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A Rugelach Tutorial


Photo by LDHNY/FlickrCC

To try rugelach, click here for the recipe.

Given my sweet tooth, I love to bake. But I have the talent of a self-taught klutz. I can do cakes, pies, cookies, biscotti, brownies, linzertorte, but all my creations are conventional and look odd--and that's the kind description. Truth-tellers are more apt to use the word ugly.

With the family gathering for Thanksgiving, I saw the opportunity to gather up all the children--especially my 13-year-old nephews, who display an interest and proclivity for cooking-- and take a real baking lesson. After all, there has to be something more ennobling than shopping on "Black Friday."

The place was a commercial kitchen in the basement of one of Washington's oldest churches. Normally, it is shared with Brainfood, an organization that teaches inner-city high school students life skills through cooking.

The teacher was Polly Brown, the owner of Pollystyle baked goods, assisted by her daughter. Polly makes artisanal sweets--lime chiffon cakes, cookies (chocolate chip, oatmeal-cranberry), shortbreads, graham crackers, curried cashew brittle, and more--that are available in Washington at Teaism, Dean & Deluca, Cowgirl Creamery, and other locations.

As befits the Emanuel family, we immediately broke into three competing teams: a team of oldest children, middle children, and the youngest rascals.

The purpose was to learn to make rugelach. A friend had brought some of Polly's rugelach to Yom Kippur meal, and they were wonderful. Time to learn a new dessert.

An unruly gang of 11 Emanuels and a couple of friends, ranging in age from my 83-year-old father to my seven-year-old nephew, invaded the kitchen. Polly's first instruction: wash your hands. Then put on the nice aprons she provided. We were shown how to make the dough in a food processor: flour, butter, cream cheese, a sprinkling of sugar--but no liquid. Instead, Polly's secret ingredient to moisten the dough: sour cream, processed with a few pulses to that cornmeal consistency and put into the refrigerator.

Next, a demonstration of how to sprinkle flour on the table and roll out the dough to make it thin but keep it rectangular--it should be about 1/8 of an inch thick.

As befits the Emanuel family, we immediately broke into three competing teams: a team of oldest children, middle children, and the youngest rascals, all declaring at a 100- to 120-decibel range their superiority to the other teams--of course, with none of us having ever made rugelach.

Flour on the hands, then the nose and checks, with a little sprinkled on the table and dough. Geometricians we are not. Rectangular became oval, circular, and some amoeba-type shapes. Next come the jams. Spread a thin layer of apricot jam: this adds flavor and also a place for the "innards" to stick.

On top of the jam press in almond pieces, crushed walnuts, raisins, dried cranberries, chocolate chips, or whatever strikes the fancy. We had every combination--chocolate raisin, cranberries and almonds, raisins and almonds, chocolate and walnuts, etc. etc. Then we sprinkled on cinnamon sugar or cardamom sugar (an unexpected ingredient my grandmother from the old country certainly never used).

Now the hard part. The geometricians among us rolled their rectangles into nice lumpy logs. Then covered them with egg wash and sprinkled them with the same cinnamon or cardamom sugar that went inside--at least mostly--and placed them in the freezer for 15 minutes.

Then they cut 1-inch rolls--or 1 ½ or 2 inch rolls for the many Emanuels who find it impossible to adhere to instructions--with beautiful spiral insides. Those with less talent cut their amorphous shapes into wedges, and rolled them up into crescents. All the cutting provided great opportunities for accidents, fake knife fights, and elaborate demonstrations of limited knife skills. Thankfully, no emergency room trips needed.

Now just bake for 20 minutes.

Keeping a hoard of Emanuel children in control for 20 minutes while something bakes without a gym: quite a challenge for the older cousins and their friends. Fortunately, Polly gave us a demonstration of a sheeter--a machine that automatically rolls dough into thinner and thinner rectangles for rugelach as well as graham crackers and shortbreads. And some of us even like to wash up when it comes with the chance to play with a large over-the-head industrial water sprayer.

Presto--rugelach done. After a few minutes cooling, ready for eating. A smash hit. The best part is the crust--perfect, with slightly flaky texture and buttery taste. The various insides are great, but the cardamom ones have an unusual hint, sweet but "clear" and almost refreshing. We packed up about 120 rugelach of all flavor combinations to be devoured.

Now that we have Polly's secret ingredient for the pastry, the children have learned how to make a delicious treat, and the adults can eat the rugelach at their morning coffee breaks for the next week.