We were never a doughnuts-for-Hanukkah family. Sufganiyot, jelly-filled doughnuts fried in oil certainly had their place at the Hanukkah table, but not ours. We preferred the miracle of light to shine on crispy-edged potato latkes, sizzling on repeat in the West-Bend electric fryer. Brisket, delicious as it was, served as a vehicle for the latkes, accompanied by blush-pink applesauce and sour cream. Dessert was often an after-thought because we were focusing on Hanukkah’s raison d’etre- lighting the Menorah and unwrapping our gifts. Occasionally, Jessie or my grandmother would bake rugelach but they were time consuming and interfered with the latke production. More often than not, we opened yellow mesh bags of chocolate gelt, peeled away the gold foil and nibbled on waxy, milk chocolate. It was somewhat lackluster, but traditional.
Rugelach in Yiddush means “little twists.” My grandmother’s rugelach was a European-inspired yeast dough, coiled around raisins and walnuts, crunchy with cinnamon sugar, more of a pastry than a cookie. Jessie’s rugelach was an American-ized cream cheese dough, made popular by the Breakstone and Philadelphia cream cheese marketing teams. The dough was tender and flaky, made up of equal parts cream cheese, sweet butter, and flour. We tend to associate Hanukkah with dairy-rich foods. This makes rugelach the perfect Hanukkah dessert offering, unless you’re up to your elbows frying latkes.
My early rugelach days were tethered to the Oneg Shabbat following Friday night Temple services. Accompanied by tiny cups of Welch’s grape juice, rugelach dough swirled around apricot or raspberry jam, walnuts, and cinnamon sugar. The rugelach vacillated between fresh and crumbly, dense and dry. More enticing were the over-stuffed cream puffs and chocolate glazed eclairs, but rugelach was always front and center on the dessert table. Long before it was a catch phrase, I suspect rugelach suffered from a fear of missing out.
As a young adult, I learned to associate rugelach with the somber gathering of a Shiva call. There was nothing particularly special about any of the cookies fanned across the Saran wrapped platters. The chocolate chip cookies looked promising, but were always shy on chips. The twice-baked Mandelbrot had little personality, and the brownies always looked better than they tasted. A West-Bend coffee urn gurgled from the neighboring sideboard, filling the room with the rich aroma of Maxwell House or Chock-full-O’Nuts. It you brushed up against the sideboard too closely, a precarious stack of coffee cups and saucers rattled nervously. It was nearly impossible for a cookie to be jubilant in a tear-stained house of mourning. Rugelach deserved better.
Every December, I longed for Hanukkah to be equally represented amidst the overkill of Christmas sweets. I wanted a Hanukkah cookie unthreatened by overdressed gingerbreads, jammy thumbprints, be-decked-be-sprinkled spritzes. I felt rugelach had spent way too much time amidst mourners and was seeking a little joy. By adapting the fillings to the season, the variations were infinite. I set out to expand my rugelach repertoire.
I included the finicky pastry in my restaurant career, offering the tender cream cheese spirals at too many holidays, particularly Hanukkah. I added dark chocolate and raspberries, a generous handful of hazelnuts. Over time, I couldn’t keep up with the demand and had to limit the jammy crescents for occasions I deemed important. I rolled and shaped the spiral cookies for family gatherings, milestone events; even when that included sad farewells. There was something therapeutic about the rolling, the filling, and the shaping of the tender dough, something restorative about the repetition. It also became my favorite December cookie, less glittery than the dozens of Christmas cookies strutting their dragées across glossy magazine covers.
Rugelach dough provides as much inspiration as pounds of sugar cookie dough. It's festive enough for a late-night party or comfortable with hot tea in the afternoon. Apricot jam, walnuts, and cinnamon still have their place, but trying new flavors keeps the tedious process enjoyable. Inspired by my mother’s love for Meyer lemons, the sunny citrus is perfectly suited to the cream cheese dough. Replacing jam with a sweet/tart curd offers brightness and texture from the Meyer lemons. Pistachios
provide all the glitter necessary to make this a holiday cookie. The result is surprisingly out of character for a swirly rugelach; a welcome bit of sunshine amidst wind chills that only Santa dare brave. If I squirrel some away for Sunday, I won’t have to open a single foil-wrapped milk chocolate coin.
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