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Rugelach and the Chanukah Fairy

Doesn’t that sound like the perfect title for an equal-opportunity holiday-themed kiddie book? Too bad my daughter’s too old for it now, and so are my nephews. Plus no one under 30 knows how to pronounce rugelach anymore. The “ch” always makes for Adam Sandler jokes because it’s so obviously Hard to Pronounce and even more obviously Not English–you use your throat to talk? Gross joke alert! The young and self-conscious have even taken to respelling Chanukah Hanukkah, just to avoid getting laughed at by their friends. Or their parents.

You may be asking what on earth rugelach have to do with Chanukah–and I’m a little late discoursing about Chanukah this week, since it just ended. However, let me warn you, they’re entirely relevant to the holiday treats vs. self-control dilemma.

Rugelach rolls slashed, baked and ready to be cut apart

Forming long rolls, slashing them partway before baking and then slicing them after is a quicker and easier way to form rugelach, especially with a very soft, delicate and hard-to-handle dough. It also lets the dough bake into crisp layers without letting the jam leak out. These two rolls are half the batch.

Fresh cheese (cream cheese, farmer’s or pot cheese) and sour cream are symbolic of Chanukah just as much as frying latkes or sufganiyot (doughnuts) in olive oil. During the war with the Assyrian Greeks in ca. 165 BCE that led to the rededication of the Temple (the event that sparked Chanukah), a Jewish woman named Judith invited the Assyrian Greek general Holofernes into her tent for what he thought was dinner and a movie–and she served him rich cheesecake (sometimes the story says “cheese pancakes”–maybe blintzes? who knows) to make him thirsty and then offered him a lot of undiluted wine. After that, the tryptophan got to him as she’d hoped (they didn’t have turkey back then) and he fell asleep. She chopped off his head (possibly to save the Jews, probably to stop the snoring) and Famous Western Painters from Rubens to Klimt have been painting her portrait ever since.

Puts another spin on the supposed tameness of homestyle baking, don’t it? Also serves as a warning on the more-is-more approach to pigging out. But old-style rugelach are designed to prevent both tameness and pigging out.

Now rugelach–the real thing–are what Pop Tarts never aspired to be (see Jerry Seinfeld’s Pop Tart joke in development at the New York Times online). That is, rugelach are self-limiting (an anti-commercial value) not because there are only two in the package but because they are serious pastry and taste like it.

The real thing is rich and flavorful enough that a few bites, one or two rugelach, are plenty even though they’re small. And before you ask why, it’s the use of cream cheese in the dough; the  tang makes the flavor seem a lot richer with a little less fat than an all-butter pastry dough. And it makes the dietary badness self-limiting: you really know when you’ve had enough.

One or two–delightful, blissful, they don’t do it like this anymore, it’s really Old School, my grandmother used to make these, how do you get them so flaky? Three–these are delicious, these are so evil, you’ve got to try the chocolate apricot one, I’ve already had so many! Four–klunk, groan (head hits knees in queasy stupor). It never fails.

Despite the Americanization and factory production of rugelach (even Starbucks sells a tame untangy version of them occasionally, or they used to), rugelach are a Jewish bakery specialty with a very simple dough that gives unbelievably rich, flaky, almost strudel-like results if you do it right. And luckily for me, it’s easy to do right. But it’s still too dangerous to do often.

And yet I’ve found myself making several batches this “holiday season”–one for my daughter’s piano recital, using the classic (and palming off the leftovers on the hosts so I wouldn’t have them at home), one for an experimental “lite” version that almost, but not quite, worked. It had flake, it lacked character. Sort of like the bland Americanized versions. What can I tell you? The lack of tang can’t be made up with salt and sugar–the tang is really what does it, which is why I went back to the classic and won’t revisit it again until next year.

…Although a woman in my congregation says she has a recipe that uses cottage cheese instead of cream cheese and is really good, I am choosing not to believe her.

