For many people, when we think of the holiday kitchen it musters up memories of mothers and grandmothers who are elbow deep in bowls of batter as they mix up multiple batches of our holiday favorites. No matter what or how you celebrate, we all have a favorite holiday baking story, and I’ve noticed that a remarkable number of these stories include a comical blunder or faux pas involving maraschino cherries -those awful little red-eyed beasties that somehow manage to sneak their way out of the cupboards by the time that December rolls around. Gastronomic cruelty, they are. However, considering the wonderful things that they do to a Mai Tai I suppose that they have their place in the world when all is said and done.
I remember my mother baking for weeks on end. At the start of November the Christmas cakes would be made, so that they would have at least six weeks to soak up toxic amounts of rum….which I would try (and fail) to lick off of my slice, even as a child. It’s amazing that my seven year old self managed to avoid liver disease with the way I would attack that dark tinted beauty. Then there were bars and squares, cookies and haystacks…the list goes on. I remember thinking that I just couldn’t WAIT to be an adult with a kitchen of my own, and then I would BAKE LIKE A CRAZY FIEND during the month of December, and delight family and friends alike with my plethora of delicious home-baked goods.
And then I became an adult.
To me, the holidays are now about juggling social and familial responsibilities, trying to stay afloat amidst the mad rush to meet departmental year end targets, closing meetings out the wazoo co-mingled with planning meetings for the next year, and trying to sound gracious when you get invite-structed to attend yet another holiday function when you barely have time to wipe your own nose (note: my job is busy but don’t be fooled…that does not mean that it’s important). Holiday baking? Not so much.
Also, I kind of hate Christmas. I know, I know, who can hate Christmas? I don’t hate everything about Christmas, and I promise that I’ve never actually tied a single antler to my cat’s head while I went to pilfer the presents of unsuspecting children. Christmas isn’t all bad! I love statutory holidays, for example. And I love the warmth of a family coming together and trying desperately not to bicker for at least the better part of one night. Seriously, I do. I enjoy celebrating, eating lots of delicious food that was made with love and careful effort, and I even (dare I say it?) from time to time, and when the mood strikes, enjoy Christmas carols. SINGING them, with the real words and everything!
But…I don’t like the consumerism. And I despise flashing lights of any kind (unless they’re in a theme park). I hate how the Christmas decorations start blooming overnight in department stores on the first of November, and I particularly take umbrage to the glut of crappy X-mas muzak on the radio until January 2. Oh, and Santa hats. Don’t even get me STARTED on Santa hats.
That said, this year I am making a concerted effort to be festive, no matter what. Why? Because Mike loves Christmas. I mean, he really, REALLY loves Christmas. He’s the only dude I know who has over 300 Christmas songs on his iPod. And, well, I love Mike. So this year I will fake it till I’m harfing up goodwill to all men allow the Christmas spirit to enter my blackened little heart. And really, what better way to do that then by baking?
Rugelach (also spelled ‘Rugalach’, ‘Rugala’, ‘Rugulach’ and ‘Ruggula’, among others) is a traditional Jewish pastry rolled around a filling of spices, fruits and nuts. And…and I just realized the irony of starting my Christmas baking posts with a Jewish dessert. I’m not sure which side will smite me down first. So…back to rugelach. The dough that I’m most familiar with is a meltingly tender cream cheese crust that gets wrapped around a filling of cinnamon and sugar, raisins and walnuts. Other common fillings are chocolate and nuts, or apricot preserves. However, lately I’ve been seeing more progressive rugelachs with fillings of different types of preserves (raspberry is common), nuts (Macadamia or almond) or whatever the cook feels inspired by.
The rugelach dough is also sometimes made with a dollop of sour cream, but I’ve used yoghurt because I’ve always got yoghurt and I almost never have sour cream in the fridge. It’s also not always made with cream cheese, and a dairy-free crust is common to comply with Jewish dietary rules if it is to be served after a meal with meat. But this one tastes better than the dairy free….sorry, but it’s true. In terms of shape, the most common way to see rugelach is in a crescent shape. It has been said that the sweet got its name from the Hebrew word ‘roglit‘, which is loosely translated into “creeping vine”. I don’t see crescents as particularly vine like, but who am I to judge? More importantly, you know what the crescent signifies to me? It means a lot of painstaking effort for the same results as if you made a roulade. Sorry, I have no sense of whimsy. I also find that the roulade bakes better though, because each morsel is approximately the same thickness straight through.
So! On to the baking. I’m aiming for at least 4 different types of holiday cookies this year, but we’ll see how far I get before my enthusiasm fizzles out. Oh – and sorry guys, but Christmas spirit or not, I still can’t bring myself to make anything with maraschino cherries.
Makes 40 – 50 pieces
- 2.5 cups all purpose flour
- 3 tbsp confectioners sugar
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 cup cold unsalted butter
- 1 8oz package cold cream cheese
- 1/4 cup yoghurt.
