A baker never has to die, not really.
Last week, a woman stopped me on the street to tell me she had recently unearthed her copy of my grandmother’s recipe for rugelach. She took my hands and pulled me closer as she described it: the numbered steps, the loopy script of my grandmother’s note in the corner, the stains on the page. There are probably a few hundred copies of it out there, each with its own hand-written note. It’s a special recipe that gets that sort of circulation. But when my grandmother was alive? I refused to find out how good it really was.
In the mid 1970s, my grandparents Shirley and Irv bought a wreck of a house in the hills of western Massachusetts to open a whole-grain vegetarian bed and breakfast. Although they raised their children on steak and potatoes like other New Jersey parents in the 50s, those children went into the world seeking spirituality through food. Eventually, my aunt, the oldest and most reliable of the three, convinced their parents of the moral superiority of a health-food, vegetarian diet, so Shirley and Irv moved where they could start a garden and spread the gospel.
It was within the brick walls of the inn’s kitchen that I learned how to sift flour and peel apples, and my grandparents put me to work serving breakfast as soon as I was tall enough to reach the table. Guests raved about my grandmother’s applesauce sweetened coffee cakes and whole wheat zucchini breads. Pilgrims of the natural foods movement returned to the inn every year, and they always pinched my cheeks and told me how lucky I was to be the helper of such a baker.
I smiled and nodded. But I hated her whole grain, naturally sweetened baked goods, and I wouldn’t touch them. The “treats” that emerged from her oven, I thought, were anything but: health food innovations of grainy flours and fruit sweeteners that smelled like the basement food co-op where she bought millet and organic raisins. Everyone else loved her sweets, and I couldn’t figure out why. I remember walking into parties with my grandmother and it was as if a plate of the cookies had arrived on their own. “The rugelach are here!” people would cheer, and Shirley would hold the platter as they disappeared, one by one, while on their way to the potluck table. Despite all the crazed fans of those nut-filled pastries around me, I made it through my childhood without trying a single one.
I yearned instead for “real” sugar, for food eaten for pleasure, not morality or righteousness. My grandfather committed to the natural foods lifestyle with a clear sense of superiority over those who didn’t, but my grandmother seemed to find so much joy in the moments where she broke the rules. I was always happy to participate, and together we would eat lobster on my birthday, hot dogs on the streets of New York, ice cream on hot summer days. For my grandfather, I think food was simply a means of making a statement, whereas for Shirley, meals could hold a possibility of thrill and nearly indecent enjoyment. As I grew older, and more easily annoyed, I didn’t try to hide my impatience with their relationship to food and to each other. It seemed to me, as I came closer to my teens, that the decision to limit their diet and lifestyle came primarily from my grandfather. I resented the control he exerted over the table, and I lost patience with her willingness to let it happen.
Shirley was more of a parent to me than a grandparent, and so she took the brunt of the eye-rolling and judgment that daughters inflict on their mothers. I imagine that she put up with my rudeness because she saw me come alive when I worked in the kitchen with her. If she was baking, I couldn’t stay away. And although I grumbled about the food she put on her table, I loved the table itself, a massive slab of chestnut extracted from the walls of the 200-year-old building, and I loved all that happened around it. Shirley taught me how to set that table with everything in its right place. She loved, above all, to feed people, and that joyful tingling in the hands when placing a meal on the table. We would set the table together the night before, each wearing one of her worn aprons with big pockets perfect for holding silverware as we distributed settings on blue placemats. That chestnut table lives in my own house now, and with every meal, I feel that tingling in my hands.
I was 14 when Shirley’s car drifted across the road into an oncoming truck, and our last conversation had been full of my teenage rudeness. She and my grandfather stopped by, and I sat on the couch without saying hello, barely raising my eyes from my book. She asked me what I was reading, and I mumbled something, being clear that I had no interest in talking with her.
Later, after the accident, we found bags of rugelach in her freezer, and her cookies fed the guests at her own funeral. It was comforting and jarring at once, and I imagined her hands shaping each cookie into a crescent, the dough caked around her wedding band. Even then, I didn't have one. It somehow seemed wrong to try one now, when she wasn't here to see me take the first bite. For years, my grief was rolled in with guilt, regret for the last moments of our relationship, stuck in that night that would always be the last time I saw her.
