When I was a kid, visits to my grandparents' house in West Hartford began with a full-blown arrival ritual. The plane would touch down, and we would pour from the accordion mouth of the jetway, into the terminal. My grandfather, Pop, looking like he might actually pop with sheer joy, would be there waiting for us. Bouncing on the balls of his feet, he would fling his arms open wide, throw back his head, and greet us with bursts and gasps of his sweet, hearty laugh. This was back when airport gates still pulsed with joyful squeals, teary farewells, lingering kisses, and the sound of shoes rapidly beating against carpet en route to long-awaited embraces. I miss it, that arriving and departing in a flurry of hugs, whoops, and sighs.
Pop and Grandma lived on a long, windy street marked by two rows of oversized mailboxes where the street branched off from the main road. We would turn, and then drive up the hill to the house. Through the trees, the sweeping back deck would appear as we rounded the bend. My eyelids would be heavy with sleep by the time we pulled into the garage. But here was where the ritual truly began. The smell of the garage always grabbed me, and roused me from my half-slumber. Were you to bottle up this smell and wave it under my nose, I could identify it in a heartbeat as Pop and Grandma's garage. Yet I'm afraid I can't figure out how on earth to describe it. Like old photographs, perhaps? And potting soil, and worn leather - or maybe wood? - and blueberries, and what I sometimes imagined my father's childhood to be, all packed into a single whiff. Maybe this is why I want to capture my arrival ritual here, to chase these bits of it onto the page, in order to make up for the parts that don't translate.
Grandma Louise would meet us at the door with her soft hands and gentle squeezes. This house was a living, breathing extension of her. Standing there in the kitchen, Grandma wore her home like an enormous, multi-roomed cloak that showed off the very best of her.
Down in our bedroom, my sister and I would change into our pajamas. It was late, but my ritual continued: I would open every drawer of the white wicker furniture, pull out the same old plastic slot machine game, costume jewelry, and dolls half-bald from my early hairdressing experiments. I would thumb through the dog-eared Little Golden Books lined up on the dresser, and peek into Pop's college scrapbook. Sufficiently settled in, I would head back upstairs, to join the grown-ups in the kitchen.
On the counter, next to the refrigerator, lay a white, cardboard box, wrapped in string. Being a kid and all, I could slide my small hand into the box without even untying the string, and pull out my bedtime snack: a single sticky rugelach. Grandma baked apple pies and zucchini bread, knitted sweaters, and grew tomatoes in pots on the deck, but rugelech, she bought. With their caramelized, slightly burnt underbellies and clingy raisins, they were as much about my grandma and her home as the things she made with her own two hands. Which just goes to show that - though I'm often tempted to think otherwise - something need not be homemade to help make a home.
Until last week, I had never tasted homemade rugelech, let alone attempted to bake them myself. Quite simply, I had no idea - no idea- what lay in store.
In her lifetime, Grandma Louise prepared me for a lot. Thanks to her, I understood plenty about the good and the bad out there: There are jeans on the rack, for example, that will zip up without a hitch, but do your hips and bottom no favors, and sweet corn so toothsome that it's best to cushion every bite with a throaty grunt of pleasure. Curly hair, she taught me, often snarls back at even the most well-meaning brush. And it's not that I look ugly in that photograph, but that the picture itself "isn't flattering." Grandma taught me that I could take lemon or cream in my tea, but not both, that a well-composed platter on a Sunday table is nothing to scoff at, and that a bowl of raspberries is often the perfect end to a late-night summer meal. Grandma knew how to love with all her heart, how to be afraid, how to set a fine table and dig in with both hands. Ultimately, she showed me that illness may pin you to your seat, but it need not keep you from crossing oceans.
Despite all of this, for hot-out-of-the-oven rugelech she left me completely unprepared. I was on my own for this one, though I suppose I can't complain. One chocolaty, raspberry-y bite sent my eyes rolling in ecstasy towards the back of my head. Fingers still sticky, I dove for the phone. I wanted so badly to call up my grandma and tell her about these incredible rugelech, curling sweetly in my hand, reminding me of her. I called my dad instead. I bragged to him about my rugelech, and we missed Grandma together.
Chocolate Raspberry Rugelech
adapted from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook
I realize that this recipe looks long and cumbersome, but I promise that it's not as bad as it seems. Remember, I'm a wordy one. Working with the cream cheese dough, so even-tempered and perfectly suited to rolling out and rolling up, is a dream. If you ask me, you should give this recipe a try for the sake of this dough alone. If you want to spread your making and baking over a couple of days, you can prepare the dough and the dry filling the night before. Then, in the morning, all you have to do is melt the jam, fill and roll up the rugelech, and bake. And if all of this still sounds like a lot of trouble for a few dozen rugelech, then please just trust me that it's worth it.
For the dough:
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
8 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
1/2 c. sugar
3 large egg yolks
1 t. vanilla
A pinch of coarse salt
2 1/3 c. all-purpose flour, plus a little extra for rolling out the dough
For the filling:
1 heaping c. pecans
1/4 c. granulated sugar
3-4 dashes cinnamon
A (hefty, if you're me) pinch of coarse salt
12 ounces raspberry jam, melted
1 c. semisweet chocolate chips, or 6 oz. of chopped bittersweet chocolate
For the finishing:
2 large egg whites, lightly beaten (I use the leftover egg whites from the yolks called for in the dough.)
1/4 c. turbinado sugar
First, make the dough: On medium speed, beat together the butter and cream cheese in the bowl of an electric mixer. Add the 1/2 c. granulated sugar, and beat until fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time, leaving enough time for each yolk to combine with the batter between additions. Add the vanilla and the salt, and beat to combine. Reduce the speed to low, and beat in the flour. Divide the dough into three pieces and pat into disks. Wrap each disk in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour, or overnight.
Next, make the filling: Toast the pecans in a 350 degree oven until fragrant (approximately 7-8 minutes). Once the nuts have cooled, pulse them together in a food processor with the 1/4 c. granulated sugar, cinnamon, and salt. I like the pecans ground to a medium consistency - not too fine- to provide the rugelech with a nutty crunch.
Finally, roll and bake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Over a very low flame, melt the jam in a saucepan until it is runny enough to brush across the pastry without tearing the dough. On a lightly floured surface, roll out one disk of dough into a thin 12-inch round. (The dough should be less than 1/8 of an inch thick.) Brush evenly with jelly. Sprinkle one-third of the walnut mixture and one third of the chocolate chips over the jelly. The rugelech will roll up best if you leave about a 2-inch circle of dough in the center free of chocolate and nuts. Using the rolling pin or your fingers, gently press the chocolate and nuts into the dough. Next, cut the round into 16 equal-sized wedges with a pizza cutter or a sharp knife. At this point, the dough actually looks like a pizza, with raspberry jam instead of tomato sauce and chocolate chips and pecans in place of mushrooms and peppers.
Starting from the "crust end," roll up each slice to the center of the "pie." Press the tip of each "slice" into the body of the pastry to seal. Place the rugelech on the prepared baking sheets. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling. Brush the tops of the rugelech with the beaten egg whites, and sprinkle with turbinado sugar.
Bake until golden brown, 20-25 minutes.
Enjoy at least one warm from the oven.