Sunday was my birthday! Were she still baking among us, my grandmother, Fae Rosenbaum, would have celebrated the day by showing up with no less than three proudly Saran-wrapped plates of cookies: her perfectly plain, perfectly perfect chocolate chips; her crunchy, nutty sesame rounds; and best of all, the towering achievement of any bubbe, her flaky, tender, cinnamon-sugary rugelach, chubby golden-brown pastries filled with jam, raisins, and nuts.
Sad to say, for all the New Yorkers among us, rugelach haven’t made the jump from East Coast to West. In the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, you can find them, good, bad, and indifferent, in just about every deli and bakery with a somewhat Jewish clientele. Look for them right next to the black-and-white cookies, the hamantaschen, and the garishly bright rainbow cakes (these last also known as 7-layer cookies, more Italian-American than Jewish but happily co-opted).
Here, though, the few bakery-and-deli versions available are rarely worth eating. More often than not, they’re stale and wan, with the texture of soggy papier-mâché, lumpen and underbaked. In my experience, the only ones worth eating around here are those from from San Francisco's Noe Valley Bakery, where the cherry-chocolate and pecan-raisin versions are little delights of tender, sweet, and crunch.
But who wants to spend her birthday swerving around Noe's double-parked Priuses and jaywalking double strollers? If you, like me, crave a plateful of good rugelach for your special day, you’re going to have to roll your own. Like all filled-and-rolled cookies, they take a little time and one-by-one effort, but I wouldn’t call them fussy. They don’t have to look perfect; in fact, being a little homey and misshapen here and there just makes them more authentic, in my opinion. (Professional kitchen experience has made me a neater cook than I would be, left to my own familial inclinations. The women of my family have always cooked with a kind of exuberant, love-crammed zeal that shrugged at a few lumps and crumbles, as long as the end result was delicious.)
So, where to start? A rugelach, if you've been so sadly deprived as never yet to see one, is a fat little pastry, traditionally crescent-shaped (although my grandmother's were always squarish), made from a rich but not sweet butter-and-cream-cheese dough, wrapped around a filling of jam, raisins, nuts, or chocolate chips. Cinnamon and brown sugar usually found their way into the filling; the jam was usually apricot or raspberry. A good rugelach barely contains the abundance of its filling, and the dough hits a irresistible sweet spot between tender and flaky. They are best small, maybe two bites each, and most delicious when just an hour or two out of the oven.
The dough is a rich one, sticky and tricky to work with unless you keep it very cold. As much as I support instant gratification in home baking, rugelach dough, like pie dough, is much better for a few hours' rest in the fridge. This will re-harden the fats and keep the pastry flaky when baked. To make life even easier, throw together the dough in the evening, wrap it and pop it in the fridge, and take it out for filling and rolling the next day. It also freezes well.
What you fill it with depends on your mood, and most importantly, what your own grandmother put in them when she showed up at your house with her own Saran-wrapped plate. I'm always a little suspicious of chocolate-chip rugelach; much as I adore chocolate in every other guise, its richness here seems like overkill against the buttery pastry. Nuts, raisins, and jam, that's the ticket, or even just nuts and raisins over a swipe of melted butter and a sprinkle of brown sugar and cinnamon. Pecans are best, walnuts second, and both should be toasted and chopped to chunky crumbles. Currants make a neater pastry, but raisins are fine, and can be chopped if you want a slightly more uniform filling. Just don't be stingy. No one wants a skimpy rugelach! And bake until they're a fine golden brown, top and bottom. A little more browned is better than too pale. Don't use flavored or low-fat cream cheese, and while you're at it, check the label to make sure it doesn't have a lot of weird and unnecessary ingredients in it. You'd be surprised at what kind of fillers and thickeners end up in what should be an unadulterated dairy product.
These are a lovely thing to have when you're laying out a table of bagels and lox, with lots of coffee and the New York Times crossword at the ready. You're already stocking up on cream cheese and butter for the bagels, why not make a few rugelach while you're at it? What could it hurt?
I never saw my grandmother cook from a printed recipe. Flour was measured in a coffee cup, and things like cinnamon and sugar went in by eye. I'm still trying to make rugelach as good as hers; here is my approximation of her recipe.
Yield: 36 rugelach
Prep Time: 45 minutes, plus 3 hours' resting time
Cook Time: 25 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
2 1/4 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
3 tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
8 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature, cubed
8 oz. butter (1 cup, 2 sticks), cubed
2 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup sour cream
3/4 cup apricot jam
1/2 cup currants or raisins
1 cup pecans or walnuts, toasted and chopped
3 tbsp sugar mixed with 1/2 tsp cinnamon
2 tbsp milk or half-and-half, for glazing
1. In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, stir together the flour, sugar, and salt. Using the paddle on a slow speed, beat in the cream cheese and butter until a soft dough forms. Beat in the vanilla and sour cream.
2. Divide the dough into three rounds. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and chill for at least 3 hours or overnight.
3. Preheat oven to 375°F. Leaving remaining rounds in the fridge, unwrap and roll one round into a circle approximately 10 inches across. Spread a thin layer of jam across the round, then sprinkle with currants, nuts, and a little cinnamon sugar. Cut the round into 12 equal triangles. Roll up each triangle from base to tip, bending the two points inward to form a crescent. Repeat with remaining dough and filling. (You can also roll dough into a rectangle, cover with jam, nuts, raisins, and sugar, and roll up lengthwise to make a long roll. Slice into 1-inch sections.)
4. Place pastries on a parchment or Slipat-lined baking sheet. Brush with milk and sprinkle with remaining cinnamon sugar. Bake 25-30 minutes, until golden brown. Let cool for a few minutes on the baking sheet, then remove to a wire rack to finish cooling.