The Cookie Thief

The Jewish ways of mourning are very precise in their thoughtfulness. Doors are left unlocked so there’s no need to ring a bell or knock, as this could startle a mourner. One doesn’t start a conversation with the mourner, but waits to be engaged; it’s entirely up to the griever if they want to talk or not. The visitors are there to show support. And, this is key: Since the mourner isn’t allowed to cook or do anything for himself, visitors always bring food. Of course, the food isn’t just for the mourner, but also for the visitors.

rugelach finished

I mention a few of these rules here because Rich and I made a shiva call – that’s the word to describe a sympathy visit, coming from the word “to sit” because that’s what a mourner does as a part of his bereavement process – for a very good friend of ours last week who just lost his mother. Baked goods are usually the way to go when making a shiva visit: They can be eaten in hand, with a napkin or a plate, and can be frozen for another time. We brought coffee rolls and muffins baked by Rich’s mom.

We sat with our friend, and I popped up to make him a plate of fruit, a few slices of different cakes and a handful of cookies. Lilli, who doesn’t know yet about all these rules (and hopefully won’t have to for many, many years) cruised her way over to our friend’s plate, grabbed a piece of melon and kept on going. Of course we were embarrassed that she’d taken food off the plate of the bereaved, but our friend smiled and said he’d never stop a child from eating fruit.

She must have felt emboldened by this allowance, because she then cruised over to our friend’s father’s plate, looked at the goods, grabbed a huge chocolate rugelach cookie and took a big bite. Rich and I were mortified, first because she’d taken a cookie off the plate of a man who’d just buried his wife of 61 years, and also because that bite was much too big for a wee one. Also, she’d never had a cookie before, let alone had seen rugelach. We grabbed the cookie from her little fist, apologized profusely to the mourner, and found a replacement for him.

making rugelach

I’d like to say I’ve done a good job of keeping Lilli away from sweets. The original plan was to keep her away from sugary things until her first birthday, but plans change when real life gets in the way. Sure, things started out innocently: We fed her pieces of homemade pumpkin and apple pies at a friend’s house this past fall. But by last week, our Saturday afternoon snack had turned into the two of us munching on halvah.

The rugelach Lilli had grabbed was not the best-looking cookie I’d ever seen, not by a long shot. I could see by its sheen it was a parve cookie, meaning it was made with shortening instead of dairy products. If you ask me what makes a good piece of rugelach, it’s one with a cream cheese dough. So when we got home, I ransacked both the baking and Jewish sections of my cookbook library. Most of the Jewish cookbooks had parve rugelach recipes, although Joan Nathan explained that rugelach is a traditional cookie at Chanukah because of the American addition of the cream cheese which celebrates the dairy aspect of the holiday.

All those recipes looked pretty complex, and, I have a bad back and a very active 11-month-old to watch. I found my solution in Dorie Greenspan’s Baking cookbook. Hers had a cream cheese dough, whipped up in a food processor in less than three minutes. The dough had to be chilled, allowing me do make the cookies in a series of steps. The closer I read the recipe, the easier I realized this cookie was to make.

So this morning, while Lilli took her morning nap, I finished the cookies. They really were a breeze to put together, making this cookie I thought was a bakery treat into something I can do in my own kitchen. In a few years, I’m sure Lilli will help me with the rolling of the sweets.

Greenspan’s recipe calls for a brush of melted jam – I used marmalade this time, but I think I’d do the apricot or raspberry (seedless) next time round. (And there will be a next time since the recipe calls for 4 oz. of cream cheese and the package is sold in 8 oz.) Next came a sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar, followed by a scattering of chopped pecans, then currants (or chopped raisins if you can’t find them), and finally the mini-chocolate chips. Because the dough is halved into disks and you apply everything as you would to a pizza, I divided the nuts, dried fruit and chocolate into two sets so I wouldn’t have to guess when half of the goodies were used and there would automatically be the right amount for the second disk of dough.

lilli rugelach

Please don’t be intimated by the length of the recipe. It was very manageable, and remember, I have a very willful 11 month-old. Of course, after all this work, it turns out these were a little too complex for her palate. I’ll go simpler for her first birthday. More for Rich and my offices in the meantime!

Rugelach from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking

For the Dough

4 ounces cold cream cheese, cut into 4 pieces

1 stick (8 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces

¼ teaspoon salt

1 cup all-purpose flour

For the Filling

2/3 cup raspberry jam, apricot jam or marmalade

2 Tablespoons sugar

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ cup chopped nuts (I prefer pecans, but you can use walnuts or almonds)

¼ cup plump, moist dried currants

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped, or 2/3 cup store-bought mini chocolate chips

For the Glaze

1 large egg

1 teaspoon cold water

2 Tablespoons sugar, preferably decorating (coarse) sugar (I used Turbinado which I had in the pantry)

To Make the Dough

Let the cream cheese and butter rest on the counter for 10 minutes – you want them to be slightly softened but still cool.

Put the flour and salt in a food processor, scatter over the chunks of cream cheese and butter and pulse the machine 6 to 10 times. Then process, scraping down the sides of the bowl often, just until the dough forms large curds – don’t work it so long that it forms a ball on the blade.

Turn the dough out, gather it into a ball and divide it in half. Shape each half into a disk, wrap the disks in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or up to 1 day. (Wrapped airtight, the dough can be frozen for up to 2 months.)