Over a decade after she died, when I was a mother and a baker in my own kitchen, I held Shirley’s rugelach recipe in my hands for the very first time. I found it in the shuffle of stuff that ensued after my grandfather died too; it was tucked into a natural foods dessert book held together with a rubber band. The recipe, for “ruggala,” as she spelled it, was shoved into the tofu cream pies section, folded in quarters and yellowed around the edges. I unfolded the paper, and the scent of Jergen’s face cream and nutmeg filled my head as if Shirley had stepped up to the counter beside me.
I read the list of ingredients—white flour, sugar, butter, egg yolks, sour cream—and let out a laugh. Where was the whole grain? And the brown rice syrup? Was it possible that for all of those years I had avoided her most famous pastry out of pure prejudice? Of course, no matter what was in the recipe, I would have made it anyway. Because now, so many years later, after having this time to miss her and dream of how she would have taken my children into chest, her huge breasts surrounding them as she smothered them with love, I couldn’t resist the chance to have her with me in the kitchen. And so, reading carefully so that I wouldn’t put my own spin on it, I mixed the dough. I chilled it, rolled and sprinkled and baked, and then I ate my very first ruggala in all its sweetness.
These little Jewish pastries are spelled different ways, and as far as I can tell, this is not one of them. But this is how my grandmother spelled it, so ruggala it is. These ruggala are a fusion of perfect textures, jam and nuts, laced with cinnamon and the crunch of sugar, rolled into something like a perfect piecrust. A tidy ruggala is very likely a poorly made one; they should always be a mess to eat.
Makes 64 pastries
For the dough:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 package (2¼ teaspoons) dry active yeast
2 sticks cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
3 egg yolks
1 cup sour cream
For the filling:
1¼ cups roughly chopped walnuts, pecans, or a mixture of the two
1 cup sugar
1½ tablespoons cinnamon
1 cup thick and sticky jam or jelly (fig, date, or peach are ideal)
1. Combine the flour and yeast in a large bowl. Using a pastry blender or 2 butter knives, cut in the butter until it is the size of large peas.
2. Mix the egg yolks with the sour cream in another bowl until well combined. Add it to the flour mixture, and stir with a wooden spoon until the dough just barely holds together. Turn the dough onto a large piece of plastic wrap, wrap it up, and flatten into a wide disc. Chill for at least 4 hours, but up to a day.
3. Combine the nuts, sugar, and cinnamon in a small bowl and set aside. Have your jam or jelly at the ready. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
4. Divide the dough into 8 parts (as you would cut a pie). Keep one section on the counter, setting aside the remaining sections while you work. The dough should stay cold, so if it is warm in the room, store the remaining sections in the refrigerator. Shape the section of dough into a disc.
5. Scatter a handful of the nut mixture on counter and set the dough on top of the mixture. Use a rolling pin to roll the dough over the nut mixture until the dough is about 6 inches in diameter. Flip the dough and roll it again once or twice (this time to 7-8 inches in diameter), adding enough nut mixture so that the dough does not stick to the counter. Try to get the dough into as close of a circle as you can. You can use your hands to shape it, but handle the dough as little as possible.
6. Spread about 1½ tablespoons of jam over the entire circle (with a bit more on the edges of the circle than the center), then cut the circle into 8 wedges (again, as you would a pie). Roll each wedge from the outside of the circle towards the center, the wide part to the narrow. Tuck the narrow end in so that it is closed fairly tightly. Gently shape each cookie into a crescent, laying them on the baking sheet with about an inch between each pastry. This will be a messy process, and the jam will ooze out of the pastries.
7. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Repeat the rolling process with the remaining sections of dough. Bake for 15 minutes, then switch the positions of the trays. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes more, or until the cookies are golden and a sticky layer of bubbling jam surrounds the cookies on the parchment. Immediately transfer the ruggala from the baking sheets to a wire rack or a new sheet of parchment, laying them upside down so that the bottoms are exposed to air and are able to dry out.
The ruggala are good at room temperature in a covered container for up to 3 days, and freeze very successfully in a freezer bag.