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 tbsp cinnamon
- 1 cup dried cranberries
- 2 cups chopped walnut pieces
- 1 cup raspberry jam *
- 1 egg
- 2 tbsp milk
- coarse, raw or turbinado sugar
* I used a raspberry & blueberry jam, because that’s just what I had in the pantry.
Put the flour, confectioners sugar and salt into the bowl of a large food processor and give it a few quick pulses. This is one of the lazy things that I do instead of sifting flour, because for some reason I have a total aversion to Best Baking Practices.
Chop the cold butter and cream cheese up into smallish cubes, each about 1/2 inch. Put them in the food processor as well.
Pulse the mixture about 20 times, or until it’s mealy. There should still be some small pebble like lumps, but for the most part things will be incorporated. Dollop on the yoghurt.
Pulse the mixture again (yes, that’s a lot of pulsing, but it’s better than a lot of pastry-cutting of flour and fat) until it starts to come together as a just slightly sticky dough.
Turn the mixture out onto your work surface (read: clean counter) and form it into a log. Cut the log into 4 equal pieces.
Have you heard my lamentations about pastry crust before? Most notably, the fact that I make the worst pastry crust known to man, despite years of trying and a multitude of ‘fool proof’ recipes that I prove wrong? It’s true. And yet, I can STILL MAKE RUGELACH. Take that, pastry Gods!! More to the point, that means that this is an easy recipe that you shouldn’t be daunted by even if it does look suspiciously pastry-like.
Form one dough chunk (of the four) into a flattened rectangle and place this between two pieces of plastic wrap. Keep the rest of the dough in the fridge as you roll each piece out. Oh, and don’t press down on the plastic wrap to seal it, just let it be.
Start rolling out the dough into a rectangular(ish) shape that is about 12″ x 7″. The saran wrap will really aid in this process, because the dough might be a bit sticky – particularly if you have a warm kitchen or hot hands. You don’t want to press the plastic wrap down right away, because if you do then it might get underneath the dough and catch a bit as you roll it out.
When all of the dough has been rolled out and they’re in their nifty little cling-wrap packages, tuck them in the freezer for just half an hour. You may want to set a timer for this one. The dough needs to chill and firm up, but if you forget about it and check after two hours it will be frozen and absolutely unmanageable….not that I know from experience, of course….I just….imagine…….yes…..
While the dough chills, clean up the food processor and make the filling.
In the bowl of your now clean (and dry!) machine add in the sugar, walnut pieces, cinnamon and dried cranberries. Pulse this 5 – 10 times or until the walnuts are relatively chopped and the cranberries are in chunks.
Preheat the oven to 375F, you’re now in the last leg of rugelach preparation.
Take your dough out of the freezer, and keep the extra pieces in the fridge as you work away. Take one piece and gently peel the plastic wrap off of the top, leaving the bottom layer. Spread 1/4 of the jam in a thin layer overtop – this will be about 3 tbsp. Mine looks a bit suspiciously black and chunky because of the blueberries, but try to pretend that it’s a delightful ruby red color, please.
Sprinkle 1/4 of the cranberry mixture evenly over the top. Press it lightly into the pastry with your fingertips, and then clap delightedly when you see that it adheres because of the jam.
Using the bottom layer of cling wrap to help you, jelly-roll the whole thing up from the long side. You want to keep pressing this into a log shape as you go, and the cling wrap will help you to do this with less stickiness. If the dough gets too sticky and you’re having trouble rolling it or getting the plastic wrap peeled off as you go, simply tuck it back in the freezer for another 10 minutes or so.
When all four pieces have been rolled up into lovely sealed logs, peel the cling wrap off one at a time, keeping the other rolls in the fridge as you go. I may sound like a broken record, but you’ll thank me in the long run.
Cut each roll horizontally into a 1″ – 1.5″ spiral. Place these seam side down on a baking sheet that has been lined with parchment paper. Oh, and the end pieces will be ugly – there is simply no way around that. Just do your best, and don’t lose hope. They will still be delicious.
The egg and milk should be whisked together to make an egg wash. Brush this over top of each round and sprinkle some of the coarse sugar on top.
Bake the rugelach in the upper and lower thirds of your 375F oven for 20 – 25 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through.
You can tell that the rugelach are done because the smell alone has you mopping drool off the kitchen floor….or you can tell because they’re lightly golden brown on top. Either, or.
Cranberries always just seem so merry and holiday driven to me! These little lovelies are perfect for a cookie exchange, an afternoon coffee plate, or a secretive midnight snack. Also, I work very hard to convince myself that since they’re made with fruit and nuts I can eat them for breakfast and it’s totally okay.
Light and flaky surrounds ooey, gooey good. These little rugelach made me so happy that maybe, just maybe, I’ll make it through the festive season after all.
(…and in Choosyville they say, that Tina’s small full stomach grew THREE SIZES that day!!!)