To Make the Filling

Heat the jam in a saucepan over low heat, or do this in a microwave until it liquefies. (I did this in the microwave in 30 second intervals; it took about 2 minutes to do.) Mix the sugar and cinnamon together.

Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats. (Silicone baking mats are great for rugelach.)

To Shape the Cookies

Pull one packet of dough from the refrigerator. It if is too firm to roll easily, either leave it on the counter for about 10 minutes or give it a few bashes with your rolling pin.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into an 11-to-12-inch circle. Spoon (or brush) a thin gloss of jam over the dough, and sprinkle over half of the cinnamon sugar. Scatter over half the nuts, half of the currants and half of the chopped chocolate. Cover the filling with a piece of wax paper and gently press the filling into the dough, then remove the paper and save it for the next batch.

Using a pizza wheel or a sharp knife, cut the dough into 16 wedges, or triangles. (The easiest way to do this is to cut the dough into quarters, then to cut each quarter into 4 triangles.) Starting at the base of each triangle, roll the dough up so that each cookie becomes a little crescent. Arrange the roll-ups on one baking sheet, making sure the points are tucked under the cookies, and refrigerate. Repeat with the second packet of dough, and refrigerate the cookies for at least 30 minutes before baking. (The cookies can be covered and refrigerated overnight or frozen for up to 2 months; don’t defrost before baking, just add a couple of minutes to the baking time.

Getting Ready to Bake

Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

To Glaze

Stir the egg and water together, and brush a bit of this glaze over each rugelach. Sprinkle the cookies with the sugar.

Bake the cookies for 20 to 25 minutes, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and front to back at the midway point, until they are puffed and golden. Transfer the cookies to racks to cool to just warm or to room temperature.

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A Life Too Short

The Monday before Thanksgiving I slipped and fell backwards on our front steps. I was holding Lilli at the time, but she was in her car seat and escaped unscathed. I, on the other hand, really, really, really hurt my back. So in order to simplify cooking, we’ve been roasting just about everything, from Brussels sprouts tossed with Sriracha, honey and lime, to sweet potatoes with a chickpea rosemary dressing. Thankfully it’s the wintertime, so roasting is the natural way to go.

lilli's first chanukah

What we haven’t yet roasted is a chicken. More specifically Judy Rodgers’ beloved roasted chicken which she always served atop bread salad. The food world lost one of its greats last week when Rodgers passed away. On this blog alone I’ve shared her recipe for panade, boiled kale and spicy broccoli and cauliflower pasta. I actually lent the James Beard award winning Zuni Café Cookbook to a friend a few months back; then she moved to New York City. About a month ago, I stumbled across a cookbook giveaway on a blog and ended up winning the cookbook of my choice. For me, the choice was simple: A replacement Zuni cookbook. When I heard the news about Rodgers’ death, I grabbed the cookbook and started flipping. I’ve always been as impressed by her writing as her recipes.

“A truly good meal depends on a cavalcade of sound judgments, many of which occur well before you lift a knife. When you decide what you want to cook, you are deciding whether a meal can be really good or not. If you choose to do a dish you can’t get good ingredients for, one you are completely unfamiliar with, or one you don’t have the time or proper equipment to prepare, you may be setting the stage for a mediocre meal that will be no fun to produce.”

To celebrate a life too short, we enjoyed one of the last recipes in the cookbook, one I realized might be overlooked by some: chocolate pots de crème. When we were on our trip to Spain, Holland and Bruges, we actually spent an afternoon in Antwerp. We packed a lot in during those hours, including a trip to one of the world’s best beer bars. I found mini spoons which I declared were to be used for pot de crème. Well, we finally used the spoons to enjoy this extraordinary dessert. Hat tip to Rich for the execution of this recipe. We had Frangelico in the house but forgot to use it. If you’re worried about wasting egg whites, go make yourself a nice jam-filled omelet with them.

Chocolate Pots de Crème from The Zuni Café Cookbook by the late great Judy Rodgers

Ingredients

3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped

¾ cup heavy cream

¾ cup whole milk

2 Tablespoons sugar

4 egg yolks

A splash of Cointreau or Frangelico (optional)

Directions

Preheat the oven to 300F.

Melt the chocolate with ½ cup of the cream in a small pan or bowl poised over simmering water, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat.

Warm the remaining ¼ cup cream, the milk, and sugar in a small saucepan, stirring just to dissolve the sugar.

In a medium bowl, whisk the yolk, then slowly stir in the warm milk mixture. Pour the mixture through a strainer into the melted chocolate and stir to combine. Stir in the liqueur if using.

Pour the mixture into four 4-to-5-ounce ramekins or custard cups and place them at least an inch apart in a baking pan. Add hot water to come to barely ½ inch beneath the lip of the cups. Bake until the custard is just set at the edges but still quite soft in the center, about 45 minutes. To check, life a pot and tilt; the center should budge. The eggs will continue to cook after you pull the custards from the oven and the chocolate will harden as it cools. If the custard is already firm when you first check it, then remove from the oven and set the cups in a shallow bath of salted water to stop the cooking. Cool, cover and refrigerate. They will keep well for several days, although I prefer their texture when only hours from the oven.

Serves 4