Taste of the Bronx: the Original Rugelach

My mother put on her Bronx face and made these divine little Eastern European roll-ups from memory.
December 16, 2020
Photos courtesy Helene Siegel

Growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s was like living in a small Polish village set at the tempo of a Scorsese movie and shot in Yiddish. Everyone played his or her part.

A plump grandma in sensible shoes kibitzed with her customers while plucking kosher chickens by hand all day. Kids hung out at the candy store after school, slurping frosty egg creams and dunking pretzels while anxious numbers runners studied the New York Post. A pizza place sold slices on credit to kids from good families, a deli kept fragrant pickle barrels outdoors for impulse purchases, and a fireplug of a Polish dairyman totaled your bill with a well-worn pencil stub stationed behind his ear.

Ida, my mother, was a player. Nothing like the 1950s suburban housewives I saw on TV — the ones who wore shirtwaists and high heels while vacuuming. She was more Ethel Merz (Lucy’s sidekick) than June Cleaver. Ida was a working mother, and she had no time for decorating cupcakes.

But a few times a year, she slowed down, got out the flour and baked a simple Jewish cake or pastry. I would watch her not so much to learn how to bake as to lick the bowls. Mom wasn’t into sharing her kitchen knowledge. In fact, while Betty Friedan was honing her rage into “The Feminine Mystique,” Ida took a stand by not teaching me anything about cooking. Her dream of assimilation involved me getting out of the kitchen and having a profession — the kind where you earned lots of money, lived in Manhattan and left meal prep to someone more qualified. I became interested in cooking in my twenties while living in a studio apartment in New York.

My mother’s rugelach, though, remained a warm childhood memory. So when I was writing the “Totally Cookie” cookbook, and she was well into her seventies, I asked her to teach me how to make them. She arrived at my apartment with a scrap of paper that had a few faded words scribbled on it in pencil. She showed it to me then flipped it into the trash. Then she put on her Bronx face and made these divine little Eastern European roll-ups from memory.

She put on her Bronx face and made these divine little Eastern European roll-ups from memory.

Skip ahead 35 years to when my granddaughter Piper requested rugelach for one of our pastry-making sessions. I was shocked by the request, but then I recalled that when Piper lived in London, there was a great grocer called Panzers in St. John’s Wood. They sold many of the Ashkenazi specialties from my childhood alongside pains au chocolat and Irish scones. It was a chic, global neighborhood.

Since rugelach involves multiple steps, our in-person visit in October was the perfect time for me to pass along Piper’s great grandmother’s recipe. I saved it for the last day of my visit, knowing it could take hours and wanting to stretch out the time. The next day, my husband and I would drive off to Santa Fe without knowing when we would see the grandkids again. On y va! Or oy vey, as they say in the Bronx.

Unlike simple drop cookies, rugelach has a delicate dough. As long as I’ve been at this, I still get nervous when that dough is involved. So, after consulting the recipe for about the thirtieth time, Piper gingerly inquired, “Grandma, have you ever made rugelach?”

“Are you kidding?” I responded. I had made these cookies exactly three times in 20 years, but I didn’t tell her that. Her question reminded me of when I took her to school in an unfamiliar car in a town that I had never visited. Piper got tired of sitting in the backseat watching me adjust the mirrors and asked, “Grandma, are you sure you know how to drive?” I laughed and got on with it.

Piper summed up rugelach-making precisely when she said, “It’s a procedure.” She loved all the handwork with the dough: rolling, folding, filling and pinching. “It looks like a weird burrito,” she noted when the doughy pillows were ready for the oven. Since they were a little drippy and uneven, I decided to pass along a key piece of baking wisdom: “They may look ugly, but they will taste delicious.” Fingers crossed. The verdict came in the next morning, just as we were tearfully parting. My finicky grandson Finn ate two for breakfast. Parfait!

Recipe note:
Before we started baking that morning, Kate, Piper’s mom, pulled me aside and diplomatically whispered that Piper doesn’t eat raisins. Quoi? We left them out, and no one was the wiser. Chocolate chips, of course, are popular alternatives, minus the jam.

This “burrito” style filling is easier to make than traditional crescents since you don’t have to handle the dough as much. I’m sure it was Ida’s preference for sheer efficiency.

The Original Rugelach

2 sticks butter, softened
1 cup full fat sour cream, natch
2 ¼ cups flour

1 cup walnuts, finely chopped
½ cup raisins (optional, but recommended)
¼ cup sugar
½ tsp cinnamon
1 cup apricot jam
1 egg white
¼ cup sugar mixed with ½ tsp cinnamon for sprinkling

Cream together butter and sour cream at high speed until light and creamy. Slowly beat in flour until the dough is smooth and elastic. Lightly knead on a floured board to form a disk. Cover with plastic wrap and chill at least one hour.

For the filling: In a medium bowl, combine nuts, raisins, sugar and cinnamon. Stir with a fork to combine.

When ready to bake, cut dough into four equal parts. Place three pieces back in the refrigerator.

On a lightly floured board, with the palm of your hand, pat flat the first piece of dough. With a well-floured rolling pin, roll the dough to form a 5 x 10-inch  rectangle. Working lengthwise, coat the center third with about ¼ cup apricot jam. Sprinkle the jam with the cinnamon nut mixture. Fold over one side lengthwise to nearly enclose. Then fold over the other side to enclose the filling. Lightly pinch the end pieces and center edges of dough to seal. Brush the top with egg white, sprinkle with cinnamon sugar and transfer to a large, uncoated cookie sheet.

Repeat the process with each portion of dough. Then slice each across the width in ½-inch thick slices. Chill for ½ hour on the cookie sheet.

To bake: preheat oven to 400F. Bake for 10 minutes. Reduce oven heat to 375F and bake 15 to 20 minutes longer, until the pastry is golden. Transfer to racks to cool.

Los Angeles food writer Helene Siegel is the author of 40 cookbooks, including the “Totally Cookbook” series and “Pure Chocolate.” During COVID-19, she shared Sunday morning baking lessons over Zoom with her granddaughter, eight-year-old Piper of Austin, Texas.

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