Growing up, my mother’s version of junk food was, well, limited. Unlike my friends, we didn’t have a pantry full of Kool-Aid and Marshmallow Fluff. Popsicles were made in Tupperware using real juice and the ice cream was Breyers (read: no preservatives). Fortunately, at least once a year, sometimes twice, my grandmother would bake rugelach. Even after my grandparents moved to Florida, the rugelach would come, packed into shoeboxes between layers of foil and wax paper. Even after my family moved from New York to Southern California, and after I left for college and subsequently moved a dozen or so times, I eagerly checked the mail around my birthday for the box of rugelach. When my grandparents would come out west to visit, my grandma would pack a second suitcase, filled with rugelach and mandel brot, and occasionally (and disastrously) my grandpa would sneak in some golf balls.
There’s nothing ordinary about my grandma’s rugelach, the traditional Yiddish cookie filled with jam, nuts and raisins. I’ve tried dozens of versions from both Jewish and non-Jewish bakeries, but none compare to my grandma’s. They’re usually too sweet, too dry and oddly glossy or they look like jellyrolls. My grandmother’s rugelach, on the other hand, are slightly sweet, only using the sugar in the cream cheese for her dough. They are flaky, helped by their dive in a bowl of cinnamon sugar. And their crescent shape cradles the jam, raisins and nuts. I could easily eat a dozen at a sitting without thinking, but don’t. Instead, I ration them out carefully, trying to stretch the satisfaction one after-dinner or mid-afternoon treat longer, only sharing with people who I know will appreciate the hard work that goes into them.
Making rugelach, as far as I’ve known, takes feats of magic. When my cousin Tara tried making them it was, well, unsuccessful. She told me, “Grandma’s rugelach is the fussiest, most difficult dough to make. So if you’re attempting it, I truly wish you good luck.”
Nervous at the prospect of messing up something so dear and so steeped in family history, I waited to make it. It actually launched Bakefest 2008, the marathon, multi-generational baking lesson I started writing about in my last post, because it’s a two-day endeavor.
Rolling out and filling the cookie dough
The trickiest part of any rugelach is the dough. Work it too long and the butter and cream cheese melt, making dough that is sticky and hard to work with. This is particularly important when making rugelach in summertime (or Florida, as my cousin was), where the temperature and humidity can quickly transform your dough into wallpaper paste. But having my grandma there to run it between her fingers and say, “this is perfect,” made all the difference. Using extremely cold butter and cream cheese, working in two batches and mixing until the dough just barely comes together are also key. Once the dough is mixed, cut into six, slightly flatted disks and wrap in wax paper. Refrigerate overnight.
With the mandel brot in the oven our team of bakers set out to make the rugelach. My cousin’s daughter Madelyn was eager to get her hands in and remarkably patient as we repeatedly asked her to wait while my grandma demonstrated the first batch. Sprinkling the cutting board with powdered sugar (so as not to add more flour to the dough), she deftly rolled the first disk out to about nine-inches, then cut it into even triangles. Then she sprinkled cinnamon and sugar over the triangles. In each triangle she put a dollop of jam toward the center, then placed a raisin in the middle of the jam to keep it from oozing out. She then put three raisins along the long end and one in the point. Then, starting with the fat end, and working quickly to keep the dough cool, she folded in the ends and rolled out to the point. Then she rolled the cookie in cinnamon and sugar and placed on a cookie sheet. We each took turns making a batch, rolling and spacing the raisins, (or chocolate chips, a variation my brother loved) eventually giving Madelyn her own dough to work with, which she attacked with fervor. We lined up the completed rugelach on a cookie sheet one after another, all the while taking pictures to capture each moment and movement.
When my mother, my aunt, my cousin and I all uploaded our photos to share with our loved ones who couldn’t be there, my cousin Tara remarked, “Those are THE most well-documented rugelach on the planet.” And so they were.
We all went to dinner while the rugelach cooled and when we came back, all of the participants of Bakefest 2008 (and a couple of extra cousins we picked up on the way) stood and ate them, straight off the cookie sheet, dunking them in milk and smiling.
Now these are the definitely the planet’s most well-documented rugelach.
Grandma Janette’s Rugelach
1/2 lb cold sweet butter, cubed
1/2 lb cold cream cheese, cubed
2 cups flour
1 tsp almond extract
½ cup sugar
2 tsp cinnamon
strawberry or plum jam
Cream together first four ingredients in a stand mixer or food processor until dough just comes together. Make sure the flour in fully incorporated, but do not over mix. Cut into six pieces and wrap in wax paper. Refrigerate overnight.
In a shallow dish, mix ½-cup sugar with a couple teaspoons of cinnamon for cinnamon sugar. Place within reach.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Working quickly, roll out dough on confectioner sugar into a nine-inch circle (each of the “pieces” from the night before should make a nine-inch circle). Cut into triangles—each circle should result in nine pieces. Fill with raisins, chopped walnuts, plum or strawberry jam, cinnamon and sugar.
Roll pieces in the cinnamon/sugar mix from above. Place on ungreased cookie sheet covered with parchment. Bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. (Keep refrigerated until ready to bake.)