My grandmother's grandparents (so, for those of you who are counting, my great-great-grandparents) ran a bakery in their native Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their talent made its way down to my grandmother, whose angel food cakes and sponge cakes pleased the whole family. Her signature sweets, though, were her rugelach. Every year, once or twice, she'd make a double or triple batch in her tiny Queens kitchen, setting them out to cool on every flat surface available. Then she'd wrap them up and off they'd go. She'd hand-deliver them to me, my brother, and my parents. My cousins, aunt and uncle in California got them by mail. My mother insisted on keeping them in the freezer so we wouldn't devour them instantly. We soon learned, however, that they tasted mighty good frozen.
After Grandma died in 1996, I got a pile of photocopies of her recipes. I kept meaning to do something with them: put them in a book, maybe, or put them online somewhere so the whole family could get to them. But every time I saw her handwriting, I'd freeze. So the bundle of paper still sits on my cookbook shelf, folded over, not even stapled. I must do something about that. The last thing I want is to throw them out in one of my periodic cleaning frenzies.
A few years after she died, I tried making the rugelach for the first time. It was a complete failure. I'd only made them with her once, and apparently I wasn't paying close enough attention. I tried a few more times with little better luck. The recipe I have lists ingredients but no method, and there are several variations without notes as to which option she typically chose. Moreover, these are not made with your typical cream cheese dough, which is relatively easy to handle. It's almost like a stiff muffin batter - hard to roll out, easy to tear.
I hadn't tried in a few years, and then my friend Anne came to visit last week. Anne is talented with pie crust and a rolling pin, so I thought she might be able to help me handle the rugelach dough. And lo and behold, she was magic. I tried the version of the dough I was pretty sure Grandma used in the years before she died (she, too, was trying to cut calories, and thus substituted orange juice for sour cream). It might have been easier to roll out if we'd chilled it for a while after mixing it, although I know Grandma didn't do that.
In any case, with enough flour on the granite counter and Anne's deft hands, we got it right. I know this because I took my first bite and started to cry.
Rose Sharron's unorthodox rugelach
makes about 8 dozen
- 6 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 heaping tsp baking powder
- pinch of salt
- 1/2 lb shortening (I used trans-fat-free Crisco)
- 3 eggs
- 2 Tbsp vanilla extract
- 1 cup sour cream, heavy cream, or orange juice
- 1 cup walnuts
- 1 cup raisins
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
Make the filling: Toast the walnuts in a dry nonstick pan over high heat; when they start to brown and you can smell them, remove them from the heat and pour them into the bowl of a food processor. Add the remaining ingredients and pulse until the nuts and raisins are chopped, but stop long before they turn into a paste. Set aside.
Form the rugelach: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Generously flour a board or the counter. This dough is sticky and soft, so you'll need more flour than you think to roll it successfully. Take a ball of dough the size of a lemon and coat it with flour. Roll it out as thinly as you can into a circle; you want the dough to be thick enough to contain the ingredients without tearing, but no thicker.
Put a heaping tablespoon of the filling, or a little more depending on how big your circle is, onto the dough, leaving a one-inch border around the edge. With the rolling pin, press the filling gently into the dough. Then, using a pizza cutter or pastry scraper or small knife, cut the circle into eight wedges. Roll up each wedge from the point toward the edge, then bend the rolled-up dough into a crescent shape. Some of the filling will escape as you're rolling; it's inevitable, so don't fight it too hard. Put the rugelach on a baking sheet and repeat until all the dough is gone.
I'll warn you, this whole thing takes a while. Be patient. Oh, and put up a pot of coffee, because you'll want it when the rugelach come out of the oven.
Bake the rugelach at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes, until the edges and bottoms are turning golden brown. Cool on a rack. Think of Grandma as you pour your coffee and take a plate to the table.
Note: I freeze them in zip-top freezer bags. As I said earlier, they're very tasty in their frozen state.