining dough into a second log, this time rolling out the white dough and placing the chocolate dough on top. Wrap both doughs in wax paper or plastic wrap. Refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour or up to overnight.
Arrange 2 racks to divide the oven into thirds and heat the oven to 350ºF. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Unwrap the dough logs and position seam-side down. Cut each log crosswise into 1/4-inch thick rounds. Place the rounds on the baking sheets 2-inches apart, 20 per sheet. Refrigerate the remaining rounds.
Bake for 7 minutes. Rotate the baking sheets between racks and from front to back. Bake until lightly browned, about 8 minutes more. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes. Transfer to wire racks to cool completely. Bake the remaining dough rounds, letting the baking sheet cool completely before using (you can reuse the parchment). Check on the last sheet after 12 minutes baking time.
Make ahead: The unbaked cookie logs can be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and frozen for up to 2 months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator before slicing and baking.
Storage: Store the cookies in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.
Recipe adapted from Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes, published in 1931.