Last fall, my son’s third grade class did a unit on culture and family. One of the discussions in class centered around family recipes, and my son came home waving his assignment, asking if we had any family recipes. I paused. By the time I knew my grandmother, she was relatively elderly, retired in West Palm Beach, and passed the stage of hosting Thanksgiving and Passover, so I have no idea if she was a good cook. In fact, I only recall her having a legendary reputation for two dishes: Cream of Wheat (yes, the hot cereal) and rugelach.
I obviously couldn’t present Cream of Wheat to my son as a family recipe (although I think the amount of milk, salt and butter my grandmother used are far beyond any instructions on the box) so that left the rugelach as the one and only option.
Luckily, my grandmother’s rugelach are chewy bites of deliciousness, and I remember learning to make them from my mother, as she learned from my grandmother. They were always far more delicious than any store-bought rugelach, and since they were incredibly labor-intensive to make, we only did so once or twice a year, making them a very special occasion cookie.
I went looking for the recipe. You may be imagining some hand-written index card in my grandmother’s handwriting. Nope. My mother typed up the recipe in Word and emailed it out to me and my sisters in 2018. I also found a typed version I emailed to myself back in 2002. Perhaps I took dictation over the phone from my mom, or copied and pasted from her Word document while home for a visit. My son copied the recipe onto his homework worksheet, and I assumed my work was done.
The end of the culture unit arrived, and his class had a celebration, where each family was supposed to bring in homemade food from their culture. And my son was committed to bringing in the rugelach, even though he had never tasted them.
The weekend before the celebration we baked the rugelach together. I took over the role of my mother in mixing the dough, rolling it out and cutting it into triangles, and my son took over my childhood role, as I showed him how to roll the filling into the cookies. It was the first time I realized that my mother had of course once been the child, learning how to fill and roll the dough from her mother. It’s the essence of l’dor v’dor, of course (Hebrew for “from generation to generation”).
Even in this first effort, we were already having our own way with the recipe. For instance, the filling in my grandmother’s rugelach is sugar, cinnamon, raisins and walnuts. I detest raisins, and am not much of a fan of walnuts (almonds are so much better!) so when my mother baked the rugelach she would always make a handful with just cinnamon and sugar for my twin sister and I to eat. Now that I was in control of the kitchen, there were no raisins or walnuts in sight. But my son wasn’t keen on the idea of cinnamon and sugar, and asked if we could fill them with chocolate. I bought a bar of baking chocolate, which I chopped into tiny pieces, and we filled half the rugelach with chocolate, and half with cinnamon and sugar.
The chocolate version turned out delicious, as did the cinnamon-sugar, and they were a hit with the third graders in my son’s class.
Now in June, the days of bringing family recipes into a New York City public school have evaporated, but the hours available for baking have multiplied. My son has helped me bake many batches of soft rolled sugar cookies (seriously, there are no better sugar cookies out there), and I’ve started baking bread: challah, baguettes, and now rustic loaves from a book called “Flower, Water, Salt and Yeast.”
Through all of this baking I’ve built up knowledge on the chemistry of baking: what makes a cookie have a certain flavor or consistency, or how to get the right kind of crust on a loaf of bread. In contrast to last December, I feel like a fairly knowledgeable home baker.
Sadly, while my technical skills are improving, my emotional satisfaction from baking has slumped, knowing the result won’t go any further than my own kitchen. I’ve taken to driving over to my mom’s apartment and meeting her outside her building to give her a freshly baked challah, or zipping over to a colleague’s building to drop off coffee cake or cookies.
Meanwhile my son kept nagging me: When are we going to bake rugelach? I tried to explain that rugelach and quarantine don’t mix, because these rugelach are for sharing, giving as gifts, or serving at the end of a festive meal. They are far too much work to be an everyday cookie, eaten by the three of us at home.
Finally he wore me down, and I got out the recipe again. I also decided with all my honed baking skills, the time had come to print the recipe out and put some notes and adjustments on it.
Once I printed it out, with the aim of adding more detail to the instructions, I started thinking about how strange the recipe looks to my modern eyes, starting with the order of her steps. Her recipe starts by mixing the eggs and half the milk into the flour. Most modern cookie recipes call for whipping the shortening together with the sugar, then adding the liquids (eggs and milk in this case) and only then mixing in the flour. These rugelach follow the style of scones, which also start with flour, and have a heavier, flakier dough.
Both scones and this rugelach recipe, even if they were being made on the opposite sides of Europe, come from a time and place where electric mixers weren’t available or common. How excruciating it would have been to “whip” the butter or mix the sugar with it, all with a hand whisk, or your actual hands. Impossible!
I rolled out half the rugelach dough and filled them with chocolate. My sous-chef son was nowhere in sight—perhaps he also prefers baking for an audience—so I was able to roll and bake them quickly. I think the dough needed more flour, but they were tasty. I ran out of steam halfway through, and froze the remaining dough.
A few weeks later, when I was inspired to bake for my extended family before a July trip upstate, I left the rugelach dough in the freezer and made two loaves of rustic rye bread. I’ll try to teach my son how to bake bread too—it can’t hurt to have more than one family recipe. One from late nineteenth century Eastern Europe, and one from the New York City Coronavirus quarantine.