Note on the dietary badness factor: If you go with either of these doughs and the fillings as directed in the recipe (i.e., you don’t double the sugar or use very sugary jam), a single rugelach comes out with about 6 grams total fat and 6 grams carbohydrate, about 65 calories, and about 20 mg. sodium. The degree of saturated fat depends on which recipe you use.

Classic Rugelach Dough (makes 44-48)

The classic recipe for the dough is:

  • 2 sticks (8 oz., 1/2 lb.) unsalted butter
  • an 8 oz package cream cheese
  • 2 c. flour

So basically equal and large amounts of butter and cream cheese. Soften them both and beat them together (a food processor is fine). Put the blended fats in a big mixing bowl and fold in the flour very gently with a wooden spoon, a couple of forks or the like, and don’t mix too thoroughly,  just barely enough for everything to come together as a very soft crumbly dough you can press into a ball. Put the dough in a plastic bag and pat it into a disk, divide it into four parts with a knife, and chill in the fridge or freezer about an hour until it’s firm enough to roll out. Easy, right?

Some people decorate the basic recipe with extra salt or sugar or, G-d help us, vanilla (Gale Gand puts in all three, why I don’t know). But really, the basic is the best. It gives you a nonsweet, very savory base for a sweet filling, and it’s anything but boring. It does NOT need jazzing up any more than French or Danish puff pastry does. And it builds character to make a pastry that doesn’t bow to middle-American excess. We have plenty of our own excess, thank you very much.

But cream cheese AND butter. A pound of fats for only two cups of flour, and almost all of it’s saturated. Yikes.

So I got to thinking (it had to happen sometime last week). Could I make the dough a little less rich and still great? Subbing in a reduced-fat labaneh from Karoun Dairies for the cream cheese? Maybe–but there’d be some water in it. Might not flake right. Hmm. Try it anyway, report back. Meanwhile, add grapeseed oil for half the butter to exchange some of the saturated fat for polyunsaturated? It works beautifully for cream puffs, believe it or not (next post, when I get up the guts to do it again and take pictures). So let’s see what happens.

Lightened-up Rugelach Dough, Take I

  • 8 oz (240 g on the food scale) Karoun Dairy 1/2 the fat labaneh (you could use reduced-fat sour cream)
  • 4 oz (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 3 oz  (90 g) Trader Joe’s grapeseed oil (expeller-pressed, not hexane-extracted), or other light-flavored mostly unsaturated vegetable oil (not coco butter or palm oil)–I was going to go 1 for 1 and substitute a full 4 oz. for the 2nd usual stick of butter, but I worried that it was going to be too much liquid for the dough to firm up if I did, so I cut back by 30 g or 1 oz. Based on the results, I’d cut back further to 2 oz or 60 g next time.
  • 2 c flour (240 g)

RESULT: My first take on this–it flakes, it’s delicate, it looks and tastes okay and it’s a little less greasy, which is good, actually. But it’s not obvious that I used labaneh–the tang is somehow silent. I’m disappointed, I have to admit. The grapeseed oil and the labaneh made the dough a bit softer even than usual, so I stuck the dough back in the freezer after pretty much each stage of construction to keep it workable. Also, I noticed later that labaneh has almost no sodium, but cream cheese has 110 mg per 1 oz serving, so maybe salt is a factor here after all–I’d still prefer tang to overt saltiness, but I’m willing to admit that a little salt is important. Wouldn’t go more than half a teaspoon if I were adding salt itself to the dough–that’s close to what you’d get with cream cheese and you don’t want it any saltier. Next time I’ll probably go all-cream cheese and use actual cream cheese (well, Neufchatel, 33% less fat than regular, so they say) and half the butter, substituting with either light labaneh or vegetable oil, and a little less of it so it’s not too soft a dough.

Anyway, here are the rest of the baking instructions, whichever dough you work with.

