Ethnic Treats Provide a Recipe for Cultural Unity

In this holiday season, baking and sharing traditional ethnic cookies can help build a bridge between cultural differences.


Embarking on an interfaith marriage 30 plus years ago offered some challenges as my husband and I strived to meld our different backgrounds and traditions.

Married in early December, we quickly confronted the “December Dilemma,” a phrase that describes the struggle of non-Christians to deal comfortably with the Christian themes and events that are so prevalent in communities during this time of year.  Generally, non-Christians can simply avoid activities that are likely to conflict with their religious beliefs. But in an inter-faith marriage, the December Dilemma requires deliberate negotiation and definition of comfort levels, expectations, and boundaries.

While I appreciated that my husband was supportive of embracing my Jewish faith, it seemed unfair to ask him to give up all of the holidays and traditions that were a part of his Catholic upbringing. So amid the more secular aspects of holiday celebrations, I searched for common ground where we could honor some of the familiar traditions he cherished, while not dishonoring my own religious beliefs.

Holiday Treats Bridge Differences

I quickly found that common ground in food. We both enjoyed cooking and baking, and so the tradition of baking lots of Christmas cookies to enjoy and share with friends and neighbors seemed like a great idea. Eager to impress during my first years of wifehood, I became quite the over- achiever, baking over 40 kinds of cookies one year!

Some of the cookies, like chocolate chip, were generic and eaten year round. However, most of the recipes I found and baked were for traditional Christmas favorites like Sugar Cookies, Thumbprints, Wedding Cakes, and Meringues. Since I had never made those cookies before, I was worried that my baking skills would fall short, and so I also opted to make one I knew I could do really well. Called “Rugelach,” which means “little rolls,” this Jewish pastry cookie was unfamiliar to our friends, but they turned out to be the most popular of all. Now, decades later, I still bake dozens for the holiday enjoyment of friends and family.

In most recipes these cookies feature dough made of only three ingredients: butter, cream cheese, and flour. Using ground walnuts or pecans, a variety of jams, and tiny mini-chocolate chips can vary the fillings. In The Jewish Holiday Kitchen, author Joan Nathan describes Rugelach as “half-moon cream cheese cookies, … a far cry from the original cheesecake but  … a melt-in-the-mouth delicacy perfect for the fanciest party.” 

Since those early years when I began including Rugelach among my gift trays of Christmas cookies, these tasty treats have crossed into the culinary main stream and are now mass produced and available at stores like Wegmans, Costco, and sometimes Giant and Weiss. But none are as good as those you make yourself!

You Can Make and Share Delicious Rugelach

The recipe below is from Nathan’s book, but variations exist. The Jewish Women’s League of Pottstown’s Congregation Mercy and Truth has published its own cookbook, Beyond Brisket and Bagels… 40 Years of Kosher Recipes from Traditional to Contemporary, and it offers one tasty variation that includes additional ingredients in the dough and brandy in the filling. (You can find information about purchasing this cookbook at the end of this article.)  In addition to Rugelach, the book includes many Jewish ethnic recipes as well as more generic favorites; it makes a great holiday gift for the cooks in your life.

Here is Nathan’s recipe for Rugelach. Enjoy them and don’t forget to include some on your cookie plates during this holiday season. After all, as my husband says, “Food is the universal language!”

To Make the Dough:

½ lb. unsalted butter, softened

8 oz. cream cheese, softened

2 cups of flour

In a mixer or food processor, cream the softened butter and cream cheese together. Mix in the flour in ½ cup increments. Let the mixer knead the dough until all of the flour is worked into it.  Sprinkle a sheet of wax paper with some flour to prevent the dough from sticking and place finished dough ball on the floured paper. Pat it into a flattened round. Fold the dough up in the paper and refrigerate in a plastic food bag for at least 1 hour; it can also be refrigerated for several days before using. (The dough is rich and impossible to work with if it has not been chilled prior to use.)

To Make the Filling:

About 1 cup of ground walnuts or pecans

Fill a small bowl with a mixture of granulated sugar and cinnamon; replenish as needed.

Preserves/jams of your choice; I like apricot, strawberry, and sour cherry. If there are big chunks of fruit, run the fruit through a food processor to puree it.

To Make the Rugelach:

1.      Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2.      About 20 – 30 minutes before you intend to use it, take the dough out of the refrigerator and allow it to warm at room temperature to make it more pliable.

3.      Cut the dough in half and then in half again to create four pieces that are fairly equal.

4.      On a good surface for rolling out dough – I use the plastic sheets made by Tupperware – sprinkle a combination of powdered sugar and flour and spread it around the surface; sprinkle just enough to keep the dough from sticking. Also, coat the rolling pin with the flour/sugar so dough will not stick to it either.

5.      Take one portion of dough and roll it into a large circle (does not have to be exact) of about 14-16”. Initially, as you roll, turn the dough over a few times so it gets coated with the flour/sugar and doesn’t stick. Roll from the center out to the edges; try to roll it so it is of similar thickness (about 1/16” thick) throughout the piece.

6.      Spoon some of the pureed jam onto the dough, and using the back of the spoon, gently spread the filling around until it covers the whole surface, but do not spread all the way to the outer edges. Repeat as needed, making sure the dough is evenly, but not thickly, covered.

7.      Grab a handful of the cinnamon- sugar mixture and sprinkle it lightly but evenly over the surface on top of the jam until it is all covered. Avoid sprinkling at the outer edges.

8.      Grab a handful of the ground nuts and sprinkle likewise, again avoiding the outer edges of the dough round.

9       With a knife or pastry wheel, cut the dough into 16 pie wedges of approximately equal width by cutting the dough in half in both directions, and then cutting each half in half to make quarters and so on.

10.     Beginning at the wide outer edge of each wedge shaped piece, begin rolling each of the dough sections toward the point at the center; the more layers as you roll, the better the cookies will taste, so roll gradually, keeping each layer thin.

11.     Gently lift each cookie and dip the top into your cinnamon-sugar mixture.

12.     Bend each cookie into a crescent shape and place on a cookie sheet lined with either parchment paper or the silicone non-stick, baking sheet liners that can be found at places like Bed, Bath, & Beyond or Target.  The cookies do not rise or spread much, but don’t put them too close; about 4 to a row widthwise is great.

13.     Bake 20 – 25 minutes, until lightly browned or golden; do not allow bottoms to burn.  After removing from the oven, allow them to “set up” for a few moments on the cookie sheet and then gently move them with a spatula to a cooling rack. Keep repeating the process until all the dough is used.

Rugelach can be stored in cookie tins or plastic containers kept in a cool place. You can also freeze them in plastic containers. If you wish, you can put them in the oven for 3-5 minutes to crisp them before serving them, but they are good either way.

Purchasing the cookbook:      To purchase Pottstown’s own Jewish cookbook, Beyond Brisket and Bagels, call the synagogue office at 610- 326- 1717 or order via the website at www.hesedshelemet.org. The books are $20.



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