Downtown Dreams: Thumbprints

8 Aug

My mom worked in downtown Pittsburgh when I was growing up. It was always a treat when I got to go visit her. We would often make our way to Kaufmann’s department store (eventually Macy’s, who took over in 2006) and the Tic Toc Restaurant for lunch. I can still remember the way their tuna melt tasted 20 years later, not because it was anything particularly ground-breaking, but because I was with my mom downtown and how cool was that??

The iconic Kaufmann’s clock

The other place we’d frequent at Kaufmann’s was the Arcade Bakery. Now, this blog has made evident my love for cookies, but there are few cookies I remember more vividly and pine for more regularly than the thumbprints from the Arcade Bakery. Thick, sandy, and decadent butter cookies rolled in sprinkles or walnuts and topped with a big piped dollop of vanilla or chocolate buttercream. If there is a thumbprint divot in the middle, you’d never know under buttercream mountain.

Thumbprint, what thumbprint??

I’ve made thumbprints lots of ways, but have never quite achieved the texture and flavor of the ones from the Arcade Bakery. Apparently the recipe was never written down and some of the bakers claim not to even have one, which honestly doesn’t surprise me. I’m completely guilty of “I don’t know how much I put in, I just did it until the dough looked right.” So that’s what I had to do through many test batches. Tweak, alter, and poke at the proportions, ingredients, and most crucially the method, until I had what I wanted. It’s not a perfect copy-cat, but it is very special indeed. And transports me back to dates downtown with my mom, so I’m more than happy.

Thumbprints, inspired by Arcade Bakery and happy memories

Thumbprint Cookies

  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • ½ cup shortening, room temperature
  • 6 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 egg
  • ½ tsp. vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp. almond extract
  • 2 cups cake flour
  • Sprinkles or finely chopped walnuts
  • Chocolate buttercream
  • Vanilla buttercream

Chocolate Buttercream

  • 6 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 1/3 cups powdered sugar
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/3 cup whole milk
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Vanilla Buttercream

  • 4 oz. unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 ½ cups powdered sugar
  • ½ tbsp. vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp. almond extract
  • Pinch salt

For the cookies, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Beat the sugar, salt, shortening, and butter until fluffy.

Add the egg and extracts and beat until thick.

Stir in the flour just until a dough forms (it may still be in chunks).

Form the dough into ¾ oz. balls. This is about 1 tbsp. of dough. I use a rounded 2 tsp. cookie scoop.

Roll in the sprinkles or nuts. Then press down with your thumb (or something with a round edge, like a rolling pin) to form a thumbprint in the middle.

Chill them on baking sheets in the refrigerator for 10 minutes.

Bake the cookies for 15 minutes or until lightly golden on the bottoms. Move to a wire rack to cool completely.

To make the vanilla buttercream, beat the butter until smooth and then slowly add the powdered sugar. Once it is all combined, add the salt and extracts and beat until thick. If this sounds familiar, it is! You can find a photo tutorial for this buttercream in the Ribbon Cake recipe.

Transfer to a piping bag with an open star tip. Or just use a plastic storage bag with the corner cut off.

To make the chocolate buttercream, beat the butter until smooth and then slowly add the powdered sugar and cocoa powder, and beat until combined.

On low speed, slowly stream in the milk and vanilla extract, then add the salt and continue beating until well combined, scraping down the bowl as needed.

Then beat on high speed until thick, about 2 minutes. Depending on the weather and temperature, you may need to add extra powdered sugar to stiffen up the frosting. On a rainy, humid day I have added as much as 1/3 cup extra.

Transfer to a piping bag with an open star tip. Or just use a plastic storage bag with the corner cut off.

To assemble, pipe a large dollop of buttercream into the thumbprint you created, swirling out over the edges and covering about 2/3 of the cookie surface.

So while the sprinkle shape might be different (I thought these coated the cookies better, but for a true replica, use long straight sprinkles), one bite and I was instantly taken back to those afternoons downtown that always felt so special.

Still and always having fun with mom!

While Kaufmann’s, The Tic Toc Restaurant, and the Arcade Bakery might be lost to time, their memories are strong in my heart. This recipe might not be the original, but it is just what I remember, and is now down on paper to share with you.

Ciao for now,


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