Common Favorite Fillings for Rugelach

Get thee an assortment of:

  • chopped raisins, sugar and cinnamon–a good handful per roll (quarter of the dough)
  • apricot and/or raspberry low-sugar jam (Trader Joe’s has both for a good price), about 2 heaping T per roll–one flavor of jam per roll, plus or minus chocolate, see below…
  • finely-chopped walnuts, a bit more than half a pound for all 4 rolls (taste one or two walnuts first, to make sure they’re fresh and not going rancid. Store most nuts in the freezer.)
  • cinnamon, about 1/2-1 t, for mixing with the chopped walnuts
  • plain granulated or turbinado (coarse-grained brown) sugar for sprinkling
  • finely chopped dark chocolate (TJ’s red 3-pack at the counters is pretty good for pretty cheap, better than chocolate chips). 1-2 bars at 3.5 oz each is probably enough for a full dough recipe of four rugelach rolls.

Roll out

Once you’re rolling you’ll need to work with only one quarter of the dough at a time, leaving the other pieces in the freezer, because this is a very soft, sticky dough and hard to handle.

I roll out between large sheets of plastic wrap well dusted with flour. The plastic wrap peels off the dough a lot better than if you try rolling out on a board directly with a rolling pin, and with the dough rolled thin between two sheets of plastic wrap, you can pick up a sheet of the rolled dough and stick it in the freezer for a few minutes to firm up again before spreading fillings out. This is especially handy with the lighter dough, which gets soft and sticky fast. The plastic wrap helps roll the dough over the fillings neatly. You can also store a rolled and filled sheet of dough in the freezer until you’re ready to bake it–just wrap the plastic sheet around it and get new plastic wrap for the next quarter.

Shaping

Crescents: Roll out the first piece of dough to a 16″ circle and cut into 12 little wedge slices with a pizza cutter if you want crescent-shaped rugelach (the classic, a little more of a pain). Then spread on the fillings and roll each of the rugelach from the outside edges inward, like tiny croissants, and place each one on a foil-lined cookie sheet or baking pan.

Bars: The easier way to shape rugelach is strudel style: Roll the dough out nearly paper-thin, if you can manage it, and each quarter of the dough comes out about 18 x 12″. You may need to rechill the rolled out sheet of dough in the freezer for a few minutes (certainly for the lighter dough with vegetable oil) before filling and rolling up the pieces, just to be able to get it off the plastic wrap without tearing.

Fill and Roll Up

Generally you want to spread the jam first, sprinkle on a handful of walnuts and cinnamon, maybe some chocolate, then a spoonful or so of sugar before rolling up. Spread and sprinkle at will to within about half an inch of the edges. Work fast so the dough’s still capable of coming off the plastic wrap, fold about 1/2″ of dough from the long edge over onto the filling and lift up the plastic wrap on that side to ease the dough over so it rolls into a long cylinder.

Don’t roll too tightly or the dough inside won’t bake flaky and will just end up gummy. (surprisingly enough) You don’t want a perfect cylinder with the dough spiraling neatly inward like those two-tone Xmas pinwheel cookies. Trust me–gummy. Feh. You want most of the dough to the outside so it will crisp in the oven. The log may look a little flat but should end up about 2″ wide, half an inch or so high, and about 18-20″ long. Once it’s rolled, you can wrap the sheet of plastic wrap around it gently and lay it out in the freezer for a bit to firm up again if you need to.

Bake

Preheat the oven to 350 °F. Lay out the rolls on a foil-lined baking sheet with two inches of space between them. Make diagonal ~1/2″ slices down the length of each roll with a sharp knife (you should get about 11-12 slices per roll) but only cut 3/4 of the way down to the foil so they don’t leak completely (you’ll finish cutting them apart once they’re baked).  Brush the rolls with a few spoonfuls of milk or half-and-half, sprinkle on a spoonful of regular or turbinado sugar and bake until puffed and golden, about 20-25 minutes. Remove from the oven, cool a bit and reslice as needed. Store loosely stacked in a cookie tin or one of those large disposable plastic casserole containers.

Self control

Do not, whatever you do, make this recipe more than once or twice a year. Claim it’s too much of a pain to do except at the holidays or for big, big cash rewards. I’m working on that part.

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